It has seemed to me that a vast double standard regarding what constitutes prejudice exists on American college campuses. There is hypersensitivity regarding prejudice against most minority groups but what might be called hyper-insensitivity with respect to anti-Semitism.
At Bowdoin College, holding parties with sombreros and tequila is deemed to be an act of prejudice against Mexicans. At Emory, the chalking of an endorsement of the likely Republican presidential candidate on a sidewalk is deemed to require a review of security tapes. The existence of a college named after a widely admired former US president has under the duress of a student occupation been condemned at Princeton. At Yale, Halloween costumes are the subject of administrative edict. The dean of Harvard Law School has acknowledged that hers is a racist institution, while the freshman dean at Harvard College has used dinner placemats to propagandise the student body on aspects of diversity. Professors acquiesce as students insist that they not be exposed to views on issues like abortion that make them uncomfortable.
As I have discussed in the past, this is in my view inconsistent with basic American values of free speech and open debate. It fails to recognise that a proper liberal education should cause moments of acute discomfort as cherished beliefs are challenged.
But, if comfort is elevated to be a pre-eminent value, the standard should be applied universally. Unfortunately, there is a clear exception made on most university campuses for anti-Semitic speech and acts.
The Department of State has made clear that it regards demonising Israel or “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” as anti-Semitism. This makes obvious good sense. Does anyone doubt that applying standards to African countries that were not applied to other countries or singling them out for sanction when other non-African countries were guilty of much greater sins would be deemed racism?
Instances of anti-Semitism by this standard are ubiquitous in US academic life. Nearly a dozen academic associations have enacted formal boycotts of Israeli institutions and in some cases Israeli scholars. Student governments at dozens of universities have demanded the divestiture of companies that do business in Israel or the West Bank. Guest speakers and even some faculty in their classrooms compare Israel to Nazi Germany and question its right to continued existence as a Jewish state.
Yet, with very few exceptions, university leaders who are so quick to stand up against microagressions against other groups remain silent in the face of anti-Semitism. Indeed, many major American universities including Harvard remain institutional members of associations that are engaged in boycotts of Israel. The idea of divesting Israel is opposed only in the same way that divesting apartheid South Africa was opposed — as an inappropriate intrusion into politics, not as immoral or anti-Semitic.
That is why the recent statement of the University of California Regents is so welcome. It is forceful and clear on anti-Semitism, while at the same time recognising the importance of free speech. It holds that “Anti-Semitism, anti-semitic forms of anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California”. Let us hope that similar statements will be made by the leaders of private and public universities across the country.
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