I remember, from my younger days, the controversies over the proposed Nazi march in Skokie Illinois in 1978. Skokie was a Jewish suburb of Chicago, with a high concentration of survivors of the Shoah. The Nazi march was specifically chosen to take place in this Jewish suburb, to outrage, intimidate, and gain notoriety for their odious genocidal agenda.
Unlike post-World War II Europe that chose to deal with Nazism by outlawing it and imposing criminal penalties for using or promoting Nazi agendas or symbols, the United States chose to remain true to one of the core principles of its founders, allowing free speech with few exceptions, such as yelling “fire” in a theater.
Jewish liberals and activists from the ACLU defended the Nazis’ right to march and display the swastika as a form of free speech. The Illinois Supreme Court ruled that any ban was unconstitutional.
How times have changed.
Today the ACLU and progressive farleft activists, many of them Jewish, fail to object to the assault on pro-Israel free speech on American college campuses and in the public arena, no doubt because the calls for denial of free speech come from their own ranks.
Pro-Israel speakers are now routinely shouted down, forced off the stage of public discourse by Palestinian and “social justice” activists. Just ask ambassador Michael Oren, or Palestinian human rights advocate Bassem Eid, whose crime was talking about co-existing with Israelis. At Brandeis University, Brandeis president Frederick Lawrence withdrew Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s invitation to speak there, because she speaks out against Islamic female genital mutilation and other human rights violations in the Islamic world.
These “open-minded” progressives claim friends of Israel shouldn’t be allowed to speak, because of Israel’s supposed war crimes against Palestinians, Western colonialism, apartheid, human rights abuses, genocide of the Palestinian people, ethnic cleansing of the indigenous inhabitants, use of disproportionate force, targeting of Palestinian children, etc. Then boycotting, demonizing and sanctioning Israel is then only a natural next step.
They further claim that shouting down pro-Israel speakers is their form of free speech. George Orwell must be turning over in his grave.
As Ruth Wisse writes in The Wall Street Journal, “Campus anti-Israel coalitions exploit freedom of speech and assembly to assail the only Middle Eastern country that guarantees those freedoms.”
Within the Progressive far Left, there is a singular lack of respect and toleration for differing opinions, not only on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A recent Progressive recommendation is to use RICO law enforcement statutes designed for the Mafia and drug cartels to suppress the free speech of those who challenge some of the claims of climate change advocates. In the eyes of Progressives, climate change deniers are now equivalent to Pablo Escobar and the Corleone family. The idea that it is a legitimate Progressive tactic to intimidate opposing voices by using the RICO statutes should be frightening to everyone across the political spectrum.
Not to be outdone, on the populist Right is the dangerous rhetoric of Donald Trump, who also exhibits an utter disdain for differing viewpoints, viciously attacking individuals who disagree with his agenda in a manner more akin to Peron or Chavez than any previous American aspiring to be president.
As for the intimidation and suppression of free speech by anti-boycott activists, Richard Cravats in The American Thinker offers: “The disturbing campaign to suppress speech... is a troubling and recurrent pattern of behavior by ‘progressive’ leftists and ‘social justice’ advocates from Muslim-led pro-Palestinian groups... [it] promote[s] a relentless campaign against Israel in the form of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS)... university officials and student groups who now try to suppress all thought of which they disapprove have sacrificed one of the core values for which the university exists... the truth.”
So what to do? On the Right, many American conservatives have already publicly challenged and repudiated Trump’s scapegoating and bullying tactics. An open letter by 120 members of the Republican foreign policy establishment denounced Trump’s inflammatory foreign policy rhetoric.
But for supporters of Israel and those who want to fight against the anti-Semitic, anti-free speech BDS movement, the problem lies almost exclusively with the progressive far Left.
A recent encouraging sign was the superb work of Professor Tammi Rossman- Benjamin, who led a coalition of groups that included MEPIN that persuaded the California Board of Regents to acknowledge that some forms of anti-Zionism are truly anti-Semitic.
Although not quite an acceptance of the US State Department definition of anti-Semitism, the Californian Board of Regents decision is no half-loaf victory, especially when you realize that California academia is overwhelmingly biased against Israel, and more times than not encourages BDS in the classrooms.
So how do you stop the anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist protesters from denying a pro-Israel activist the right to speak, uninterrupted, in a public or private space? Can you create a strategy to preemptively stop disrupting protesters from denying a pro-Israel advocates their right to free speech? On the college campus it needs to begin with the administration, alumni and financial supporters of universities.
Pro-Israel funders and alumni need to make it crystal clear to the administration of our universities that continued financial support is contingent on protecting free speech, especially of pro-Israel supporters, the ones overwhelmingly under attack.
According to Gerald Steinberg of NGO Monitor, “A major law firm that gave student groups at the Harvard Law School a million-dollar donation changed course after learning that some of the money went to promote campaigns that single out Israel.”
Liberal and conservative intellectuals and thinkers need to come together to publicly disavow suppression of free speech. Even in our hyperpolarized political world, there are many good people across the spectrum that would support letters and advertisements to protect and promote free speech for all, repudiating the shouting down of pro-Israel speakers as a legitimate tactic of free speech.
The effort can begin in a bipartisan fashion in Congress, between respectful academics, or be initiated by mainstream pro-Israel organizations like AJC or ADL.
Calling all Americans: protect our free speech.
The author is the director of MEPIN™.
He regularly briefs Congress on issues related to the Middle East. Mepinanalysis.org is read by members of Congress, their foreign policy advisers, members of the Knesset and journalists.