For Jewish students on college campuses across the country this fall, free speech is anything but — in fact, it’s coming at an increasingly steep price.
With campus forces on the left trying to shut down pro-Israel speakers, and with newly ascendant alt-right leaders spreading white nationalism and anti-Semitism on the quad, Jewish students are caught in a vise. And as they try to navigate the increasingly treacherous nexus of identity and politics, they find themselves more and more isolated.
So isolated, in fact, that when controversial alt-right icon Richard Spencer spoke last week at the University of Florida, Alex Kline, an 18-year-old statistics major, chose to hole up in his dorm room. “I decided it was better to wait out the storm,” he told The Jewish Week by phone from Gainesville.
A storm it was. Teams of police, FBI personnel and state troopers lined campus entrances and buildings, with a particularly heavy presence at the performing arts center where Spencer addressed his audience. Securing the campus, which drew more than 2,500 protesters, cost over $600,000, said the university’s president.
“I, like millions of other white people in their 20s and 30s now, have a dramatically different ‘lived’ experience than our parents. … They can remember a white America … we can’t. We were born into something fundamentally different,” Spencer said from the stage as he fought to make himself heard over the audience’s boos and chants of “Go home, racist, go home!”
Spencer — who is credited with coining the term “alt-right” — is known for unapologetic anti-Semitic and racist rhetoric. He was a featured speaker at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Va., that resulted in armed clashes and the death of a 32-year-old woman after a car, driven by an alt-right supporter, plowed into a crowd of counter-protesters.
Though Kline and his fellow fraternity brothers — Kline belongs to the 90-member Jewish Zionist fraternity Zeta Beta Tau — initially considered protesting the speech, they decided against it “to ensure our own safety.”
Their prudence proved wise. Law enforcement officials wearing riot gear and helmets stood guard while Spencer took the stage. Though only a handful of arrests were made before and during the speech, violence did break out shortly after the event, when three men chanted “Hail Hitler,” gave Nazi salutes and fired a gun not far from the arts center where the speech had taken place, according to police reports.
In recent months, the Anti-Defamation League has chronicled increasing efforts by white supremacists to target college campuses, which they see as ripe recruitment grounds. Throughout the 2016-17 school year, students, faculty and staff on 154 campuses confronted the distribution of racist fliers and stickers 228 times. This academic year, 79 racist or anti-Semitic displays have thus far been reported.
“As a society, we haven’t made as much progress as we thought.”
“This is what we’re up against,” said Kline, who detailed the somber mood on campus in the days preceding the event. Many students — including a significant amount of the university’s large Jewish population (19 percent of UF’s 40,000 undergraduate students are Jewish, according to Hillel International) — left campus to avoid the spectacle altogether. “As a society, we haven’t made as much progress as we thought,” he said, a grim note in his voice.
“To see so many students leaving campus because of this man’s views — it’s appalling.”
Reckoning with the First Amendment
Today, colleges and universities nationwide are confronting thorny freedom of speech questions, as racist and anti-Semitic views, long on the political margins in America, are moving into the political mainstream. Though constitutional rights to free speech, protected under the First Amendment, can be legally enforced at public universities (most private universities choose to follow the contours of First Amendment law though they are not legally bound to do so), the possibility of “imminent violence” can provide universities with an exemption.
After clashes broke out between white nationalists and counter-protesters at the University of Virginia last summer, UF was initially able to delay Spencer’s speech. Now, after police in Florida announced attempted homicide charges against the three men who shouted “Hail Hitler!,” Ohio State, Penn State and Michigan State all announced that they will not allow Spencer to appear on campus, citing public concerns. Spencer supporters are suing all three universities.
For Jewish students, freedom of speech is also under fire from the left, as anti-Israel activists ramp up activities just weeks into the new academic year. On a diverse array of campuses — including Tufts, New York University and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign — a new strategy is emerging to smear pro-Israel students: aligning Israel with white supremacy and the alt-right.
Rebecca Stern, a junior at NYU and co-president of the pro-Israel group TorchPAC, said that left-wing student groups — including the Student Labor Action Movement, Students for Justice in Palestine (which just launched an NYU chapter this year) and Jewish Voice for Peace, distributed an updated “Disorientation Guide” to members of progressive student groups. The guide mentioned Israel over 50 times — more than the words “alt-right,” “fascism” and “white supremacy” combined.
“Amidst everything that is going on — when our nation is up against real hatred and racism — these student groups are trying to paint Israel as the premier evil,” said Stern. “Israel is not protected by ‘safe spaces.’”
“Amidst everything that is going on — when our nation is up against real hatred and racism — these student groups are trying to paint Israel as the premier evil.”
Left-wing students at Tufts distributed a similar “disorientation” guide, in which Israel is defined as a white supremacist state.
“The equation created by the progressive left is simple: If you’re a Zionist, you’re a racist,” said Thane Rosenbaum, a distinguished fellow at NYU School of Law and author of the forthcoming book, “The High Cost of Free Speech: Rethinking the First Amendment” (2018, University of Chicago Press).
“The price of membership into the progressive left is an invisible loyalty oath,” said Rosenbaum. “You must blacklist Israel. Israel is the worst violator and does nothing good. And if you’re a Jew and you disagree? Put your head down and hope you don’t say the wrong thing.”
On The ‘Other’ Side
As questions about the limits of free speech embroil the nation — with even the American Civil Liberties Union, the quintessential defender of First Amendment rights, debating its constraints — Jewish students have begun questioning their loyalties.
Scott Schlafer, 24, a first-year law student at the University of California, Berkeley, does not consider himself a political activist. Raised in Michigan as a Conservative Jew, he feels a deep pride and connection to his Judaism — his 89-year-old grandmother is a Holocaust survivor. On campus, he belongs to the Jewish fraternity AEPi, considers himself politically liberal on most social issues and is an unabashed supporter of Israel.
“I am very openly me,” he told The Jewish Week last week. “I hadn’t faced something where I felt I needed to stick up for my Jewish identity.”
That changed when Alan Dershowitz, the American lawyer, Harvard professor and staunch defender of Israel, was unable to find even one university department to sponsor his speech on the liberal case for Israel. Dershowitz threatened to sue the university, claiming that much higher barriers to entry were imposed on pro-Israel speakers, as opposed to anti-Israel speakers. (In September of 2015, Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the BDS movement and a virulent critic of Israel, spoke at UC Berkeley; his speech was sponsored by eight departments, including the Center for Race and Gender, English, Ethnic studies, and Near Eastern studies.)
“So many of my peers were offended that he had been invited. They didn’t want him to come.”
Dershowitz was ultimately allowed to bypass the campus rule requiring eight weeks’ notice for a non-departmental speeches after the law school’s dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, extended him a personal invitation. Dershowitz spoke on campus earlier this month.
“It all hit home when Dershowitz was coming to campus,” said Schlafer. Never before had he felt like the odd-one-out. Up until that moment, even with his pro-Israel stance, he had comfortably blended in with the socially-liberal left. “So many of my peers were offended that he had been invited. They didn’t want him to come.”
Dershowitz’s views on Israel were deemed “intolerable.”
“All of a sudden, I was on the other side.”
A Revolt on ‘Safe Spaces’
Recently, UC Berkeley has become something of a battleground over free speech rights. Several right-wing speakers recently visited the campus, including former Breitbart News editor-at-large Ben Shapiro and conservative provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, who made a 15-minute appearance in September that reportedly cost the university nearly $1 million to provide adequate security. Yiannopoulos came after student organizers canceled a “Free Speech Week,” which was intended to include Steve Bannon, President Trump’s former adviser, and conservative author Ann Coulter.
Schlafer, along with several other Jewish students, expressed dismay that Dershowitz was suddenly counted among this group because of his pro-Israel stance.
Adah Forer, a senior at UC Berkeley and co-president of Tikvah, the pro-Israel group that co-sponsored Dershowitz’s speech, said she was “sadly not surprised” by the cold shoulder she received from university departments after asking for sponsorship.
“When I contacted the Near Eastern studies department [about Dershowitz’s speech], they said it would be ‘more appropriate’ for me to contact the Jewish studies department for a speech involving Israel,” she said. (The department co-sponsored Barghouti’s speech about boycotting Israel in 2015.) The department did not yet respond to requests for comment.
Students think that the burgeoning campus culture of “safe spaces” and “micro-aggressions” — unintentional snubs that communicate negative messages about marginalized groups — are goading right-wing groups to test the limits.
“When everything is a micro-aggression, we leave ourselves no language to describe actual aggressions,” said Schlafer.
“When everything is a micro-aggression, we leave ourselves no language to describe actual aggressions.”
Despite the confrontational nature of these overtures, Marc Stern, a First Amendment expert and the American Jewish Committee’s general counsel, said protecting freedom of speech is essential, particularly given the current campus mood.
“The right not to feel uncomfortable does not and should never trump freedom of speech,” he said. An increasing intolerance for viewpoints young people deem offensive, insensitive or “triggering” pose a serious threat to democracy, he said.
Meanwhile, baiting liberal millennials — who have been labeled “snowflakes” by right-wing politicians and media — with ever-more provocative speakers has become a “game of sorts,” said California Berkeley’s Schlafer.
“It’s the classic new right-wing accusation: The left is no longer open to free speech — our campus is a great spotlight to show it.”
The tricky part for Jewish students: When it comes to Israel, the accusation does not seem unfounded.
“Anything that concerns Israel is somehow beyond the pale,” said Forer, 20. She recalled a Students for Justice in Palestine-sponsored Israel protest during her freshman year. To counter-protest the apartheid displays and signs reading “Zionism is Racism,” she brought an Israeli flag to the center of campus. Someone — she doesn’t recall if it was a fellow student — yelled that she should “go back to the concentration camps.”
“Then, hearing that was shocking,” she said. “Today, I wouldn’t be surprised.”
First Amendment as a ‘Weapon’
In January, Rosenbaum visited UC Berkeley to speak about Israel and international law. He intended to discuss the human rights implications of the many UN resolutions passed against Israel.
When he arrived at the hall where he would speak, students were handing out fliers that read “Thane Rosenbaum believes in killing Palestinian children.”
When he took the stage, students started to pound on the desks and shout in unison, “how many babies have you killed today?” When he tried to speak, the chanting got louder. He eventually realized that his attempts to speak were futile.
This tactic, termed the “heckler’s veto,” is being used more and more frequently on college campuses, said ADL National Campus Counsel Michelle Deutchman.
“There is a tremendous amount of confusion about what free speech means.”
“There is a tremendous amount of confusion about what free speech means,” said Rosenbaum. It is meant to “promote robust discussion,” not to “humiliate, indoctrinate and censure,” he said.
“I am not in favor of ‘safe spaces,’” he added, “but the First Amendment is being used as a weapon to harm, offend, and shut out opinions deemed repugnant.”
Still, for Forer, who was born in Israel and has been living in the Bay Area since age 9, the most concerning outcome of new campus strategies to demonize Israel is the overwhelming silence from Jewish students.
“The majority of the Jewish community chooses not to get involved,” said the 20-year-old history major, who waves an Israeli flag in her smiling Facebook profile picture. “They choose to hide their Jewish identity to avoid being associated with Israel. They don’t want to debate, they don’t want to be singled out,” she said, pausing.
“Somehow, this new focus on ‘free speech’ is pushing Jews out of the conversation.”