University

“A confident and informed Jewish community can make a successful case for Israel without curtailing free speech and open debate”

It was not so long ago that Jewish communal organizations were among the strongest supporters of free speech in the United States. But we have lately entered a new era in which the Jewish community balances its commitment to free speech against its commitment to Israel—and First Amendment values are too often found wanting.

This is particularly true on college campuses where Jewish organizations and students have urged restrictions on the activities of Palestinian activists because their aggressive advocacy makes Jewish students feel “unwelcome.”

There was once a time when the point of education was to move students out of their “comfort zone.” Indeed, the right to offend has often been at the core of the idea of free speech.
Concomitant with the need for “comfort zones” is the increasing use of the call for civility as an argument for regulating or censoring speech.

Civility is, of course, an important virtue, one vital to maintaining both social relations at universities and a vibrant civil society. But as Katherine M. Franke, a Columbia Law School professor, has noted, civility has become “a catchword for a kind of censorship of speech that makes us feel uncomfortable.”

That Jewish students on campus need to wrap themselves in a comfort zone is not surprising. The American Jewish community has restricted open debate on core issues for so long that young people are not prepared to deal with different narratives, let alone with aggressive “in their face” criticism.

We may well be seeing a transformative change in our cultural approach to free speech throughout society. As Greg Lukianoff has suggested, when students “expect emotional and intellectual comfort as though it were a right,” they will eventually “stop demanding freedom of speech and start demanding freedom from speech.” It is unfortunate that the Jewish communal institutions are in the vanguard of these developments. A confident and informed Jewish community can make a successful case for Israel without curtailing free speech and open debate.

Marshall Breger, “The Sacrifice of Free Speech”, Moment (January/February 2015), 18.