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Sunday, January 28, 2024

Swarthmore Redux

Howard and I are not going to agree about some aspects of Swarthmore President Valerie Smith's statement, which is one of the things that makes blogging worthwhile. But perhaps we can bridge some of our differences by adding needed clarity. Smith wrote, 

All of us must consider what it means to truly be part of this community and how our words affect each other. For instance, chanting “from the river to the sea” is heard by many as antisemitic and a direct threat against Jews. Referring to Arabs or Muslims as “terrorists” or “jihadists” is Islamophobic and anti-Arab. Such rhetoric is simply unacceptable and I condemn it. 

Howard seems to think that this amounted to an intention to suppress such chants:

That something is "heard" as antisemitic or Islamophobic is irrelevant--antisemitic or Islamophobic speech is (in most contexts) protected.

That is a misreading. Smith was instead calling for civility, not threatening punishment, as have other university leaders, including Harvard's former president Claudine Gay:

At the same time, our community must understand that phrases such as “from the river to the sea” bear specific historical meanings that to a great many people imply the eradication of Jews from Israel and engender both pain and existential fears within our Jewish community. I condemn this phrase and any similarly hurtful phrases.

Northwestern's Michael Schill

I call on all members of our community to use our collective voices to emphatically reject statements or banners that significant parts of our community interpret as promoting murder and genocide. This includes flying flags associated with Hamas and banners with the slogan “From the River to the Sea.”

And the deans of all 17 faculties at Columbia:

Yet, when language fails to bring us together, we should still strive to acknowledge the genuine hurt felt by others: acknowledge that hearing chanted phrases such as “by any means necessary,” “from the river to the sea,” or calls for an “intifada”—irrespective of intentions and provenance—is experienced by many Jewish, Israeli, and other members of our community as antisemitic and deeply hurtful; acknowledge that the fear of being labeled as antisemitic or as a supporter of terrorism for expressing anguish about the loss of Palestinian lives in Gaza or the West Bank makes people fearful for expressing their concerns. . . . Even when language breaks down, the grace of compassionate engagement should be extended to all members of our community in equal measure.

The antisemitic, hateful, or racist impact of speech is far from "irrelevant" on a university campus, even when constitutionally protected. After all, "Jews Will Not Replace Us" was constitutionally protected when shouted at a Charlottesville synagogue by torchbearing racists, but surely Howard would agree if President Smith (or anyone else) were to say that "Such rhetoric is simply unacceptable and I condemn it."

Posted by Steve Lubet on January 28, 2024 at 05:56 PM | Permalink


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