Anti-Semitism and First Amendment symposium purposely raises questions
David DeFelice always intended that people would leave his panel with more questions than answers, so when nearly 200 attendees exited his event last week pondering hate speech, anti-Semitism and the evolution of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, DeFelice was pleased.
Even before the events of Oct. 27, the Duquesne University student considered hosting a symposium on anti-Semitism and the First Amendment as part of his senior thesis. Following the horrors of last fall, however, DeFelice sensed a newfound urgency for public dialogue.
“I wanted to open it up to the community and get more people involved to kind of have a more nuanced debate on hate speech, which is often the precursor to hate crimes,” the political science major said outside of his March 18 panel.
In exploring the topic, DeFelice moderated a discussion between Alana Bandos, Bruce Ledewitz, Stephanie R. Reiss and Joshua Sayles. DeFelice began the conversation by asking the panelists to define hate speech, anti-Semitism and the legality of anti-BDS legislation.
“The cure for bad speech isn’t more speech legislation,” said Reiss, an attorney and member of the American Civil Liberties Union, Greater Pittsburgh, Legal Committee. “When you have restrictions on speech, even in a small area, it has a chilling effect on speech in general.”
Ledewitz, a Duquesne University School of Law professor, expounded on protections afforded by the First Amendment with an auditory example. As awful as it may be to declare “Jews are vermin,” such a statement is protected, he explained.
DeFelice invited Bandos, education director for the Anti-Defamation League’s Cleveland office, to explore other threatening speech, such as that espoused by some BDS activists.
“BDS is really a college student movement,” said Bandos. “Most students believe they are buying into social justice,” but the issue is murkier. Students should research Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the BDS movement, she advised, and learn his positions regarding Israel.
Doing so will allow students to see “BDS is very complicated and we need to look at all of its goals and we need to look at all of its practices,” she said.
During a question and answer segment, DeFelice read audience-submitted queries, including one asking for strategies appropriately criticizing “AIPAC’s power.”
Problems exist when certain “tropes” or “age-old anti-Semitic canards” are employed, said Sayles, director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh’s Community Relations Council.
“AIPAC has dozens of positions on Israel. Attack those policies, not AIPAC.”
Hope Arnold, a Duquesne junior studying corporate communication, was among those who attended the program.
“Honestly, I appreciate the information that I learned here today, because it gives me a lot of context for things that I didn’t have the knowledge about before,” said Arnold.
Liz Boody, a self-described “huge social justice warrior,” similarly valued the 90-minute forum. “I thought it was a great conversation. We discussed a lot over the course of the time.”
Brian Burke, a University of Pittsburgh senior, traveled to Duquesne to support DeFelice.
“I actually went to Israel with David on the Federation alternative spring break trip last year, and this is something I know he’s been working on for a couple months,” said Burke.
Burke was impressed by the turnout.
“We worked hard to try to publicize the event, so I was happy to see that amount of people,” said DeFelice. “I think the university and the Jewish community kind of cared about the importance of this event. You know we keep seeing these awful hate crimes occur, whether it be Jewish communities, Muslim communities, so kind of having this debate surrounding the legal context behind it is definitely important.”
A conversation about anti-Semitism and the First Amendment can get theoretical, but it’s a conversation worth having, said Sarah Eileen Linder, a second-year law student at Duquesne.
“People that weren’t able to make it tonight should know that there can be a range of differing feelings and opinions on hate speech and its place in Jewish life in American society as a whole,” said Linder, “but the law is the law, and we have to be proactive if you feel strongly if you want to change it.”
DeFelice acknowledged the difficulty of legislating speech.
“On one side you don’t want people to hate, but on the other side you have to recognize that too broad of hate speech laws, or even too narrow, can often discriminate and be counterproductive to your cause,” said DeFelice. “So it’s kind of about striking a balance, you know, protecting political speech, but also making sure that people don’t discriminate against Jews or African Americans, Asian, etc.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.