A new book on an incendiary topic turns out to be not quite as expected. The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate, by Kenneth S. Stern, may be the most comprehensive assessment of the (at least) 20-year battle on North American campuses between pro-Israel and anti-Israel forces.
Jewish and pro-Israel readers picking up the work might anticipate a litany of horrors, anti-Zionist if not antisemitic incidents, brawls, screaming matches, vandalism, boycotts and the like. There is that. But Stern argues that the perception that campuses are aflame in anti-Zionist rage is simply not true. More, he offers proof that the pro-Israel side is far from innocent of engaging in disgraceful tactics, too. There is ill will and there are bad actors on both sides. Most unexpectedly, as much as the book is about the conflict, it is more than anything an exercise in applied ethics on the topic of free expression.
Stern is the director of the Bard Centre for the Study of Hate, an attorney and an author. For 25 years, he was the American Jewish Committee’s expert on antisemitism and he was a lead drafter of the Working Definition of Antisemitism. He is also, it appears, something close to a free speech purist. As such, he rails against efforts by Israel advocates who have organized campaigns to censure (and censor) anti-Israel voices. He doesn’t let the other side off easily, either, calling out acts of harassment like drowning out pro-Israel speakers with the “heckler’s veto.”
The book, from New Jewish Press, an imprint of University of Toronto Press, begins with an empirical assessment. In institutions of higher learning in the United States, Israel is an issue in very few, he writes.
When speaking with Jewish audiences, Stern asks for a show of hands to gauge perceptions on anti-Israel attitudes. He asks for guesses on how many American colleges have divested from Israel.
“Many seem surprised when I say ‘zero,’” he writes. “There are relatively few campuses where Israel is a burning issue, and every year the number of pro-Israel programs … is usually at least double the anti-Israel ones. There are over 4,000 campuses in the U.S. – in the 2017-18 academic year, 149 had anti-Israel activity.… So the campuses aren’t burning.”
He does not dismiss the extreme tensions on a few campuses, however.
“[O]n some campuses where anti-Israel activity is prominent, pro-Israel Jewish students may feel marginalized, dismissed or vilified, sometimes with antisemitic tropes.” Identity politics and the conflation of Jewish people with “whiteness” creates racial conflict. “[T]he labeling of Jews as white becomes a problem when shared victimhood becomes a sacred symbol, a badge of honour, a precondition to enter a club of the oppressed. Antisemitic discrimination is rendered invisible.”
Though bigotry may play a role in the discussion, Stern does not see constructive resolutions in neologisms like trigger warnings, safe spaces and microaggressions.
“Faculty should have the right to give trigger warnings if they want, but I never do, and I think the idea is a horrid one,” he writes. “I teach Mein Kampf. It’s disturbing – get over it. College should prepare one to be an adult, and there are no trigger warnings after graduation day. Why are we encouraging students to be ostriches? Shouldn’t they, rather, be learning how to navigate things that will likely unsettle them over the rest of their lives?”
He quotes CNN commentator Van Jones, a strong civil rights proponent, who opposes “safe spaces” on campus: “I don’t want you to be safe ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take the weights out of the gym. That’s the whole point of the gym.”
Stern contends a fundamental error has been made in defining terms.
“We want campuses that are open to expression – including, perhaps even especially, difficult and disturbing ideas – but which protect students from real harassment and intimidation. Hate speech codes were efforts to say that ideas themselves can harass and intimidate. Ideas can and should make one uncomfortable (a comfortable college education is a wasted college education). But harassment is something different.”
Strategically, he argues, trying to censor hateful ideas is self-defeating and advances hate agents by martyring them.
“By trying to censor, rather than expose and combat, speech the students perceived as hateful, they were actually helping the alt-right and white supremacists,” writes Stern. “It’s no coincidence that the white nationalists in recent years have wrapped their racist and antisemitic messages around the concept of free speech. Why would progressives allow these haters to steal the bedrock democratic principle of free speech, disingenuously saying that this is what their fight is about? By trying to deny alleged racists platforms, progressives are helping white supremacists recast their vile message as noble protection of a right.”
Another strategic failure, he argues, is buying into the Palestinian narrative’s good/evil dichotomy.
“Israel’s case is best understood as inherently complex and difficult; playing into the ‘all bad’ and ‘all good’ binary of the other side renders those complexities invisible,” he writes.
The conflict on campus spills over, of course. Israel has created a list of 20 organizations, those that urge boycotts of the country, for instance, and bars their members from entering the country. Stern sees this as counterproductive: “You don’t make the case that blacklists (especially of academics) are proper if your goal is to oppose blacklists. You are conceding the argument.”
He gives an example of an anti-Israel campus activist who defends his group’s refusal to meet with Zionists “over cookies and cake” because “you Jews, in all due respect, you wouldn’t sit down with Nazis for tea and cake.”
He also reflects on the “Standards of Partnership” adopted by Hillel International, the Jewish campus organization, which proscribe engaging with groups or individuals that deny Israel’s right to exist, or who delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard Israel, who support BDS or who exhibit “a pattern of disruptive behaviour towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”
Writes Stern: “For those who are not yet ideological soldiers, but want to learn more, and want to do it around their campus Hillel, what sense does it make that adults are telling them they can only bring in certain types of speakers? Yes, the adults defined BDS as hateful. But does it make sense to tell students they have to go elsewhere than the Jewish address on campus to hear about it firsthand from those who support it?”
The litany of bad behaviours on all sides of the ideological divide is likely to make readers of Stern’s book uneasy, whether the reader is Zionist or anti-Zionist. But it is a rare and uncompromising testament to free expression that should give genuine free speech advocates an uplift, particularly in an era when ideologically driven regulation of expression and ideas, especially on campuses, has left many advocates of core liberal, academic values feeling beleaguered.