BOOK REVIEW: The Conflict Over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate

Kenneth S. Stern, The Conflict Over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate
New Jewish Press, 2020
296 pages

Reviewed by MIRA SUCHAROV

While international conflicts have been known to exhibit ripple effects far from their borders, nowhere is the microcosm of ideological tensions over Israel/Palestine more apparent these days than on university and college campuses.

In a smart, personal and engaging book, Kenneth S. Stern, director of Bard College’s Bard Center for the Study of Hate, takes us on a tour of today’s American campus Israel/Palestine debates in the context of a full-throated argument for free speech.

While Stern focuses on American college campuses, Canadians might read this through slightly different eyes, given that our respective laws around speech are not identical in their scope. Unlike the U.S. with its First Amendment provisions (which permits all speech except for direct incitement to violence – so-called “fighting words”), Canada does have hate-speech provisions, although hate speech cases are notoriously hard to prosecute in this country.

Kenneth Stern
Kenneth Stern

The book takes the reader through the polarized debate around antisemitism, anti-Zionism and different views of academic freedom, stemming from the controversial 2001 Durban conference on racism and the rise of the academic boycott movement against Israel. 

Stern describes how he founded an academic group called Alliance for Academic Freedom, devoted to opposing the academic boycott of Israel (a group in which I was involved from the ground up before I eventually resigned, my views having changed slightly; full disclosure, since he mentions me in the text).

In the contemporary culture wars, Stern’s is an argument against such current phenomena as “trigger warnings” and “safe spaces.” And perhaps surprising to some, given that he proclaims himself a Zionist in the book, Stern is concerned by a current chill on campus speech brought about by the incorporation of anti-Zionism into the contemporary antisemitism definition much used today.

It may also read as ironic, given that Stern was instrumental in drafting the definition that is now much debated, and which has been adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (and last year by Canada). But this is where the strength of the book lies: It is a principled discussion of free speech, whether or not one agrees with his threshold.

Stern takes us deftly through the debates around Donald Trump’s “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2019”, which uses the IHRA definition to define what is acceptable to say on campus. Stern opposes using this definition to assess campus speech. “Decrying anti-Zionism at the UN or in bilateral relations or recognizing it for data collection is one thing,” he writes; “declaring anti-Zionism as antisemitic for campus application can only chill free speech.”

Where I think the book’s argument falls short is around much of what is known as the “deplatforming” debate: The robust opposition to having certain speakers come to campus. Stern sees speaker freedom as akin to the principle of free speech. But I would argue that Stern’s argument should provide more scaffolding about who deserves an invitation to a given campus, not only on one’s right to constitutionally protected speech. Campuses are distinct entities: a campus invitation comes with resources: advertisements, space, security, and so on. And such invitations also come with a certain amount of conferred prestige: a speaker invited to a university can put the event on their CV; not so if one simply stands on a soapbox in a public park and opines.

Stern’s view is that as long as campus officials or student groups follow proper procedures in inviting a speaker, any idea should be fair game for airing. His is an argument that relies on the marketplace of ideas to weed out bad ideas and elevate good ones.

But I might challenge the idea that campuses should be viewed as akin to unregulated markets. I would suggest that they should apply specific intellectual standards: They are institutions of learning, not simply open-air streets where ordinary speech laws should apply.

Others will wonder whether Stern’s view opposing safe spaces and trigger warnings lacks pedagogical compassion. And indeed, there is a bit of an inherent built-in tension in parts of his book, as when he recounts an evening around a dinner table with a group of students who noted that they felt so much more comfortable talking with him about the sensitive issues around Israel/Palestine than they do on campus, where they often meet vocal and vociferous opposition.

Readers might wonder whether the students’ appreciation stemmed from Stern actually having, over the course of that evening, provided a “safe space” for the exchange, however defined.

These quibbles suggest a book worth reading; a narrative worthy of wrestling and conversation.


Mira Sucharov

Mira Sucharov is professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa. Her most recent books are Public Influence: A Guide to Op-Ed Writing and Social Media Engagement (author) and Social Justice and Israel/Palestine: Foundational and Contemporary Debates (co-editor)