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Analysis: Debate Over Limits Of Free Speech When Discussing The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

All Things Considered: October 7, 2002

Campus Watch


There's no shortage of protests on college campuses when it comes to another hot topic, the Arab-Israeli conflict. But those protests can themselves prove controversial. Today the presidents of 300 colleges and universities issued a statement calling for an end to intimidation on the nation's campuses. The petition organized in part by the American Jewish Committee mentions harassment of Jewish and pro-Israel students during discussions on the issue. It does not talk about the intimidation of Arab or Palestinian students, and that has set off a debate about the limits of free speech when discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as NPR's Robert Smith reports.

ROBERT SMITH reporting:

College students have been arguing, protesting and demonstrating about the Middle East for decades, but in the last year, some college administrators say the tenor of the debate has become more personal. Last May at rallies at San Francisco State, Jewish students claimed that pro-Palestinian demonstrators chanted anti-Semitic slogans and threatened violence. Palestinian supporters say that they, too, were subject to verbal abuse. Seth Brysk, the director of San Francisco Hillel, an organization for Jewish students, says that in the Bay Area, at least, pro-Israeli students are feeling intimidated.

Mr. SETH BRYSK (Director, San Francisco Hillel): I have students who report to me that they feel uncomfortable identifying themselves as Jews, who will take the Magen David, the Star of David that they wear on a chain around their neck, and tuck it underneath a T-shirt before they cross the street and walk onto campus.

SMITH: After high-profile clashes like the one in San Francisco, a group of current and former college presidents began circulating a letter calling for an end to harassment, that debates in and out of the classroom be conducted without threats, taunts or intimidation. James Friedman, a former president of Dartmouth, led the signature-gathering effort.

Mr. JAMES FRIEDMAN (Former Dartmouth President): There have been too many instances on campuses in which speakers at such rallies and such public meetings have been shouted down, have been humiliated, have been told to get off the stage. We would just like to make sure that the voices that support Israel are every bit as free to be heard as those that criticize Israel.

SMITH: Although the statement condemns intimidation against any person, group or cause, it only specifically mentions the harassment of Jewish students. Several university presidents have declined to sign the petition because it didn't mention the harassment of Islamic students. Joan Scott, the chairwoman of the American Association of University Professors' Committee on Academic Freedom, says that's a real issue, too.

Ms. JOAN SCOTT (Chairman, American Association of Professors' Committee on Academic Freedom): Surely anti-Semitism is something that I can't imagine anyone supporting or being in favor of. It's a very serious problem. But so is the very serious problem of attacks by groups who are pro Israel's current foreign policy on people who disagree with them,

SMITH: Scott points to a Web site called Campus Watch which compiled dossiers on professors that were seen as anti-Israel. The files were removed last week by the Web site, but Scott says the information prompted harassment and death threats to some professors. With tempers rising on both sides, the statement by college presidents raises the question of where the line is between vigorous political debate and harassment. Organizers of the petition say that it's up to each individual college to make that determination. Kenneth Stern is with the American Jewish Committee.

Mr. KENNETH STERN (American Jewish Committee): You know, it's OK to not like what Israel does and it's OK to be critical, but you can't do it in a way that you would be doing it differently than criticizing any other country. It's a double standard that may reflect a problem with anti-Semitism.

SMITH: But supporters of the Palestinian cause on campus say that the anti-Semitic charge is being used to shut down their free speech. Snehal Shingavi is with Students for Justice in Palestine at UC-Berkeley.

Mr. SNEHAL SHINGAVI (Students for Justice in Palestine): Any conversation or any critique of the state of Israel is de facto shot down because it carries with it this taint of possibly being anti-Semitism without any real investigation of whether it is or isn't anti-Semitic.

SMITH: The drafters of today's statement by the 300 college presidents say they didn't expect it to be controversial, but it's symptomatic of the debate about the Middle East on campus that nothing is received as neutral. Robert Smith, NPR News, Seattle.

JACKI LYDEN (Host): This is NPR, National Public Radio.

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