Alums for Campus Fairness

Bringing decency back to colleges when it comes to Israel.

By MARK BANSCHICK
March 22, 2019 06:53
Alums for Campus Fairness

Alums for Campus Fairness stands up for Israel on campuses across North America. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Posters of pigs with text depicting hatred of Israel were recently discovered at Tufts University’s Hillel. The president responded, and alumni took note.

Last semester, a University of Michigan professor refused to give a student a letter of recommendation for an Israeli academic institution. The president responded, and alumni took note.

And, in California, faculty at Pitzer College voted to suspend a study abroad program with Haifa University, in solidarity with the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The president responded, and alumni took note.

Alumni simply demand a better, more civil and even-handed conversation.

It’s not asking too much.

Many of us truly grew up in college; we explored different disciplines, discovered passions we never knew we had, maybe even felt the sway of a first love. We were challenged, prodded to reexamine accepted beliefs, which could be unsettling. But for most of us, these challenges took place in an enriching and nurturing environment.

Alumni remember the richness of these memories, and it inspires abiding loyalty. As such, we give money, lend social capital, send our children and support programming at our alma maters.

It is a living relationship.

Yet, on campus today, another challenge is going on – one fueled by intolerance – and alumni are waking up. Rather than fostering analysis from all points of view, too often campus life has become a place where debate is disdained; a bubble, where only one view on important issues is acceptable. Sadly, we’re witnessing a trend to create political echo chambers, while applying demeaning labels to those who disagree with you.

A recent study conducted by the Knight Foundation, showed that 61% percent of college students think the climate on campus stifles speech; this had risen from 54% the previous year.

The street and the Academy are two different worlds.

On the street, the more aggressive party is heard. In contrast, the Academy must be a space where robust yet respectful debate carries the day. It is done through strong hiring, a commitment to diversity of thought, and active governance that fosters radical curiosity. And, yes, sometimes it means that leadership needs to set healthy limits. Speakers who advocate violence, hatred of different groups, or the forceful silencing of opposing ideas should not be invited to the table; however, it is sometimes a difficult line to draw between unpopular speech and so-called “hate speech.”

Sometimes, administrators must broaden the conversation, by inviting speakers or visiting faculty when departments fall short. After all, students benefit from the widest range of fact-based analysis and ideas. For instance, Vassar College, to its credit, invited Bret Stephens to talk about Israel after years in which anti-Israel speakers were routinely invited to campus, an initiative inspired by the administration.

On too many campuses, though, the Academy is losing its way.

It is time for alumni to step up and help.

Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF) is a relatively new organization, founded in 2015. ACF enlists the power of alumni to insist that the Academy adhere to its real mission: to function as a forum for the robust, open and civil exchange of ideas and to eschew propagandizing and indoctrination of students.

It’s an approach that works – which is why, only two years into its founding, ACF’s co-founder and first Executive Director, Susan Julien-Levitt, was honored by The Algemeiner by her inclusion in the J100 List of the Top 100 People Positively Influencing Jewish Life.

For the past few years, The Algemeiner has honored remarkable individuals making a significant contribution in the Jewish world.

The J100 List includes influencers from around the globe. Honorees include professors, artists, politicians, activists, and the like. Some are famous, many are not, and there are non-Jews as well as Jews. To be given a spot on this impressive list, one’s actions and achievements must stand out.

By its award, The Algemeiner recognized ACF’s effectiveness in confronting anti-Semitism and bringing civility and balance back to a campus.

Hatred of Israel and harassment of its supporters is made easier by the current political chaos now permeating our lives.
We live in tumultuous political times. Turn to CNN, Fox, or Network TV, read the New York Times, The Washington Post or The Wall Street Journal, slog through the mess that is Twitter, talk to any given person on the street, and you will encounter the angry, polarizing sentiments pervading our culture today.

This volatile political environment has given birth to a new, concerning symptom ailing our culture: an unwillingness to engage with those with opposing views.

Making those you disagree with radioactive kills any need, or excuse even, for dialogue. Let’s be clear. In an atmosphere where delegitimization and political intimidation become accepted, harassment, bigotry and violence will soon follow. This is true for the right and the left.

The BDS movement and its many sub-groups spearhead this disturbing trend, with studies showing that it’s making college life less hospitable for Jews and supporters of Israel. It is also impeding the Academy from its important mission of education, debate and collegiality. Jewish students, for example, are often asked to disown Israel, with anything less portrayed as support for a racist, apartheid regime, simplifying a complex situation with multiple sides – and many protagonists.

This is where alumni can make a difference.

Students and faculty are entitled to hold their views – including supporting BDS. As an American I respect this. However, they do not have the right to use tactics of violence, intimidation, outright discrimination and disenfranchisement; nor are they allowed to limit the freedoms of their opposition, or abuse their powers to promote their agenda.

Yet there are increasing incidents of all of these tactics.

Speakers are being harrassed and shut down. At University of California, Davis, for example, BDS activists intruded on a lecture by George Deek, an Arab Israeli diplomat, positioning themselves between Deek and the audience. Upon finishing his lecture, Deek required a police escort as a safety precaution.

George Deek and those who came to hear him had difficulty enjoying the right of free speech and peaceful assembly. Folks have the right to hear speakers like Deek without intimidation. After all, if the public can’t hear many points of view, they won’t have the necessary information to form an independent opinion.

Another increasingly popular tactic is disenfranchisement. Jewish students and other supporters of Israel are being deprived of their voice through cynical strategies such as holding BDS votes on Jewish holidays or physically intimidating students who are obviously Jewish.

• In 2018, for example, a BDS resolution was passed in City University, London. The vote was held under duress, with Jewish students being poked, jabbed, yelled at and physically intimidated. A similar vote at City University in 2014 was set on a Saturday so religious Jews would not be able to attend.

• At Claremont College, in 2017, the student senate called for a boycott resolution on Passover, when Jewish students were not in attendance.

• One year earlier, the student senate at the University of Indianapolis twice discussed the issue of BDS, both times on Shabbat; and a similar body at Portland State University found Yom Kippur and Shmini Atzeret preferred dates to discuss the Jewish state.

• And, Tufts University’s student senate, also in 2017, passed a boycott resolution the day before Passover, with many Jewish students already home for the holiday. This case is important, because it fired up alumni, involving ACF in its early stages, and generated censure from Tuft’s Trustees.

PERHAPS EVEN more disturbing, students are being unfairly treated not only by their peers, but also by some faculty. While faculty members are entitled to their political views, as disagreeable as they may be, it is vital to the academic mission that they not use their position as whips to control students’ views.

As noted above, this is exactly what a professor and instructor at the University of Michigan did by refusing to write letters of recommendation for students who wished to study in Israel.

The power disparity between student and professor is obvious, and such actions have a chilling effect on the greater community. Professors are provided with a platform by the university. Self-righteous political actions on that platform may feed the professors’ need to feel virtuous, but they are a form of bullying and stifling of opinion – not to mention an abdication of their professional responsibilities, which include writing references for students who have earned them.

Intimidating self-righteousness is a key to understanding this issue. It has the ability to create a façade of acceptance. People tend to be quiet when confronted with the threat of violence, particularly when framed as social justice; and it is easy to misjudge silence as agreement. BDS on college campuses often takes the role of the bully in the name of victimhood, while trying to co-opt the social justice movement in its fight against Israel.

With opposition silenced, students and faculty are robbed of the chance to engage in intellectually honest discourse about the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Think about your average college student. Who would want to put themselves in this position by openly supporting Israel?

Yes, some stand up – such as Talia Katz’s recent piece in the New York Daily News, but many will avoid the subject for self-preservation.

The Academy stands for something much better.

College alumni, up until the launch of ACF, were largely an untapped source in combating the toxic BDS narrative. Now, when we witness activists on campus hijacking the educational system in order to push a one-sided agenda for political gain, many of us realize it is time to take a stand.

At Oberlin, Vassar, UCLA, Dartmouth, Michigan, Columbia and many other schools , alumni are joining together, moving ACF’s mission forward. We are steadily growing and making an impact.

ACF is not about shutting off criticism of Israel and its policies. We simply disagree with an ideology that has appointed itself the sole arbiter of both social justice and how one evaluates the complex story of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Openness and discussion count – silencing one’s adversaries and promoting antisemitism must go. At its core, ACF is not really pro-Israel, it’s pro-Academy.

If you have never heard of us, now you have.

Alums for Campus Fairness may be relatively new on the block, but we continue to grow, spreading our mission from coast to coast and beyond. We strive never to let our constituents down as we continue to change the dynamics on campus from exclusion and bullying to robust, informed and respectful debate.

Alumni want their alma maters to be places of learning, with fact-based conversations over differences. We simply want Vassar to be Vassar, Dartmouth to be Dartmouth, and UCLA to be UCLA.

It is not asking too much.

If you are interested in learning more about Alums for Campus Fairness, or contacting Avi Gordon, our Executive Director, visit us at https://www.campusfairness.org/


Mark Banschick, MD is a child and adolescent psychiatrist, with a practice in Katonah, New York. He is the author of The Intelligent Divorce book series, blogs regularly for Psychology Today, and is a co-founder of Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF), a StandWithUs non-profit that mobilizes alumni to improve campus life, with an emphasis on a marketplace of ideas, civility and confronting antisemitism.

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