Samuel M. Edelman: A Week of Uncivil Discourse on Campus

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Anti-Israel individuals and groups on college campuses are beginning to show a pattern underlying a shift in the form of their anti-Israel activities which attack the very core of what many consider the most important aspect of the university experience, the free flow of information and opinion. Just in the last week we have seen the following events take place at UC Irvine, UCLA, and York University in Canada, Cambridge and Oxford Universities in Great Britain.

On February 1, at York University in Toronto, 20 Jewish students who had gathered to raise awareness of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and terrorist acts committed by Hamas were surrounded by about 50 protestors chanting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic slurs. Two of the Jewish students were slapped, one on the arm and one across the face ( ).

On February 3, during his lecture at Oxford University, Israel’s Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon was heckled by a Muslim student who shouted, among other things, “Itbah Al-Yahud” – “kill the Jews” ( ).

On February 7, the Israel Society at Cambridge University canceled a talk by Ben-Gurion University of the Negev historian Benny Morris after protesters accused him of “Islamophobia” and “racism” ( ).

On February 8, at UCLA School of Law, members of Law Students for Justice in Palestine (LSJP), an undergraduate group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the local Women in Black disrupted a lecture by Daniel Taub, Principal Deputy Legal Advisor of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs ( )
Also on February 8, at the University of California, Irvine, hecklers tried to disrupt a lecture by Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the United States, who is also a distinguished academic ( ).

That these five events had very little press coverage outside of the Jewish community is telling all by itself.
The disruption of pro-Israel speakers on campuses has been around for some time now. We witnessed another such act last year in February at San Jose State University when Israeli Consul General Akiva Tor was interrupted in his speech on campus by anti-Israel demonstrators who were both from the campus and from outside groups. At this time no students or groups were punished by the San Jose State administration for this act on incivility. To see five such events in one week shows a kind of escalation.

The ultimate result, beyond the drama of the confrontation, is to stifle dialogue and even debate, to restrict information that may be in opposition to the views of the protestors and to intimidate. What is most interesting is the makeup of the groups involved in these attacks on civil discourse. The groups are often a mélange of representatives of Muslim Student Associations, Students for Justice in Palestine, and other such Palestinian student groups and a variety of leftist groups and in some cases rightwing groups. Sometimes we see these groups joined by anti-Israel Jews of varying political perspectives. In all cases, no matter the makeup of the protesting groups, the goal is the disruption of civil discourse.

This attack on civil discourse is not new. We have seen it played out time and again in the US debate on healthcare reform as well. What makes these recent attacks on civil discourse significant is that each and every one of them has been held in a public forum on a university campus.

This week Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, an international academic organization fighting for civil discourse on Israel and the Middle East on college and universities all over the world issued the following statement:

There has been a recent upsurge of public attacks upon, and disruptions of, Israeli diplomats and scholars, as they seek to present their views in the “marketplace of ideas” and at institutions traditionally committed to the preservation of free speech. Recent events at the University of California-Irvine, Oxford University, York University, and Cambridge University have targeted these speakers in the most racist and hostile terms, and have seriously damaged these universities’ right to call themselves “institutions of higher learning.”

We believe that the failure to prevent such disruptions and the feeble response to them after the fact is cause for deep concern. Speaking for academics worldwide, the Board of Directors of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (representing nearly 30,000 faculty worldwide) strongly condemns these calculated and venomous acts.

The SPME Board also urges the presidents and leadership of these universities (and all others) to strongly condemn these actions and to prosecute offenders to the full extent that their institutional policies and community legal standards will allow for. The SPME Board believes that such incitement deserves indictment.

We also urge university officials worldwide to adopt the principles outlined in The Civility Project ( ), and to make the “Civility Pledge” a requirement for all their faculty and students:

• I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior.
• I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them.
• I will stand against incivility when I see it.

Peter Haas, president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East wrote this week that, “the elimination of serious discussion and debate has come to characterize much of the Muslim world and now seems to being brought onto our campuses here and in Europe… Serious speakers from all sides, and from all perspectives, should be allowed to be heard and to be questioned in respectful ways. This is also an Israeli value, being the only truly functioning democracy in its region. Most academic institutions have published rules regarding free speech and disruptive behavior. It is time for university and college administrators to enforce them.”

In the end, universities who do not punish or sanction individuals or groups who abridge the freedom of speech of others become silent partners in the death of civil discourse on the campus. They are affirming that the protestors have a veto over who may or may not speak on a campus. Freedom of speech is not an unlimited right. When one’s freedom of speech ends another’s freedom of speech then something must be done and done fast before we see an epidemic of campus uncivil behavior. We must always remember that it took the Nazis only ten years or so to completely destroy a functioning democracy and start a world war. One of the early places they began was on German university campuses disrupting the speeches of those they opposed.

Cutting Edge contributor Samuel M. Edelman is executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

Samuel M. Edelman: A Week of Uncivil Discourse on Campus

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