J Street U Leaders to Congress: Crackdown on Free Speech Is Wrong Way to Fight Anti-Semitism on Campus

May 24, 2018

Today, J Street U President Zoe Goldblum sent the following letter to members of both chambers of Congress, raising concerns about possible new legislation related to anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment on campus. The letter urges Congress not to impose misguided new rules that could penalize students for legitimate free speech. It warns that such measures would harm, not help, Jewish and pro-Israel students. 

Dear Senators and Representatives,

I am the President of the J Street U National Student Board and a fourth year student at Stanford University. I write today on behalf of the pro-Israel, pro-peace leadership of J Street U to express our serious concerns with the “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act,” which has been reintroduced in both chambers of Congress.

Anti-Semitism is a real and serious problem across the world, in communities across our country and on many college campuses. As we work to combat and oppose anti-Semitic bigotry, we are worried that this legislation would problematically impose a new definition of anti-Semitism that treats criticism of the state of Israel or Zionism as violations of the civil rights of Jewish individuals, obligating educational institutions to take action against those making such criticisms.

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. It would send a dangerous message to students that free and open intellectual debate is somehow at odds with support for Israel. Furthermore, we believe that this measure would actually harm, not help, Jewish and pro-Israel students. By positioning supporters of Israel as enemies of free speech, it would, in fact, only strengthen and empower anti-Israel voices on our campuses.

We share the position of renowned anti-Semitism expert Kenneth S. Stern, who actually wrote the definition of anti-Semitism being considered in the proposed congressional legislation. He testified before the House Judiciary Committee that he opposes this bill, because it is inappropriate and wrong to apply this definition to college students and college campuses. In The New York Times, Stern wrote that “If this bill becomes law….students and faculty members will be scared into silence, and administrators will err on the side of suppressing or censuring speech.”

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 best way to challenge political perspectives that are different from ours is to actually engage and debate with those who hold them.

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 supporters of the Global BDS Movement and others who may hold anti-Israel positions. 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. The last thing we need is Congress forcing our administrators to serve as the arbiters of acceptable debate on our campuses.

In addition to focusing narrowly and exclusively on anti-Semitism that is related to Israel and to Zionism, the bill alarmingly fails to take into account the pressing issue of anti-Semitic hatred in our country stemming from the white supremacist far-right, which has risen precipitously since the 2016 election. A report released by the Anti-Defamation League in November of 2017 found that anti-Semitic incidents surged nearly 70 percent in 2017, due 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 on my own campus at Stanford, flyers were distributed last year promoting the white nationalist extremist organization “Identity Evropa.” It would be a grave mistake for Congress to ignore this virulent strain of anti-Semitism that has lead to a rise in hate crimes and violence across the country.

As pro-Israel, pro-peace American Jews, we are determined 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.

We strongly believe that for the sake of Israel and the American Jewish community, we must take responsibility for seriously combating 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.

Zoe Goldblum
President, J Street U National Student Board