The Israeli professor Moshe Halbertal was all set to give a lecture at the University of Minnesota on the moral challenges of asymmetric warfare earlier this month. His talk was to discuss the ethical challenges of collateral damage and civilian casualties. Given that Halbertal helped draft the Israel Defense Forces’ code of ethics, he was the perfect candidate to speak about this sensitive issue.
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But some were not — to put it gently — pleased with his presentation. Anti-Israel activists heckled him with all sorts of colorful epithets, disrupting the event until they were removed by university police.
Ten days later, a similar incident occurred at the University of Texas at Austin. Gil-li Vardi, a visiting scholar at Stanford, was to give a lecture on the role of social organizations in military culture, particularly in the IDF, when members of the student Palestine Solidarity Committee disrupted the event. Police were called to the scene, but no one was arrested. The students later circulated a video of their mildly-physical standoff with the event’s organizers.
While this sort of vigilantism is nothing new, the harassment of pro-Israel speakers has recently bloomed into a stock-in-trade tactic on American campuses.
There is a strong perception in the Jewish community that colleges are implacably hostile to Israel. Indeed, there’s much reason to think this way. But from my experience, most students are open to serious, measured discussion on Israel. Like in all progressive bastions, the burden is on the powerful side to prove its good faith — but it can be done. The unhinged conniptions of full-time Israel-despisers do not persuade anyone of the Jewish state’s maniacal evil. These sorts of antics only convince the convinced.
So what do anti-Israel protestors on campus hope to accomplish? To exact a cost for expressing or associating with pro-Israel views. It’s classic realpolitik and the million-dollar prize is control. The presence of bitter controversy around even the most innocent of presentations cloaks the Jewish state in a tenor of untouchability. This makes pro-Israel students shrink from public expression and makes the college environment uncomfortable for Israel’s supporters.
Sometimes the repression can be softer and less brash. Two years ago at the University of California, Los Angeles, pro-Palestinian activists tried to disqualify the votes of student council members who went on sponsored trips to Israel. Nobody bought it, but I would be kidding myself if I claimed they lost. They sent the powerful message that even associating with the pro-Israel Jewish community can be dangerous. Indeed, shortly thereafter student union candidates penned an open letter pledging not to accept free trips to Israel from Jewish organizations.
American colleges have for some time now been engaged in a fiery debate about the “right to offend.” The subject gained wider attention with “The Coddling of the American Mind,” a widely-read essay published by The Atlantic in September. Yet while the assault on pro-Israel speakers can be seen as part of a broader trend, it appears unique in its tenacity and fanaticism – and in the activists' willingness to get physical and face arrest.
Unfortunately, it’s not entirely clear how pro-Israel students can fight this. From what I can see, I’d wager that disciplinary action won’t work. Most of these shouters are insistently anti-establishment. In fact, heavy-handed crackdowns may only validate anti-Israel activists by turning them into martyrs.
The real antidote to suppression is more expression. The endgame here is influence over campus climate and the contours of debate. But this battle is entirely up to the pro-Israel student community. Refuse to be cowed into silence. Plan more lectures and more active outreach to student organizers and politicians. The sort of intimidation we face only works to the extent that we are meek enough to be intimidated.
As those of us on campus know, academe is unkind to Israel these days. But it’s not entirely hopeless. The addition of Israel Studies departments to some American colleges—like UCLA, Columbia, UT-Austin, American University and others — is a good example of American Jews insisting on fairer representation of Israel. In fact, that disrupted UT-Austin event was organized by an Israel Studies institute. When problems of free speech and disruption arise, it is helpful to have faculty members who are attuned to the situation and know how to handle it. Jewish students should work to encourage their universities to sponsor these Israel Studies departments. They give pro-Israel students a voice among the faculty and a legitimate department to work with. Winning takes energy, perseverance and determination. It’s pretty clear that our opponents have these traits. The question is: Do we?
Jared Samilow is a student at Brown University and a member of Brown Students for Israel. He is a graduate of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs' fellowship program in Israel-Arab studies and of Yeshivat Eretz HaTzvi, Jerusalem.