Campus anti-Zionism is a consumer protection issue

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 11-24-10

A recent trip to Toronto unsettled me.  Speaking to various “Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Center,” I heard many parents confess their fears about their children’s “safety” on campus.  They had heard too many examples of both pro-Palestinian activists and anti-Zionist professors bullying students.  They resented these hyper-politicized students and educators who pushed their points so aggressively that Jewish students feel harassed, hiding their identities or obscuring their true thoughts to avoid conflict or lowered marks. They lacked faith in the administrators whose job description should include ensuring student safety.  These discussions convinced me that campus anti-Zionism is a consumer-rights issue, not just a human rights issue.

Finding universities “unsafe” distresses me, having devoted my life to academe.  While this is a golden age for Israel-bashing this is also a golden age for Jews on campus. Never before have we had so many Jewish presidents and professors, Jewish students and Jewish studies programs. And on most North American campuses, Jews feel comfortable.  Moreover, I set the bar high before declaring a campus a hostile environment or labeling it anti-Zionist, let alone an anti-Semitic atmosphere. One or two anti-Zionist professors, a dozen anti-Zionist loudmouths, and the occasional anti-Zionist speech, are not sufficient.

Some campuses, however, have become infamous centers of anti-Zionism.  Even though universities usually are hyper-tolerant places, on too many campuses intolerance for Israel, pro-Israel students, and, sometimes Jews, festers.  There, students going about their business are assailed by shrill attacks on Israel, while students who wear Jewish stars or express their Judaism or Israel identification are frequently shouted down. There, regularly, speaker after speaker, rally after rally, demonizes Israel. On those campuses, students coming to, say, a women’s study class, unrelated to the Middle East might find themselves forced to walk through a “mock checkpoint,” in order enter their classroom, or regularly endure a math professor’s anti-Israel harangue.

For years, many of us have fought this as a human rights issue. We noted that for all other self-identified groups on campus, be it African-Americans or gays, women or Hispanics, the burden of proof is on the bigot when a group feels harassed, not on the victim. Only with Jews, it seems, is the burden of proof on us to show that it is truly anti-Semitism and not “just” anti-Zionism or criticism of Israel. As a result, Israel’s adversaries have wrapped themselves in human rights rhetoric, realizing they can be extremely aggressive as long as they claim to be defending the oppressed Palestinians (invoking false charges of apartheid and charges of racism always helps).

This remains a matter of equity, justice, dignity and civility. It is unacceptable when pro-Israel Jews feel demonized, when they feel demeaned by professors who are constantly bashing Israel, when they choose not to wear their Hebrew t-shirts or hide their Jewish  jewelry, or stop defending Israel because they fear harassment, bad grades or harm.

Framing this as a consumer protection issue universalizes it, raising important, often ignored questions, about quality of campus life. Fighting classroom harassment of pro-Zionist voices (in Israel too, alas) as an educational malpractice issue, shifts from a fight about rights, meaning academic freedom, to questions of educational competence. Any professor who fails to establish an open environment, wherein students feel safe to question, is a failure. Professors who make students uncomfortable for questioning the professors’ line are abusing the power of the podium. How can students learn in a defensive clinch? Fighting against educational malpractice might spark a much-needed campaign for classroom competence.

Learning from our feminist friends, we need zero-tolerance for casual remarks or frontal assaults fostering a hostile environment. This goes beyond the blatant heavy-handed abuses that constitute educational malpractice, and includes the campus as well as the classroom. Here, Jews and pro-Israeli activists should not ask for special treatment, only equal treatment. In these vulgar times, students have to be taught civility. I don’t want a sterile, politically correct environment wherein students fear expressing themselves.  But we need more self-imposed groundrules, and more sensitivity to the discomfort too many students – and their parents – feel.

Finally, donors, alumni and boards of governors must assess a university’s academic leader by asking if students feel safe on campus, personally, psychologically, educationally, as well as physically. If a student, let alone groups of students, don’t feel safe on campus, that campus is in crisis with a failing academic leader – no matter how much money might be raised that year.

Students and parents can take the lead on this consumer issue.  Amid the many guides to life on campus, Jewish students should compile a guide to Jewish life on campuses. The guide should assess the atmosphere for pro-Israel students, and give grades for campus “safety.” Without editorializing, the guide could also detail specific statements and incidents wherein professors and campus hooligans make Jews – or anyone else – feel unsafe on campus.

In Toronto, one gentleman said that with all the attacks on Israel in Canada, he feels safest in Israel. I know what he means.  After a session against delegitimization in New Orleans at the GA, the Interparliamentary coalition against anti-Semitism in Ottawa, and a day talking intensively about anti-Semitism and campus anti-Zionism in Toronto, I arrived in Jerusalem last week and breathed a sigh of relief. How soothing it is to deal with Israel as a real place, as a happy place, as a thriving place, not just as a problem. We need to fight for Israel on campus and beyond, but we cannot so internalize our enemies’ views of Israel, be so busy defending Israel, that we forget how lucky we are to have a Jewish state, and how much inspiration we can draw from all its wonders.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today, as well as The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.

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