The ongoing violence and discord of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has upended, and ended, the lives of countless people in the Middle East. But as is perhaps inevitable in any conflict of this duration taking place along massive political and religious fault lines, the negative effects are hardly limited to the region.
On American campuses, a partisan-driven proxy war is underway, and it is disrupting the educations and careers of college students and faculty members.
It’s time to admit that the conflict playing out on our campuses is having a destructive effect on free speech and academic freedom here at home that outweighs the negligible impact this conflict in the United States might be having on Middle Eastern politics.
The most recent skirmish in this conflict involves Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill, who was fired as a CNN contributor after he used the phrase “a free Palestine from the river to the sea” in a speech to a United Nations gathering.
Many people associate“from the river to the sea,” a phrase that has been used by Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization, with calls for the destruction of Israel. But Hill stated afterward that he was not calling for violence against Israelis or Jews, and that he had been expressing “my belief in radical change within Israel, not a desire for its destruction.”
The president of Temple, which is a public institution bound by First Amendment guarantees of free speech, issued a statement defending the tenured professor’s right to speak. Calls for Hill’s firing from Temple quickly followed, with one group demanding he be fired for being a “major bigot and hater.”
Soon afterward, the chairman of Temple’s board said he had directed the university’s legal staff to look for “remedies” that might be taken to address Hill’s use of “hate speech.”
Groups supporting Hill promptly signed a letter asserting that critics’ “policing” of his speech was motivated by racism.
All week long, the brickbats continued as more joined the fray, with everyone seemingly angry at everyone else. On Tuesday, the Temple board condemned Hill’s remarks but expressed support of his right to free speech.
The Hill controversy is only the latest in a string of these destructive incidents.
In October, a professor at the University of Michigan refused to write a recommendation letter for a student to study in Israel because of the professor’s support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel.
Elsewhere, pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian speakers have been uninvited from events. Students on both sides of the debate complain that they have been harassed or silenced by their peers, which has led to legislative and regulatory efforts that would compound the problem by putting some political speech out of bounds.
People are, of course, free to demand that their opponents be silenced, though those in authority are not free to grant those requests. But if the right to free speech is to mean anything, it has to mean that a public university professor cannot be fired for making controversial comments on public issues, and that speakers will not be censored or harassed for expressing their views on an issue of public concern. Likewise, students deserve a campus environment where they can freely discuss these issues and fully take advantage of educational opportunities.
Yet the fervor over Israeli/Palestinian issues leads too many to push these principles to the wayside in the pursuit of “victories” that are highly unlikely to make any difference in the outcome of the Middle Eastern dispute.
Meanwhile, they certainly worsen the atmosphere for free speech and academic freedom here at home — as both sides would immediately recognize if their positions were reversed.
Robert Shibley and Samantha Harris are, respectively, the executive director and the vice president for procedural advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, thefire.org).