Do Jews play too nice on college campuses?

In September, Columbia University invited Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad of Malaysia to speak as part of its World Leaders Forum.

CONNECT WITH them. Students walk outside the Library of Columbia University in New York. (photo credit: REUTERS)
CONNECT WITH them. Students walk outside the Library of Columbia University in New York.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
College campuses have become notorious for speakers being shouted down by a seemingly endless parade of offended groups. However, there is one area where those who seek to offend are virtually guaranteed that they will have their say: antisemites, especially those who seek to vilify and destroy Israel.
To date, the overwhelming response of Jewish students to these provocations has been to challenge, sometimes protest, but not to shout down or disrupt events that are deeply offensive to them. This is the right stance but one that may be increasingly debated as Jewish students and their parents become more concerned about the hostile environments they face.
In September, Columbia University invited Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad of Malaysia to speak as part of its World Leaders Forum, despite Mahathir’s proudly self-proclaimed antisemitism which has included repeating age-old stereotypes about Jews and money, questioning historical facts about the Holocaust and blaming economic downturns on George Soros.
Three pro-Israel groups on campus – Students Supporting Israel, Aryeh and J Street U – voiced their concerns about Mahathir’s visit to university president Lee Bollinger in a letter. The organizations said they did not expect the university to cancel the address but that “it ought to show its Jewish students that it cares about their safety.”
In many ways, the students’ approach was admirable: They let their views be known, and the event itself went on without disruption. However, the effect of their letter was to telegraph that Columbia would be on safe ground while hosting the antisemitic leader. This is a peace of mind the university would not have enjoyed when sponsoring virtually any other bigot.
Similarly, in October, the University of Illinois student government decided that it needed to opine that anti-Zionism should not be equated with antisemitism. Again, it is reasonable to believe that the student government of this university, or any other, would not have had the arrogance to explain to another group what it should or should not be offended by. The reaction of the hundreds of Jewish students who were observing the proceedings was to walk out and attend a vigil for victims of antisemitism but, again, the meeting was not disrupted.
It is inevitable that a critique soon will develop among students and the pro-Israel community that the Jews are playing too nice. By not adopting the more aggressive tactics of others, some will argue, Jewish students are allowing, perhaps encouraging, the antisemites to control the campus conversation while Jews become more fearful and Israel supporters are intimidated.
This is not merely an academic question; it strikes a deeply emotive cord among many because it hearkens back to debates about the nature of the Jewish response to threats that spans millennium.
Nonetheless, not copying the censorious acts of others is the right thing to do because it is consistent with the best traditions of the American academy that have profoundly benefited generations of Jewish students. Promoting maximum debate and speech also is consistent with values deeply rooted in Jewish culture and goes to the heart of the Talmudic tradition.
Campus administrators must do more to support the students who are actually playing by the purported rules of the game. They could, as I have suggested before, start calling out in a positive manner, spotlighting and giving awards to students, Jewish and non-Jewish, who, in the face of all types of provocation, actually act as administrators say that they should and let others speak. This would serve as a useful signal to others about the importance of supporting free speech.
University administrators should be under no illusion that the failure of Jewish students to disrupt is the end of the story. There is a palpable dismay and increasing disillusionment among the Jewish community about higher education, despite Jews being both major beneficiaries and supporters of colleges and universities.
It is time for administrators and faculty to take the increasingly hostile environment that Jewish students face seriously and go beyond the pro forma campus-wide email expressing remorse after an event occurs. In the long-term, the academy cannot afford to lose any more supporters.
The writer is president of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He was previously president and CEO of the Newseum.