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Don't Choose Comfort Over Free Speech

The President's House at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. as taken in April 2008. (Wikimedia Commons)
The President's House at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass. as taken in April 2008. (Wikimedia Commons)

Williams College has been ranked the country's top liberal arts college, but its sterling reputation was recently tarnished. The College Council, the campus student government, denied the Williams Initiative for Israel (WIFI) certification as a “registered student organization.”

It was an astonishing decision. WIFI met all requirements identified in the College Council’s bylaws for recognition, which would bring campus funding. The group was established “to support Israel and the pro-Israel campus community, as well as to educate the College on issues concerning Israel and the Middle East." Three supporters explained in an op-ed in The Williams Record that “our goal is simply to bring an additional perspective into the ongoing campus discourse.”

The College Council would have none of it. “The state of Israel does not need a student group defending its ‘right to exist’ on this campus any more than we need to ‘defend’ the rights of wealthy, straight white men,” wrote two students in The Williams Record.

Another student who spoke at a public College Council meeting said, “almost everyone will agree that massive abuses” are being perpetrated by Israel against Palestinians and that “special consideration and debate” are warranted when approving students groups affiliating with Israel.

Open, respectful debate ... would place this complexity on full display.

But not everyone would agree. The conflict between Israel and its Palestinian and Arab neighbors is profoundly complicated. Open, respectful debate as has been customary in American universities, would place this complexity on full display. Regrettably, this is precisely what some critics of Israel seek to avoid.

To her credit, Williams College President Maud Mandel took action to overturn the College Council decision. WIFI is now a recognized campus club.

The larger issue, however, remains. Many students, including those on elite campuses like Williams College, look upon ideas they don’t like as violations of their safe spaces and see no problem in discriminating against, rather than debating, those with whom they disagree.

Anti-Israel initiatives on college campuses have been led by organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which has chapters across the country (including one at Williams that was recognized by the College Council). SJP alleges that Israel is a colonial state, guilty of apartheid and genocide against the Palestinian people.

SJP’s claims are tendentious and blind people to a far more complex and tragic reality. Israel is not without fault, but a primary reason this conflict has persisted is that Palestinian leaders, many of whom remain committed to Israel’s destruction, have rejected multiple opportunities to establish a Palestinian state. Obscuring this reality ensures that suffering continues and the path to compromise and conciliation remains barred.

To advance their cause, SJP supporters often invoke an idea they call “anti-normalization.” One SJP chapter explained the concept this way: “We reject any and all collaboration, dialogue and coalition work with Zionist organizations through a strict policy of anti-normalization and encourage our comrades in other organizations to do the same.”

But we also know that there is no better protection against the prejudices of an unruly mob than the right to freely respond.

The readiness of some university students on campuses to dispense with dialogue and openly discriminate against predominantly Jewish pro-Israel students is a source of growing concern within the Jewish community. But it should be of no less concern to all who prize the preservation of our democratic ideals. In his classic study, "Democracy in America," Alexis de Tocqueville observed that American commitment to the sovereignty of the people will remain so long as the free exchange of ideas is embedded in our nation’s way of life.

Today, however, some argue that free speech needs to be limited to protect “marginalized people” from the verbal assaults of bigots and other oppressors. Proponents of free speech, they contend, place the protection of ideas over the protection of marginalized people. As two members of the College Council argued, the student body needed to be protected against an organization that would “erase the voices of Palestinian students, erroneously redefining colonialism or concealing acts of genocide.”

The irony is hard to ignore. For many Jews, the obsessive, frequently uninformed and increasingly widespread interest in assigning to Israel preposterous allegations (as opposed to serious criticisms that one might legitimately level at any nation) that frame Israel and its people as among the world’s most morally flawed is a source of considerable pain and distress. It is not difficult to sympathize with students who fear harm from the words of bigots, who perpetuate false and harmful stories about their national, religious, racial or ethnic identities. I and many other Jews share that fear.

But we also know that there is no better protection against the prejudices of an unruly mob than the right to freely respond. The alternative to sustaining a high regard for freedom of speech is allowing groups, like the Williams College Council, to be guided by their prejudices in determining what speech they deem acceptable. This may serve the interests of some organizations that want to weaponize college campuses in the service of their political goals. It will not serve the interests of Williams College, vulnerable minorities, the academe or our nation.

The framers of our Constitution sought to protect free and open debate because they feared the effect of demagogues armed with moral certainty. In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Freedom of speech is a principal pillar of a free government. When this support is taken away, the constitution of a free society is dissolved, and tyranny is erected on its ruins.”

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Robert Leikind Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Robert Leikind is director of the American Jewish Committee’s Boston region.

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