You’d imagine every campus faction would have welcomed University of California President Yudof’s statement on March 8. He called on the UC community to follow the basic rules necessary to protect free speech on college campuses. President Yudof denounced recent incidents during which demonstrators tried to shout down speakers, declaring that such actions are not “protected speech” but rather an effort to “deny others their right to free speech.” But the seemingly noncontroversial statement incensed UCLA professor Gabriel Piterberg, a prominent anti-Israel ideologue, and his allies. To condemn both the statement and President Yudof, Piterberg led a teach-in on April 12 that was sponsored, surprisingly, by the UCLA Center for Near East Studies.
Piterberg did not object to the principles that President Yudof outlined. Rather, in his convoluted presentation, he denounced the statement because it used the principles of free speech to condemn tactics that anti-Israel activists have been using with increasing frequency. Piterberg charged that the statement “criminalized political dissent.”
In fact, the statement was prompted by anti-Israel tactics. It specifically referred to an incident at UC Davis on February 27, when the student Chabad club and StandWithUs sponsored an “Israeli Soldiers’ Stories” (ISS) speaker program. The event deteriorated into near chaos because a heckler continually screamed invectives, and members of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace hurled continuous insults at the speakers. Such disruptions have become a favored tactic of anti-Israel activists, most notoriously when Muslim Student Union members almost succeeded in preventing Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren from speaking at UC Irvine in February 2010. Their goal is to let mainstream pro-Israel speakers know they are not welcome on campuses, as the UC Davis protesters themselves said just before the ISS incident at a meeting that was caught on video. The unspoken objective is to create an atmosphere in which Israel and its supporters are regarded as pariahs on campuses with no right to present their case.
President Yudof also condemned another practice commonly used by the anti-Israel movement. He specifically denounced the recent defacement of an Israeli flag on display at UC Riverside’s Hillel, underscoring that Jewish students who identify with Israel have rights and sensitivities like other minorities, and symbols important to their identity should be respected. This rebuke was unacceptable to the anti-Israel activists who regularly mock or deface Israeli and Jewish icons and symbols, from exploiting a picture of Anne Frank to juxtaposing swastikas with the Jewish Star of David.
President Yudof’s statement did not take a side in the debate about Israel, but it let anti-Israel activists know that their tactics, which violate free speech and Jewish sensitivities, are unacceptable.
Rather than recommend that anti-Israel activists moderate their behavior, Piterberg went on the attack. He charged that the statement was biased and showed unwarranted, “disproportionate concern for Jewish students” and alleged that it ignored “harassment and threats to Palestinian and Arab students and their allies,” though he could not cite any comparable examples of anyone disrupting their events. He denied that defacing Israeli symbols was an affront to Jewish students, declaring that it is racist to associate all Jews with Israel. He ridiculed the idea that anti-Semitism is a problem on campus, mocking such concerns as a figment of overwrought imaginations. To prove his point, he showed a Seinfeld clip satirizing such concerns.
Piterberg then argued that anti-Israel activists’ actions do not deny the free speech of others. He accused pro-Israel groups of misrepresenting the extremism of these incidents. Then, in a breathtaking inversion of reality, Piterberg contended that when incidents did become menacing or violent, it was because pro-Israel groups fomented or initiated the threatening atmosphere, essentially blaming the victims. He excoriated StandWithUs because it brings mainstream, pro-coexistence speakers to campuses—he apparently considers programs featuring such speakers to be extremist. Indeed, the UCLA Center for Near East Studies no longer includes such mainstream speakers in their programs.
Topping it all, Piterberg unleashed vitriol against President Yudof, stooping to anti-Semitic innuendos. He repeatedly referred to President Yudof’s Jewish identity and pointed out that the president is working with the Anti-Defamation League and the Museum of Tolerance to address campus concerns. Piterberg concluded his talk with an ultimatum: either President Yudof should “behave like a president” and confine his pro-Israel, “Zionist” views to his private life, or he should resign and become “an AIPAC employee.” Oddly, Piterberg did not seem to think it necessary to keep his own political biases separate from his position as a professor.
The teach-in revealed that anti-Israel activists like Piterberg are so blinded by their political passions that they will trample on the very principles they claim to uphold. In what could be called the “Piterberg Doctrine,” the right to free speech is sacred for anti-Israel activists but should not be extended to pro-Israel voices. It is Piterberg, not President Yudof, who is trying to “silence dissent.” He and his allies are trying to monopolize campus debate about Israel. They see nothing wrong with hosting inflammatory speakers, forcefully silencing others, or offending Jewish students’ sensitivities. They cry foul, however, when they are exposed as bullies and chastised for violating the rights of others.
President Yudof deserves widespread support for upholding the principles of free speech and respectful, open debate, which benefits all students. Anti-Israel activists can still express their views, but they must conform to the rules of civil debate.
Indeed, the teach-in revealed how critically important President Yodof’s statement was in ensuring that the free flow of ideas—on all issues—prevails on campuses. The hypocritical double standards promoted by the “Piterberg Doctrine” have no place in universities dedicated to educating the future generation.
Roberta Seid, PhD, is the director of research at StandWithUs. Roz Rothstein is the CEO and co-founder of StandWithUs.