As if to confirm its reputation of being an institution stewing in radical anti-Zionism, anti-Israelism, and, often, anti-Semitism, members of CUNY4Palestine and other activists did their best to disrupt and shut down a December 8th panel discussion titled “A Conversation on the Language of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” held at CUNY’s Graduate Center.
The panelists, Miriam Elman, Executive Director of Academic Engagement Network (AEN); Donna Robinson Divine, Professor of Jewish Studies at Smith College; and Dr. Asaf Romirowsky, Executive Director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), were speaking about how the language used by students and faculty in discussing the Israeli/Palestinian conflict has been contorted, redefined, and weaponized as part of the cognitive war against Israel.
The panelists were building upon a theory they had substantively explored, along with several other academics, in a special issue of the journal Israel Studies entitled, “Word Crimes: Reclaiming The Language of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.”
No sooner had the panel discussion kicked off, CUNY’s own brownshirts started screaming and chanting at the panelists while, without any irony, they held placards using some of the very words that were examined in the journal, among them, “apartheid,” colonialism,” “settlers,” and “occupation.”
In texts CUNY4Palestine published to bring anti-Israel students to the event, the group claimed that the panel only “diverts attention away from the violent oppression of Palestinians,” and that discussions about the issue were, in their view, irrelevant since it was “our conviction that there are no ‘conversations’ between the oppressed and the oppressor.” And anyway, they claimed, “This is not a conflict. This is settler colonialism and apartheid,” throwing out the very words that have been manipulated and recklessly used against Israel for so long as to make them almost meaningless.
Of course, examining the misuse of those words was the very purpose of the panel, but these tendentious activists, as they have on campuses around the country, had already determined that they had the high moral ground, that they can suppress any pro-Israel speech, and that since, in their view, there are no “‘conversations’ between the oppressed and the oppressor,” it is perfectly justifiable that an unruly group of presumptuous activists ought to shout down and disrupt a panel of professors with a deep understanding of the Middle East, scholars who are actually discipline experts.
This rude and unacceptable behavior on the part of the CUNY anti-Israel activists is not surprising given the startling findings of a 2017 national survey of 1,500 current undergraduate students at four-year colleges and universities conducted by John Villasenor of the Brookings Institute. When asked whether it would be acceptable for students to shout down and disrupt a speech by a “very controversial speaker . . . known for making offensive and hurtful statements,” 51 percent of those polled agreed that shutting down such speech with the “heckler’s veto” would be justified.
Even more troubling was the response to a follow-up question that asked respondents if they believed in using violence to interfere with and shut down the controversial speaker’s appearance; astonishingly, 19 percent of students answered affirmatively that a violent response to the controversial speaker’s ideas and words would be appropriate and justified.
What is referred to as the heckler’s veto, of course, is an unethical tactic used to advance one’s own beliefs by silencing an ideological opponent’s argument. Instead of offering a compelling argument of their own, hecklers attempt to cancel the speech of their opponent by shouting and jeering during any attempt to speak, just as they did at CUNY until officers of the NYPD escorted them out.
When students shout down a speaker with whom they disagree and refuse to even let that person voice their opinions—regardless of how abhorrent or immoral the disruptors think them to be—they are acting both rudely and pretentiously. By their actions, they show that they believe their opinions are so valid and powerful that those who oppose them do not deserve to be heard or even considered.
Additionally important, when speakers like those on the CUNY panel are invited to campus, they are guests of the entire school. It is neither the right nor the role of a few, self-selected activist students to censure speakers and decide—in advance—that the speakers have no right to air their views.
Ordinarily—as was the case at CUNY—speakers who have been shouted down and prevented from speaking are highly educated, academically accomplished, and appropriately credentialed individuals with many years of professional experience behind them. Their ideas are logically the product of far more education, accomplishment, and intellectual activity than those of the protesting college students. Attempts by activist students to suppress the speech of those whose intellects are superior thus seem not only discourteous and audacious but also misguided.
Freedom of speech, contrary to the thinking of these activists, does not mean freedom to suppress the speech of another by drowning it out with your own. “Although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus,” the useful and still relevant Chicago Principles reads, “and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe.”
It is revealing to compare the way CUNY law school’s graduation speaker, Nerdeen Kiswani, was treated when she gave an incendiary, toxic, anti-Zionist, anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic address to her fellow law student graduates in May. In Kiswani’s loathsome speech, she began by complaining about “facing a campaign of Zionist harassment by well-funded organizations with ties to the Israeli government and military on the basis of my Palestinian identity and organizing.”
And Kiswani is not a student who only casually engages in activism; she is a leader in the cognitive war against Israel and Jews. Canary Mission, a website that tracks and catalogs the anti-Semitism and anti-Israel activism of individuals and organizations and compiles online dossiers on them, for example, has a voluminous file on Kiswani. It notes that she has “spread hatred of America, incited hatred against pro-Israel donors, promoted hatred of Israel and demonized Zionism”; and has “glorified intifada, honored leaders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) terror group and expressed support for other terrorists in her WOL activism.” Her words are genocidal, anti-Semitic, and morally grotesque for their complete absence of nuance, history, and facts.
The woke anti-Semites in the audience for Kiswani’s speech regularly interrupted her talk with cheers and applause, obviously in thrall with her lofty, but empty, nod to social justice. Kiswani trumpeted that she embraced all her fellow CUNY travelers who are “fighting for black, Latinx, indigenous, Palestinian liberation and for the freedom of all people living under colonial domination, imperialism, and white supremacist structures both around the world and here in the U.S.,” signaling that only oppressed victims are worthy of support, but clearly not Jewish students at CUNY.
The issue here is not whether Kiswani has the freedom of speech to utter her calumnies against Israel, Zionism, and Jews. The fact that she has done so, publicly and promiscuously, for years and has never been censured or censored for it by the CUNY administration is evidence that, at least on her campus, she enjoys unrestricted First Amendment rights, just as any faculty member or students should.
No one from CUNY’s administration or faculty seems to have vocally denounced the choice of Kiswani as the graduation speaker or the content of her speech itself. And most significantly, in the context of this discussion about the suppression of speech some people disfavor, no one in the audience—undoubtedly comprised of many Zionist, Jews, and other pro-Israel individuals—attempted to shout her down, scream or chant, heckle her, or disrupt the speech.
Shutting down speech is more than just unconstitutional; it violates one of the primary values of a university. When members of the academic community ignore those values and violate free speech regulations, there must be swift and significant consequences—including expulsion. The sanctions should be publicized well in advance of any event so that students understand that any attempts to suppress the speech of others with whom they disagree will not be tolerated. Students should not and cannot be allowed to take over a campus, or a lecture hall, or a classroom and hijack the robust exchange of ideas—even if they think they have the best intentions and are, at least in their minds, promoting a virtuous, progressive agenda. Alternate, even extreme, views must be permitted to be aired.
“If there be time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education,” observed the champion of free speech, Justice Louis D. Brandeis, “the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”