A Congressional Crack-Down on Student Free Speech is the Wrong Way to Fight Campus Anti-Semitism

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Zoe Goldblum
on November 7, 2017

Today, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on combatting anti-Semitism on US college campuses. They discussed the disturbing spike in anti-Semitic incidents in the United States over the past year and what can be done to curtail them. Zoe Goldblum, the President of J Street U’s National Student Board, sent the following letter to the Committee, which was entered into the record for the hearing. The letter urges Congress not to impose misguided new rules that could penalize students for legitimate free speech. It also asks Members to seriously address all forms of anti-Semitism – including the growing threat of right-wing white supremacism. 

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As President of J Street U’s National Student Board and a student at Stanford University, I am in my fourth year as a pro-Israel, pro-peace advocate on campus. I write today on behalf of the leadership of J Street U to express our serious concerns with the “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act” introduced at the end of the last Congress, which may be discussed in your upcoming hearing on “Examining Anti-Semitism on College Campuses.”

The student leaders of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement have serious concerns that this proposed legislation would impose a new definition of anti-Semitism that treats pronouncements of opposition to Zionism or the State of Israel as violations of the civil rights of Jewish individuals, obligating educational institutions to take action against those making such pronouncements. We believe that this would be a deeply mistaken, misguided and counterproductive move that could seriously inhibit free speech, open debate and academic discourse on college campuses. Furthermore, we believe that this measure would actually harm, not help, Jewish and pro-Israel students.

While we work to challenge ill-informed criticism of Israel and Zionism on our campuses, we believe that such criticisms can and must be treated as constitutionally-protected free speech – not banned and suppressed by an act of Congress. We all know that a university should be a place for the free expression of ideas. We also know that the only way to respond to political perspectives that are different from ours is to actually engage with and debate them. The last thing we need is Congress forcing our administrators to serve as the arbiters of acceptable debate on our campuses.

Anti-Semitism is a real and serious problem on some of our college campuses and in communities across our country. Yet applying the label of “anti-Semite” to all those who oppose the existence of the State of Israel is unfair and unhelpful overreach that ignores the nuances and sensitivities of a complicated political debate. Dangerously, it sends a message to students that free and open intellectual debate is somehow at odds with support for Israel. By positioning supporters of Israel as enemies of free speech, it would in fact only strengthen and empower anti-Israel voices on our campuses.

In addition to focusing narrowly and exclusively on anti-Semitism that is related to Israel and Zionism, the bill introduced in December of last year also alarmingly fails to take into account the pressing issue of anti-Semitic hatred in our country stemming from the white supremacist far-right, which was and remains on the rise in the US in the wake of the 2016 election. A recently released report by the Anti-Defamation League found that anti-Semitic incidents have surged nearly 70 percent in 2017, and linked this surge primarily to white supremacism. ADL director Jonathan Greenblatt observed that “Every single day, white supremacists target members of the Jewish community — holding rallies in public, recruiting on college campuses, attacking journalists on social media, and even targeting young children.”

Indeed just recently at Stanford, flyers were distributed promoting the white nationalist extremist organization, “Identity Evropa.” It would be a grave mistake for Congress to focus on one type of potential anti-Semitism, while ignoring another virulent strain that has lead to a rise in hate crimes and violence across the country.

As pro-Israel, pro-peace American Jews, we strongly believe that for the sake of Israel and the American Jewish community, we must take responsibility for seriously combatting anti-Semitism in all its forms. That means recognizing that this effort requires education, discussion and sensitivity – not laws that ban speech and penalize students because of political disagreements.

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