The college campus, in its ideal, is revered as a place where the free exchange of ideas is not only exalted but protected. In recent decades that ideal has been sorely tested, perhaps no more so than in the realm of discussions about Israel, both inside and outside the classroom.
Discussions? If only it were that. Disruptions are increasingly likely when pro-Palestinian activists seek to silence speakers who are supportive of Israel.
As campus protests against pro-Israel speakers have become more hostile, Jewish students have felt “harassed and intimidated,” said Susan Tuchman of the Zionist Organization of America’s Center for Law and Justice. “The hostility was so severe that people feared for their safety on campus” in some cases, she said.
In February 2010, Israel’s Ambassador Michael Oren came to speak at the University of California-Irvine. As he began, one by one, 11 Muslim students arose, and shouted down the ambassador, yelling “Mass murderer!” and “War criminal!” The students were charged, and 10 were found guilty of misdemeanors for conspiring to disrupt a meeting and then doing so.
Kifah Shah, spokeswoman for a group supporting the guilty students, said in a JTA report, “When you talk to students across college campuses, now they are pondering what is legal and what is not.” Pondering what is legal ought to have been considered long before this.
“It’s a sad day for democracy,” said Salam Al-Marayati, president of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, “when nonviolent protesters are criminalized by their government and are found guilty for exercising a constitutional right.”
But it was a good day for a democracy that values equal rights. Though the dean of UC Irvine’s law school found the sentence “harsh,” he noted that “it’s not a matter of free speech because there’s no free speech right to shut someone down.”
Just last month a performance by the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra at London’s Royal Albert Hall was interrupted by protesters to the point that the BBC was forced to stop the broadcast.
Democracy and academic freedom require the oxygen of civilized exchange, but they are suffocated by verbal thuggery and threats. In a style too evocative of what we see in Gaza, pro-Palestinian groups in the U.S. have been attempting to censor speakers, such as Oren, through bullying and intimidation. That kind of intellectual vandalism must be expunged, not protected, at all colleges and public institutions.
Students and speakers deserve the right to feel safe, physically and intellectually, on the American college campus.