Of the many intellectual perversions currently taking root on college campuses, perhaps none is more contradictory to what should be one of higher education’s core values than the suppression of free speech.
With alarming regularity, speakers are shouted down, booed, jeered, and barraged with vitriol, all at the hands of groups who give lip service the notion of academic free speech – and who demand it when their speech is at issue but have no interest in listening to, or letting others listen to, ideas that contradict their own world view.
Earlier this year, two Israeli officials, Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon and Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren had the unpleasant experience of confronting virulent anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian Muslim students whose ideology on academic debate seems to be “free speech for me, but not for thee.”
Ayalon, who spoke at Oxford University, had his speech interrupted by several audience members, including one who yelled incessantly and called Ayalon a “racist” and “a war criminal” while waving a Palestinian flag, another student who loudly read passages of the incendiary Goldstone report, and a third student who remained standing for the entire balance of the lecture while she hurled anti-Israel invective.
The genteel, soft-spoken Ambassador Oren did not fare much better during his visit to the University of California at Irvine, a notorious hotbed of radical anti-Israel sentiment. During the aborted speech to some 500 people about U.S.-Israel relations, which was loudly interrupted ten times, boorish hecklers screamed over Oren’s talk such profound observations as “Michael Oren, propagating murder is not an expression of free speech,” “I accuse you of murder,” “How many Palestinians have you killed?” and “Israel is a murderer.”
Oren is hardly what even his staunchest critics could consider an Islamophobe eager to trample Palestinian aspirations. A Columbia and Princeton graduate, he is the author of two seminal books on the Middle East – Six Days of War and Power, Faith and Fantasy. He is at least as qualified to speak about the Israeli/Palestinian situation as the raucous, boorish students who had decided, in advance of his UC-I appearance, that he was morally unfit to even appear on their campus.
Even after he took a 20-minute recess to let the crowd cool off and regain its collective composure, his return to the podium was greeted with more volleys of invective, shouting, and speech-stopping bombast from the Muslim students, eleven of whom – eight from UC-Irvine (including the Muslim Student Union president) and three from UC Riverside – were eventually escorted out of the hall and arrested.
The fact that UC-I’s habitually craven administrators, led by Chancellor Michael Drake, were even motivated enough by the students’ errant behavior to have them ejected from the event is a promising sign.
While the university has always claimed to be dedicated to encouraging debate and scholarly inquiry by letting the Muslim Student Union mount annual hate-fests to demonize and vilify Israel and Jews, the MSU has effectively hijacked all discussion of the Middle East on campus, and its events are not platforms at which opposing views are aired and discussed.
As is frequently the case when speaking about the Israel/Arab conflict, the discussion often glosses over the real problems of Palestinian culture, politics, and society (including its cult of death), and focuses all criticism on the perceived defects of Israel, Zionism, and Jewish power.
This notion that pro-Israel speakers and scholars do not deserve, on a moral or intellectual basis, an opportunity to participate in scholarly debate is a dangerous one, even if it comes from tendentious students. It starts with the assumption that Israel, because of its perceived moral defects and its oppression of the hapless Palestinians and the theft of their lands, does not even have the right to participate in intellectual debate, that academic free speech in Israel’s case can be modified and is not absolute.
And while Muslim students and other campus radicals have, at UC-I and other college campuses, seen to it that speech they do not approve of, spoken by people with whom they disagree, is shut down with the “heckler’s veto,” they have never missed an opportunity to invite their own stable of slimy, anti-Israel, anti-U.S. speakers.