At Bowdoin College, holding parties with sombreros and tequila is deemed to be an act of prejudice against Mexicans. At Emory, the chalking of an endorsement of the likely Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, on a sidewalk is deemed to require a review of security tapes. The existence of a college named after a widely admired former U.S. president has been condemned at Princeton, under the duress of a student occupation. At Yale, Halloween costumes are the subject of administrative edict. The dean of Harvard Law School has acknowledged that hers is a racist institution, while the freshman dean at Harvard College has used dinner place mats to propagandize the student body on aspects of diversity. Professors acquiesce as students insist that they not be exposed to views on issues, such as abortion, that make them uncomfortable.
As I have discussed in the past, this is in my view inconsistent with basic American values of free speech and open debate. It fails to recognize that a proper liberal education should cause moments of acute discomfort as cherished beliefs are challenged.
But, if comfort is elevated to be a preeminent value, the standard should be applied universally. Unfortunately, there is a clear exception made on most university campuses for anti-Semitic speech and acts.
The State Department has made clear that it regards demonizing Israel or “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” as anti-Semitism. This makes obvious good sense. Does anyone doubt that applying standards to African countries that were not applied to other countries or singling them out for sanction when other non-African countries were guilty of much greater sins would be deemed racism?
Instances of anti-Semitism by this standard are ubiquitous in American academic life. Nearly a dozen academic associations have enacted formal boycotts of Israeli institutions and in some cases Israeli scholars. Student governments at dozens of universities have demanded the divestiture of companies that do business in Israel or the West Bank. Guest speakers and even some faculty in their classrooms compare Israel to Nazi Germany and question its right to continued existence as a Jewish state.
Yet, with very few exceptions, university leaders who are so quick to stand up against microagressions against other groups remain silent in the face of anti-Semitism. Indeed, many major American universities, including Harvard, remain institutional members of associations that are engaged in boycotts of Israel. The idea of divesting Israel is opposed only in the same way that divesting apartheid South Africa was opposed — as an inappropriate intrusion into politics, not as immoral or anti-Semitic.
That is why the recent statement of the University of California Board of Regents is so welcome. It is forceful and clear on anti-Semitism, while recognizing the importance of free speech. It holds that “Anti-Semitism, anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California." Let us hope that similar statements will be made by the leaders of private and public universities across the country.
More from Lawrence Summers on Wonkblog: