Critical Thinking on Israel, not Coddling, Needed for Jewish University Students: Expert

Nov. 26, 2020

By STEVE ARNOLD

A veteran of the wars against antisemitism warns Jewish students are being harmed more than protected when their universities stifle criticism of Israel.

Kenneth Stern has been fighting against antisemitism for more than 25 years, first with the American Jewish Committee and now as head of a major hate studies institute.

He argues in his new book on the Israel-Palestine debate that “safe zones” on campuses and speaking bans on Israel critics aren’t preparing modern students for the world they will have to face.

He told the recent annual meeting of JSpace Canada that rather than being sheltered from uncomfortable ideas, today’s students should be taught the critical thinking skills that will let them counter anti-Israel ideas with better ones of their own.

“Today’s students are being quarantined from difficult ideas, but we are all going to have to face disturbing ideas in our lives,” Stern told the online meeting. “There is too much of a push now saying students are fragile and need to be protected.”

In his new book, The Conflict Over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate, Stern argues that honest and free debate over Israel and the policies of its government are being stifled in the name of protecting students from uncomfortable ideas.

“There is a kind of group-think today that says some things shouldn’t be explored,” he said. “Our students need to learn how to fight over ideas.”

Stern’s book, which appeared earlier this year in the United States, was officially launched in Canada as part of the meeting. JSpace bills itself as a progressive Jewish voice.

Stern is director of the Bard Centre for the Study of Hate, a lawyer and an author. For 25 years, he was the American Jewish Committee’s expert on antisemitism.

Reviews, like the one in The Jewish Independent, have described Stern’s book as “the most comprehensive assessment” of the Israel/Palestine debate. The reviewer also found it free of bias, noting the author “offers proof that the pro-Israel side is far from innocent of engaging in disgraceful tactics…” 

The real core of the book, however, is an argument for free expression and the exercise of academic freedom, the review stated.

Stern told his JSpace audience that rather than suppressing anti-Israel ideals, universities should sweep away their anti-hate speech codes and instead empower students to speak out when they are faced with bigotry and hatred.

“In an ideal environment you want students to be able to say what they think, but if bigotry becomes normalized, some are going to feel uncomfortable,” he said. “It’s important that students learn to speak out against things that make them uncomfortable.”

Before a civilized debate can be held, however, Stern has argued that terms must be defined: What actually is antisemitic as opposed to a legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies.

On that point, critics have found irony in the fact Stern was instrumental in helping to draft the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism currently being adopted by governments and universities around the world.

Canada adopted it last year, while Ontario recently imposed it through an Order in Council. Several Canadian cities and towns have endorsed it.

Critics of the definition have attacked its 11 attached examples of antisemitism, noting seven of them specifically equate criticism of Israel with Jew-hatred.

Carleton University political science professor Mira Sucharov, who reviewed Stern’s book in June for the CJR wrote: “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 told the JSpace audience the IHRA definition was created as a way of gathering data on antisemitism in Europe and was never intended as a club to stifle free debate on the topic.

“The idea that some people are using it as a hate crime measure on campuses is despicable,” he said. “It was never intended to be used this way on campus. That is an absolute abuse of it.”

One result of efforts to censor anti-Israel speech on campus, he said, is to drive some students away from on-campus Jewish life when they find organizations fully committed to an “us-versus-them” vision. That is especially true, he said, of graduates of Jewish day schools who feel betrayed when they arrive on campus when suddenly faced with attacks on Israel for the “occupation” of Palestine.

One example of that, noted by the Jewish Independent reviewer, is Stern’s critique of the “Standards of Partnership” adopted by Hillel International. It “proscribes engaging with groups or individuals that deny Israel’s right to exist, or who delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel, who support BDS or who exhibit “a pattern of disruptive behaviour towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”

In the end, Stern argues that rather than turning anti-Israel speakers into martyrs by denying them a chance to air their ideas on campus, Israel supporters should be armed with the skills to refute those claims.

“Both sides are harming the academy by trying to chill the other,” he said. “Campuses should not be places where we censor free speech. They should be places where we mine it for what it is worth.”

The alternative to that environment of free speech, he said, is for government to define truth, “and I see danger there.”