To Successfully Advocate for Israel’s Future and Confront Anti-Semitism, We Must Respect Free Speech and Debate on Campus

The J Street U National Student Board
on November 27, 2017

As pro-Israel, pro-peace leaders of J Street U, our work on our campuses and in our communities is driven by our deep support for Israel and its people, and our desire to help ensure Israel’s long-term future as a thriving, secure, democratic homeland for the Jewish people. It is this passionate commitment, and our dedication to self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians, that drive us to advocate for a peaceful end to the conflict via a comprehensive two-state solution.

We believe that bringing an end to the conflict and the occupation through such a lasting peace is the only way to guarantee security and freedom for both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. We challenge those who do not support the two-state solution, recognize the right of the Jewish people to a state or distinguish between opposition to the existence of Israel itself and opposition to the occupation of the territory beyond the Green Line. And we unequivocally denounce those who make use of hateful and unacceptable anti-Semitic tropes and rhetoric. It is for all of these reasons that we are opponents of the Global BDS Movement.

As part of our work on campus, we frequently engage in difficult debate and conversations with those who hold positions with which we strongly disagree. This includes debating BDS supporters and others who may hold anti-Zionist positions. However, we strongly oppose and do not tolerate anti-Zionists and BDS supporters who cross the line into anti-Semitism.

These kinds of conversations and public debates are often extremely difficult and painful. Yet we firmly believe that this kind of engagement is an important part of free speech, political discourse and effective Israel advocacy on campus.

It is for these reasons that we are so concerned about legislation being considered in Congress that would seek to police free speech about Israel on campus by defining expressions of opposition to Zionism or the State of Israel as anti-Semitism under federal law. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has opposed the legislation on the grounds that “the bill poses a serious threat to…First Amendment free speech rights.” As we wrote to the House Judiciary Committee in advance of their November 7th hearing on the subject,

“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….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.”

We share the position of renowned anti-Semitism expert Ken Stern, who actually wrote the definition of anti-Semitism being considered in the proposed congressional legislation. He testified before the committee that he opposes this bill, because it is inappropriate and wrong to apply this definition to college students and college campuses. As he wrote in a NY Times op-ed on the subject,

“The definition was intended for data collectors writing reports about anti-Semitism in Europe. It was never supposed to curtail speech on campus…. If this bill becomes law it is easy to imagine calls for university administrators to stop pro-Palestinian speech. Even if lawsuits alleging Title VI violations fail, students and faculty members will be scared into silence, and administrators will err on the side of suppressing or censuring speech. In a political environment in which all good is seen on one side and all bad on the other, a law that punishes political speech stirs more hatred…..Rather than suppressing speech about the conflict, we should be encouraging it. How else will students learn?”

Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, given the current political climate, J Street U’s position on this complex and sensitive issue has been purposefully misrepresented by Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art, a fringe group of self-proclaimed “concerned citizens” on the far right who have targeted Jewish institutions, including Federations, JCCs and theaters, in an effort to silence speech they do not like. Acting in deliberate bad faith, they have taken pieces of our letter out of context in order to paint us as somehow defending calls for “Israel’s destruction.” This small but vocal minority fringe in our community have a proven track record of doing or saying anything to delegitimize anyone with whom they disagree.

Against their efforts, we stand with the vast majority of American Jews who believe in upholding democratic norms in our country, on our campuses and in the Jewish community.

Spurious attacks from the extreme right will not deter us from our conviction that the best way to defeat anti-Israel and anti-Zionist sentiment and to win campus support for Israel’s Jewish and democratic future is to engage in rigorous debate – not penalize those whose opinions we abhor. As pro-Israel student leaders with firsthand experience of how these questions play out on campus, we know that seeking to silence debate and criticism of Israel is a failed, counterproductive strategy. We will continue to stand up to those who seek to impose a misguided, ineffective agenda that will only undermine the fight against anti-Semitism and empower anti-Israel voices.

We will continue to work at our schools and in our communities to oppose anti-Semitism and bigotry, to stand up for our Jewish and democratic values and to fight for Israel’s future as a democratic homeland for the Jewish people, living in peace and security alongside an independent Palestinian state.

J Street U

The student organizing arm of J Street, the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans.

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