A new approach to fighting campus anti-Semitism
Guest columnistUniversity leaders must be careful with free speech policies

A new approach to fighting campus anti-Semitism

In theory, the implementation of a free speech statement like the one at the University of Chicago should benefit Jewish students. In practice, however, it could do the opposite.

Campuses today are being challenged by profoundly intolerant behavior, whose goal is to prevent some individuals and groups from expressing their opinions, beliefs or identity, or from fully participating in campus life.

For Jewish and pro-Israel students, such behavior has become especially prevalent and challenging. On many college campuses, not only are positive statements about Israel demonized and delegitimized, but individuals who express these opinions are often intimidated, ostracized and literally bullied into silence. In the past few months alone, pro-Israel events have been aggressively disrupted at New York University, Syracuse University, UCLA and the University of California, Irvine; numerous fliers, graffiti and chalking stating “Zionists Not Welcome on Our Campus” were found all over San Francisco State University after an SFSU professor wrote on her department’s Facebook page that welcoming Zionist students on campus was a “declaration of war”; and a formal complaint was filed by Jewish students at Columbia University against anti-Zionist student groups for systematically harassing and silencing them for more than a year.

In the wake of recent controversies involving the disruption and canceling of campus events, many university leaders have adopted the University of Chicago’s statement on freedom of speech — a statement that has become the gold standard on free speech for universities across the country. Not only does the statement commit to upholding students’ rights under the First Amendment, it makes it crystal-clear that to do so, it must ensure students are protected from the harassment and intolerant behavior that directly impedes this right.

In theory, the adoption and implementation of a free speech statement like the one at the University of Chicago should benefit Jewish students enormously. It promises to offer protection from the peer-on-peer harassment that has made it difficult and sometimes impossible for Jewish students to freely express pro-Israel views and fully participate in campus life. In practice, however, such a statement runs the risk of making Jewish students even more vulnerable to those same acts of aggression intended to silence them.

Here’s why.

While freedom of speech is constitutionally guaranteed to each and every student regardless of opinion, belief or identity, this is not the case when it comes to freedom from harassment. In fact, federal anti-discrimination law administered by the U.S. Department of Education, which defines “harassment” as behavior that is “sufficiently severe, pervasive or persistent so as to interfere with or limit the ability of an individual to participate in or benefit from the services, activities or privileges provided by any recipient [of federal funds],” only deems such behavior “harassment” if it is directed at individuals because of their race, color, national origin, gender or other federally protected characteristics. Identical behavior directed against students who do not share those protected characteristics is not considered harassment under federal law, and these students are denied the federal protection afforded their peers.

This inequity trickles down to federally funded colleges and universities. For example, at the University of Chicago, protection from harassment is limited to students who are targeted on the basis of their “race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, national or ethnic origin, age, status as an individual with a disability, protected veteran status, genetic information or other protected classes under the law.” Although the list is quite long, many University of Chicago students remain unprotected from the harassing and intolerant behaviors that could impede their free speech and full participation in campus life. If, in implementing its free speech statement, the university were to rely on its own harassment policy — using it as a standard for determining when a student’s freedom of expression had been impeded — it would beg the question of whether the university’s commitment to ensuring its students free speech applies to all students or only to those who share certain characteristics.

The same is true on campuses across the country. Take California, for example. Although the state’s two massive university systems — California State University (CSU) and the University of California (UC) — both tout the importance of freedom of speech for all members of the campus community, they also have harassment policies that effectively limit protection from behavior that suppresses speech to only some portion of their student body. At CSU, Executive Order 1074 defines harassment as “unwelcome conduct engaged in because of a Protected Status,” and a CSU student who wishes to file a university complaint form in order to find relief from harassing behavior must indicate “the protected status(es) that was/were the basis(es) of the alleged … harassment.” UC policy on harassment is similarly limited in its scope to protected classes, and so, too, is UC’s online form allowing students to seek redress from harassing behavior.

In theory, federal anti-discrimination law and university harassment policies should afford protection to Jewish students, either by virtue of their ethnicity in the case of federal law or their religion in the case of university policy. But, in practice, Jewish students have been denied protected status in both cases when those same harassing and intolerant behaviors are motivated by anti-Zionism. This is a double whammy for pro-Israel Jewish students. They must not only suffer the routine suppression of their speech and assembly, as well as the freedom to fully participate in campus life, but must also accept the reality that their aggressors — often members of a protected class — will go unpunished and receive a free pass to carry on their unfettered, anti-Zionist-motivated harassment.

For many Jewish students, this has created a sense of egregious inequity and increased vulnerability, which has led to further suppression of their willingness to freely express themselves.

It’s relevant to note that there are important efforts afoot to ensure that Jewish students are afforded legally protected status at the federal and state levels. But these efforts will take time.

There is, however, an immediate, easy and equitable solution to the problem. University leaders must make a public pledge that all students will be equally protected from behavior that violates their rights to freedom of expression and full participation in campus life. To be effective, the statement should include a description of all university policies, in addition to state and federal laws that prohibit harassment and discrimination, along with a firm commitment to their equitable enforcement for all students, regardless of identity, opinion or legally protected status.

Harassment is harassment. The effects of this intolerant and exclusionary behavior on students are the same, regardless of the motivation of the perpetrator or the identity of the victim. And the abhorrent behavior that prevents students from an education free from discrimination must be addressed equitably. Students cannot freely express themselves and learn from their professors or each other if they face ongoing and pervasive intolerance, harassment and discrimination, as Jewish and pro-Israel students do now. Only once all students are secure in the knowledge that they will be equally protected from hateful, bigoted behavior can a university guarantee its students freedom of speech and the right to full participation in campus life. PJC

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin is the director of AMCHA Initiative, a nonprofit that combats anti-Semitism on college campuses, and was a faculty member at the University of California for 20 years. This article was distributed by JNS.org.

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