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Democracy And Censorship On The Western Campus


Sometimes, as bad as things might seem, one must also remember to count one’s blessings because things could always be worse. Indeed, elsewhere they often are worse.

For the past month my columns have focused on what was happening at Duke University. In my view, when universities refuse to teach students the difference between what is true and what is false it constitutes an abdication of intellectual and moral responsibility which renders democracy utterly vulnerable to barbarism. I fear that Duke’s hosting of the Palestinian Solidarity Movement conference, without “taking sides,” may indeed border on such abdication. 

But as the immediate Jewish world and our supporters were covering the PSM conference at Duke, something decidedly worse was happening at the University of Pisa in Italy. At Duke, the pro-Israel and the pro-Palestinian speakers, activists, protestors, and infiltrators were physically non-violent. Jew-hatred is far more physically violent in Europe, not only on its mean streets but at its universities.

According to my informant, the prominent Roman journalist Anselma Dell’Olio, Shai Cohen, an Israeli diplomat, was invited to give a talk to students at the University of Pisa, a venerable institution founded in 1343. Cohen was to speak on “Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East.” Professor Maurizio Vernassa invited students from the history department and from the Afro-Asian institutes. The invitation was no secret. Cohen entered through the main entrance of the Aula Magna of the political science department.

According to Dell’Olio, “Cohen was greeted by a group of about 20 students wearing Palestinian kaffiyehs around their necks and shouting ‘Sharon assassino! Israel is a death dealer! Zionism is a crime against humanity!’ Cohen was called a fascist murderer and other personal and far worse insults. The left-wing group then proceeded to literally shout him out of the university, loudly threatening to pass from verbal to physical violence if he did not leave. Other students tried to calm things down and defended Cohen’s right to speak, but they were unsuccessful, and the left-wing thugs shouted that no Israeli would be allowed to speak, that Israel has no right to exist and so on.”

The point: No national scandal ensued, except in Guiliano Ferrara’s influential newspaper, Il Foglio, which has been publishing pieces about what happened in Pisa. The dean of the university sent a tepid, delayed apology to Cohen. More important, he invitation to Cohen has not been rescheduled.

Could what happened at the University of Pisa happen here?

Some might say it already has. There is very little free speech for anyone who takes a pro-Israel position at Berkeley. Concordia University in Montreal, the site of previous anti-Jewish riots, recently refused to allow former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak to speak. (Citing security risks, Concordia had previously refused to allow former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak.) Ironically, Duke University spent more than $50,000 to protect the PSM’s freedom of speech. My point: Threats of violence have led to self-censorship on some North American campuses. Pro-Israel factions do not warn of riots if anti-Israel speakers come to town. De facto censorship also rules the North American campuses courtesy of Arab oil money (and American oil company money) which, over many years, has funded anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian scholars at Middle East Institutes.

Again, I ask: Could what happened at the University of Pisa happen here?

America is a former British colony. Ex-colonials tend to internalize the belief that the colonizer is wiser, more sophisticated, intrinsically “better.” Thus, Americans are avid followers of British culture. But Americans – especially American intellectuals – love Italy for its sensuous, pagan-Catholic beauty, landscape, music, art. Recently, one American leftist told me that if President Bush is reelected she will “probably become an expatriate in Italy.” Another left-wing professor said that if President Bush wins, “America will effectively become a police state and I’ll probably have to move to Europe.”

Some second- and third-generation Israeli Jews have been moving back to their grandparents’ European countries of origin, especially Germany and Poland. “The Promised Land,” directed by Israelis Avy Hemy and Yael Friedman, and produced by Idan Regev, is an excellent film about this troubling subject.

I understand. Jews have always been on the road; we are the original beatniks. Like the biblical Abraham, some Jews, whether in Israel or elsewhere, want to leave their fathers’ homes to explore both inner existential and outer geographic space, and move freely, as individuals, from continent to continent. I understand. Some Israeli Jews want to escape the pressure cooker of the Middle East, even for a little while if not forever. Of course, most Israeli Jews are ready to die for their right to remain in Israel, despite the cost.

But if you’ve read the recent pieces by long-time expatriates Nidra Poller (France) in Commentary and Carol Gould (England) on FrontPageMag.com, it is increasingly clear that Europe is no longer safe for Jews. If you’ve seen any of Pierre Rehov’s important films, including his latest one, “Hostages of Hatred,” you know that the Muslim Middle East is boiling over with Jew-hatred. Arab Jews can’t go home again. Nor can most Christians. Please visit my website (www.phyllis-Chesler.com) where I have posted a 45-minute video by the Maronite Christian Brigitte Gabriel, who talks about her experiences growing up under Palestinian tyranny in Lebanon.

North America remains safe. But if hate propaganda against the Jews and against the Jewish state is not quickly and effectively countered, what happened at the University of Pisa will happen here. It is only a matter of time.

Let us use that time very well.

About the Author: Dr. Phyllis Chesler is a professor emerita of psychology, a Middle East Forum fellow, and the author of fifteen books including “Women and Madness” (1972), “The New Anti-Semitism” (2003), and her latest, “An American Bride in Kabul” (2013). Her articles are archived at www.phyllis-chesler.com.


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