Zionists out of CUNY: Jewish exclusion and the politics of “safe space”

There is a problem on American and  British campuses, a problem that is all too reminiscent of the McCarthy era or even the fascist book burnings of the 1930s. Jewish students are being metaphorically excluded from something called “safe space,” and there is a danger the metaphor will become a literal reality.

Safe space originated in the 1970s with the rise of identity and gender politics. The idea behind safe space is that people of all identities are entitled to a tolerant environment to express who they are. But judging from the rhetoric and behaviour of some students, the practise of safe space is not extended to Jews who risk being demonised as politically incorrect persons.  

Lately, many gay, transgender, black and Muslim students have been urging university administrators to keep them “safe” from ideas they don’t agree with. And they demand “trigger warnings” before certain issues are debated.

Visiting speakers and academics are sometimes “no-platformed” in case they upset or offend students. Pro-Israel speakers are slandered, abused, interrupted, even barred by pro-Palestinian students. By contrast, speakers who are openly anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist and sympathetic to Islamist terrorism (such as Hezbollah’s Ibrahim Mousawi) are welcomed with open arms. 

Students are becoming increasingly infantile and menacing (two aspects of the hybrid known as the “cry bully”). They are intolerant of ideas they don’t like, but they simultaneously demand that their intolerance is tolerated. Disturbingly, it is often the same students who claim safe space for themselves who harass and intimidate Jews.

At a recent rally calling for free tuition, student protesters at City University of New York (CUNY) chanted for “Zionists” to be excluded from the institution.

As retired Harvard University law professor Alan Dershowitz pointed out, when CUNY protestors chant “Zionist,” they mean “Jew.” Indeed, university officials were forced to apologise for anti-Semitic statements made by students during the rally.

The “Zionists out of CUNY” chants followed a Facebook petition issued by Students for Justice in Palestine. The petition attributed the financial plight of students to CUNY’s “Zionist administration” that “hosts [Jewish] birthright programs and study abroad programs in occupied Palestine [Israel], and reproduces settler-colonial ideology … through Zionist content of education.”

The phrase “Zionist content of education” is not just nonsensical and absurd, it is an outright anti-Semitic slander.

Given the climate of hostility towards Jews on campuses and the totalitarian mindset of many left-wing and Muslim students, it is only a matter of time until such students call for an end to “Jewish privilege.” They will argue that by reason of association with Israel, Jewish identity is politically incorrect and that being Jewish is a kind of “identity aggression.”

And then they will demand that ALL Jewish students, lecturers and administrators (whether they support Israel or not) are banned from campuses.

That is already the implication and the direction of travel. In other words, safe space on campuses not only excludes Jews, it could actually lead to attempts by student organisers to literally exclude Jews from academic life.  

(In contrast, the sensitivities of Muslim students are protected to an absurd degree. Student authorities at University College London recently prevented a talk by a man who fought against Islamic State. And last year, the National Union of Students rejected a motion condemning Isis because it might offend Muslims.)

Joanna Williams of Kent University’s Enhancement of Learning and Teaching unit, who has written about politics on campus, says that “censorship powers are being used more often and against a wider variety of targets.”

And Dennis Hayes, professor of education at the University of Derby and founder of Academics for Academic Freedom, says that universities are increasingly afraid of upsetting students: “Universities don’t want to be associated with views which aren’t part of the moral consensus.”

Moreover, universities are driven by commercial concerns. If fee-paying students demand to be treated like customers who expect a certain type of service from their campus administrators, then it is likely that universities will capitulate to their political demands in order to keep the money rolling in.

As things stand, university authorities are already quite bad when it comes to dealing with anti-Semitism on campus. Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi, has spoken of the intimidation of Jewish students in Britain as “part of a long, slow, insidious process intended to undermine academic freedom and it must not be tolerated.”

A couple of examples from Britain: In May 2011 the University and College Union voted overwhelmingly to disassociate itself from the EU’s working definition of anti-Semitism, which prompted Jewish leaders to condemn the body as “institutionally racist.”

And in 2013, a survey revealed that Jewish students at the prestigious University of Edinburgh in Scotland faced a “toxic atmosphere” in which they were forced to hide their identity and were quitting courses “in despair” following anti-Israel demonstrations.

Dershowitz believes that “the fog of fascism is descending quickly” over many universities.

“We are seeing a curtain of McCarthyism descend over many college campuses,” says Dershowitz.  “We have to remember it was the college students who first started burning books during the Nazi regime. And these students are book burners. They don’t want to hear diverse views on college campuses.”

In other words, the suppression of debate not only erodes academic freedom, it also prevent the free exchange of ideas, which is crucial if age-old prejudices such as anti-Semitism are to be challenged. And if students are unable to tolerate ideas that are considered “unsafe,” how are they going to cope when it comes to tolerating and living among other people, such as Jews?

That is a question for debate. Unfortunately, some debates are just too sensitive for today’s students.