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University of California and Carleton University “free speech” battles: the hidden agenda

Written by admin  •  Saturday, 03.11.2012, 09:10
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While the ongoing debate over efforts to silence or stigmatize criticism of Israeli policies on University of California campuses has received a great deal of outside attention, a similar confrontation has been unfolding, somewhat more quietly, at Ottawa’s Carleton University.

On 10 October 2012, Carleton’s President, Roseann Runte, released a report by the University’s Commission on Inter-Cultural, Inter-Religious and Inter-Racial Relations on Campus. The Commission, launched in 2010, has the mandate to “to examine the status quo and to provide positive recommendations to contribute to a better context for dialogue and understanding on the Carleton campus and in the surrounding community.”

Like the report issued by the Advisory Council on Campus Climate, Culture and Inclusion at the University of California, the Carleton document links criticism of Israeli policies to anti-Semitism. According to the report, “The university community must acknowledge that some anti-Israel politics, activities and sentiments which occur on the Carleton campus are perceived as anti-Semitic, thus contributing to Jewish members of the Carleton community feeling less positive about the climate of respect at the university.”

Also like the UC report, the Carleton document proposes a variety of measures to limit criticism of Israel on this pretext, such as obliging student groups to comply with an ambigious “social inclusion” policy in order to reserve rooms for meetings and events.

A detailed and scathing critique of the recommendations of and methodology behind the Carleton report, as well as an open letter in opposition, for which campus activist group SAIA (Students Against Israeli Apartheid) Carleton is collecting signatures, provide excellent background and analysis that is unnecessary to replicate here.

A Hidden Agenda?

It is crucial to recognize that while the debates that have ensued following the respective reports have understandably focused on the direct efforts to restrict free speech, some activists aligned with the authors of the California report have indicated that silencing Israel’s critics is not the primary goal of anti-Palestinian activists mobilizing around the report.

“We’re not saying that hate speech shouldn’t be allowed,” said Ben Hass of UC San Diego’s Tritons for Israel, which has supported the UC report.

So what do they want?

“We want the administration to condemn it.”

Even op-eds ostensibly written in opposition to the report seem to subtly reinforce the idea that the debate is more about shaping how the public thinks about criticism of Israel. UC Berkeley’s J Street co-President Isaiah Kirshner-Breen makes a point of using his critique of the report’s association of political speech with “repugnant anti-Semitism” to mount an ideological attack on supporters of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS), a nonviolent accountability mechanism favored by the vast majority of on-campus critics of Israel:

“I disagree with the BDS movement on a pragmatic and ideological level. Divestment advocates often fail to recognize the Jewish people’s right to a national homeland, and I don’t see such efforts as effective in creating the type of base necessary to influence the establishment of a two-state solution in the Middle East.”

As typical of J Street’s statements on the subject, the op-ed does not recommend any alternative means of holding Israel accountable for its policies and actions apart from asking nicely.

While the de facto coalition of organizations and individuals that has emerged in support of the UC report undoubtedly differ in terms of their aims and motivations, the fact that some are primarily interested not in silencing Israel critics, but in stigmatizing them, is highly significant.

By focusing primarily on challenging the specific measures that the UC and Carleton reports advocate to limit campus criticism of Israel, activists risk diverting attention away from challenging the conceptual linkage which anti-Palestinians hope to create between such criticism and genuine “hate speech” or anti-Semitism.

Fighting on Two Fronts

While activists are indeed challenging the “hate speech” framing alongside the direct assault on free speech rights, we must remain cognizant of the fact that this is not simply a battle over free speech, but a battle to shape the terms of the discourse.

While we must work to prevent these universities from enacting measures that would restrict the right of members of their communities to criticizes the policies of the State of Israel, we must not allow these efforts to distract us from the subtler battle over perceptions and framing.

With each and every step we take to challenge the recommendations contained with the UC and Carleton reports, it is vital that we simultaneously challenge their framing. Opponents of these reports must not allow ourselves to be cast as defenders of “controversial, but protected” speech. Rather, we must be hammering home the message that the groups and individuals whose voices are in danger of being silenced are advocates for fundamental principles of justice and equality that should hardly be “controversial” to anyone.

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