Our polarized era tests the resolve of those, like me, who lead a university. We urge our students to engage in reasoned debate, but the rancor of the times may turn dialogue on contested topics into a minefield. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been among the most volatile issues at UCLA, but that volatility cannot prevent us from addressing it.
This weekend, Students for Justice in Palestine, one of 1,200 UCLA student organizations, plans to host a national conference on our campus. Some students, community members and even the Los Angeles City Council, concerned by anti-Semitic statements made by some SJP members around the country, have demanded that UCLA cancel the event. In the weeks since the mass shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, those calls to cancel only increased. The conference, however, will go on, and it is important to explain why.
On both routine academic matters and controversial issues, the overwhelming majority of university leaders — and that includes me — strive to preserve the rights of all sides to speak and be heard. At the same time, we recognize the often existential impact of emotionally charged debates about issues like the Mideast conflict, immigration, affirmative action and abortion. Preserving the right to speak about such issues does not validate the content of that speech. All too often affording a group their constitutional rights is falsely perceived as an institutional endorsement of their message.
It remains an awkward reality that our constitutional system, and democracy’s commitment to open debate, demand that Americans allow speech we may oppose.
In this case, I have fundamental disagreements with SJP, which has called for boycott against and divestment in Israel, actions that stigmatize that nation and label it a pariah state. The attempt to ostracize Israeli thinkers, and to declare off-limits even discussion with Israeli academics runs contrary to the values of inclusion, debate and discussion that are crucial to any university.
Those values underpin the University of California’s “Principles Against Intolerance,” adopted in 2016. Even though our nation’s laws protect speech tainted by bias, stereotypes, prejudice and intolerance, the principles stress the need for mutual respect during debate in order to advance UC’s mission. The principles also warn about the dangers of anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism, in which criticism of Israel morphs into hostility against Jewish people.
When SJP announced its intention to hold its national conference at UCLA, the university recognized its legal right to do so. Much of what will be said at that conference may be deeply objectionable — even personally hurtful — to those who believe that a complex conflict is being reduced to a one-sided caricature, or see a double standard that demonizes the world’s only Jewish state while other countries receive less condemnation for dreadful behavior. Indeed, there is fear among some that the conference will be infused with anti-Semitic rhetoric.
There is no easy way to resolve that discomfort. It remains an awkward reality that our constitutional system, and democracy’s commitment to open debate, demand that Americans allow speech we may oppose and even defend the rights of those who might not defend ours. That proud, yet difficult, tradition goes back to John Adams serving as lawyer for the British soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre. It also extends to our colleges and universities today.
I am disturbed by the rising tide of anti-Semitism in the United States and the world. I believe every American must condemn the religious bigotry and racial animus that too often infects our politics. Ultimately, we must combat speech that is distasteful with more and better speech. If universities can find ways to rise above the current rancor and if our students in particular can model our values, then that may well provide the very best hope for our future.
Gene D. Block is the chancellor of UCLA.
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