Self-censorship on campus

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First there were Jewish space lasers. Now there are Jew-free zones. Neither exist. But both urban myths are signs of our hyperbolic times.

Jewish space lasers came from the fevered mind of Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. Jew-free zones refer to nine student groups at the UC Berkeley Law School (out of more than 100) that signed on to a statement pledging not to invite speakers to their events that support “Zionism, the apartheid state of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine.” For good measure the nine groups reiterated support for BDS. The school’s dean condemned the pledge. So did Jewish groups from coast to coast. Even Barbra Streisand expressed concern.

While there are no Jew-free zones, there is fear that there are. And this fear feeds vigilance — and hyperbole — that can make it easier to declare certain speech or actions antisemitic when a more nuanced view might lead to a different conclusion. That fear can also cause intimidated students to not speak up at all.

Berkeley is an extreme example. But there are others. Many college campuses are feeling the heat of hostility to its Jewish students and their guilt by association to Israel. What’s needed is college leadership, including teachers, to take on a mediating role and to encourage constructive, respectful discussion and debate. That may not change anyone’s mind, but it will empower those being vilified to feel less put upon by a disturbingly increasing college campus culture of exclusion and derision.

Unfortunately, many of the non-student campus leaders lack the interest or the skill to help analyze and critique both sides of the debate. And worse, it is often members of the college faculty who lead the accusatory and demeaning challenges that generate the tension and conflict.

It’s not just Jewish students who feel intimidated and reluctant to speak up. A recent survey by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education found that 83% of college students reported engaging in self-censorship, up from 60% in 2020. And according to a recent op-ed in the Boston Globe, “The primary reason students say they don’t express their authentic views, according to a Heterodox Academy survey, is fear of peers taking offense. Many even worry that sharing their thoughts will cause others ‘harm.’”

But fear of speaking up is different from fear of being victimized or attacked. An ADL survey from 2021 found that one in three Jewish students experienced antisemitic hate directed at them in the previous academic year. The most common incidents were offensive comments online or in person, and damage or defacement of property. Jewish students on campus report that they keep their kippot in their pocket and hide their Stars of David under their sweaters. These concerns are real. And reports of these problems frighten other students who may not have actually experienced antisemitism themselves. This leads to a feeling of alienation on campus.

We hope wise professionals will step forward to help shift the mood on our college campuses. And we encourage everyone involved to work to lower the temperature. The situation at Berkeley is upsetting and deserves to be called out and should be corrected. But there are no “Jew-free spaces.”

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