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Not in Our Name

Politicians are using the rise in antisemitism as an excuse to curtail free speech and expand their own power. Jews must not let them.

The Editors
May 03, 2024



Free speech is not a divisible concept. Either everyone is free to say what they want, no matter how noxious others find it, in order to create and sustain the free market of ideas—or else speech isn’t free.

Institutions that curtail speech—that make people’s social media postings grounds for expulsion, that ban or suppress speakers they disagree with, that penalize dissenting opinions in classrooms and workplaces with bad grades and HR reports—should not be allowed to then turn around and invoke the principles of free speech to defend problematic speech with which they happen to agree, let alone disruptive or illegal behavior.

And yet, recent years have seen the emergence of two different speech regimes, one for alleged oppressors and one for the allegedly oppressed. Huge swaths of often innocent speech by the former is deemed out of bounds, even criminal, whereas any speech coming out of the mouth of someone with a claim to victim status—including speech that actively incites violence—is considered sacrosanct.

As a result, there is now a great deal of confusion about freedom of speech, which is a very basic—and very central—principle of American history and society. For those interested in being de-confused, which we humbly submit should be all thinking American citizens, herewith: a primer.

Let’s begin with some basic facts.

There is no exception for hate speech in the Constitution. It is not, according to the Constitution of the United States of America, illegal to misgender someone, or call them a dirty kike or a pig, or tell them you want them to be shipped back to Africa, or say that the State of Israel has “no right to exist,” or that all women are nasty hookers who play men for money. Those statements might rightfully earn you the disgust of those around you, as well as exclusion from any number of personal and professional opportunities, or access to private institutions and spaces. But they are not unlawful, and no governmental authority has the standing to penalize you for making or believing them—in the privacy of your home, in the public square, or on the open internet.

That includes Congress, which is made up of elected officials. Americans have radically lowered our standards for what we expect of this class of people, but we think we can all draw a line at a basic understanding of the Bill of Rights. The fact that a word or idea is annoying or upsetting to you—or us!—does not make it illegal.

As soon as the heavy hand of the government enters the game, it can easily turn into a fist.

This includes the phrase “From the river to the sea,” which the House of Representatives voted to condemn last month. This is wrong. No citizen of America, Jewish or not, should support the condemnation of speech by those whose conditional authority is entrusted to them by the people. You are American citizens! However noxious your beliefs, as long as they stay beliefs, they should be none of the business of the government.

H.R. 6090, the bipartisan bill that passed the House of Representatives this week, is technically more sound—and a lot of the emotionally unstable criticism of the bill (hi, Tucker) appears to come from people who haven’t bothered to actually read it. If they had, they would understand that the bill mandates that, in investigating complaints against universities accused of antisemitism under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Department of Education should use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of “antisemitism.”

This does not, as keyboard warriors would have it, expand the definition of antisemitism to include any and all criticism of the State of Israel. Instead, what the bill establishes is that—in the context of guidance in the enforcement of current anti-discrimination laws, to help assess discriminatory intent—simply substituting the words “Zionist” or “Israel” for the word “Jew” or “Jews” when making insane accusations about harvesting the organs of children or controlling the international banking system does not prima facie absolve someone of accusations of antisemitism. This is a semantic move used mainly by antisemites who attend, or who graduated from, fancy universities. Here’s the situation this bill prevents:

  • “Jews control the world and want to kill all people of color” = bad.
  • “Zionists control the world and want to kill all people of color” = fine.

These two statements obviously could have something in common! To argue otherwise is childish, bordering on insane. A fuller example, courtesy of George Mason law professor David Bernstein: “A Campus Hillel keeps getting its room reservation requests denied by Dean Smith. Dean Smith claims that it’s just a series of coincidences. Dean Smith also ends all his campus emails with ‘Free Palestine, Death to Israel.’ Even though it doesn’t say ‘Jews’ anywhere, it’s obvious potential evidence of that Hillel being denied rooms wasn’t really a series of coincidences.”

And again, none of these statements may end up being sufficient to establish intent at all. What this new legislation proposes is for it now to be admissible. On this narrow point, we are—technically—in agreement with the bill.

Our objection, however—and it is an important one—is to the broader edifice of speech-policing of which this bill is a part.

The 1964 Civil Rights Act was a landmark for America. Emerging from a status quo of overt racial inequality under the law, and following a decadelong campaign of fiery resistance by Southern politicians and institutions to enforcing Supreme Court rulings that declared the Jim Crow system of legalized segregation by race to be illegal, it was entirely reasonable—and in some places, necessary—to position the federal government as the arbiter of whether institutions were, in fact, attempting to flout the law and preserve segregation. The ills that Title VI was designed to redress were anything but subtle. Attempts to systematically relegate African American students to separate and inferior facilities, or to deny them admission to professional schools, or to frighten them off campus with mobs and nooses, were not micro-aggressions.

Which is why to suggest that America in 2024 is still America in 1964 is a radically bizarre misapprehension of reality. Aside from trivializing the real obstacles, and real heroism, of America’s civil rights trailblazers, it also has the Orwellian effect of using what was intended as a means of expanding human freedom into a tool for destroying it.

The arc of censorship is long, but it bends toward Hamilton Hall.

This legacy is now being used to justify wide-scale surveillance and repression of dissenting opinions into a new and entirely creepy form of governance called a “whole-of-society approach”: “Individuals, civil society and companies shape interactions in society, and their actions can harm or foster integrity in their communities. A whole-of-society approach asserts that as these actors interact with public officials and play a critical role in setting the public agenda and influencing public decisions, they also have a responsibility to promote public integrity.”

What this looks like in practice is something that every American should be alarmed and repelled by: A small group of powerful people are now using public-private partnerships to silence the Constitution, censor ideas they don’t like, deny their opponents access to banking, credit, the internet, and other public accommodations. (Here, for the skeptics, is a link to 10 examples of times when Facebook, YouTube, and Amazon passed censorship policies because the government told them to do so.)

When a platform like Facebook, which currently accounts for a staggering third of all traffic to news sources, colludes with the federal government to suppress reporting on COVID-19, say, or when Twitter, a major digital reincarnation of the public square, kicks out an American political candidate for being too extreme while allowing users like the genocidal leader of Iran to remain, the rules have changed. “Bad speech,” an old adage goes, “is best corrected by good speech.” That was true until these public-private fingers hit the scales, making sure that fight couldn’t ever be fair.

Which is precisely why Jews in particular shouldn’t appeal to those powerful players, the government included, for protection. In a world in which people with minority opinions are increasingly subject to the full force of “the whole of government” or “the whole of society” being brought against them by a narrow group of powerful people, we have an existential interest as a people in supporting free speech and constitutional rights for others—on the historically sound principle that they will soon be coming for us.

There are those who argue that the old speech regime isn’t coming back, and like any other group we have to optimize around the one that actually exists. It makes no sense for Jews, they say, to unilaterally disarm in a war that isn’t ending anytime soon or probably ever, so we might as well ask for our own protections, demand our own diversity officers, start our own affinity clubs, and so on.

In addition to killing our souls, this direction also has the disadvantage of not actually working. The government can—and usually does—twist any new office or power it receives such that it permanently serves the opposite of its original purpose, and that these offices never, ever go away, turning your brilliant temporary solution into a source of permanent hostility. A few months ago, we reported that a federal office launched by the George W. Bush administration to help support Israel’s peace efforts was turned into a pipeline for mainstreaming extreme—and fraudulent—anti-Israel rhetoric. As soon as the heavy hand of the government enters the game, it can easily turn into a fist.

This means that we must reject all proposals, even from well-meaning sources, that seek to empower government to address the issue of speech on our behalf—like when New York Congressman Ritchie Torres introduced a bill that would allow the Department of Education to subject universities that receive federal funding to “third-party antisemitism monitors.” Torres is a courageous and smart lawmaker, and no one here doubts that his heart is in the right place. But this is lunacy. No one should support it.

Which brings us back to the megawatt subject of American universities.

Over the past half-century, with increasing intentionality and force, American universities have come to see themselves not as repositories of civilization-sustaining knowledge but as social actors that act independently to shape social values—which they do not by teaching young people how to think, but by telling them what to think.

Abandoning the principles of free inquiry, these institutions turned themselves into factories for conformity and increasingly bizarre, divisive, and hateful doctrines held by the loudest (and often smallest) factions of their faculty.

That’s their choice. Every level of management at these institutions, from their faculties and bloated layers of administrators to the quisling trustees and bumbling presidents who somehow manage to make 30-something-year-old representatives look like Winston Churchill, are all complicit in the rise of antisemitism on campuses—just as they are complicit in charging absurd amounts of money to parents even as they receive endless streams of free cash from the federal government (and foreign ones).

It is their right to continue to try to con you, and it is your right to choose to keep being conned by them.

But these addled institutions, with their increasingly worthless degrees, are now trying to take refuge from rightful criticism for hosting pro-terror encampments—which appear to have been coordinated nationwide by people and organizations outside of their campuses, and who are directly affiliated with Hamas—by citing the constitutional protections of free speech.

After using their administrative powers to scrub free speech and open debate from their own campuses and curricula by imposing extra-constitutional categories like “hate speech” and claiming that “words are violence,” their attempt to hide behind principles that they have spent the past three decades gleefully and purposefully shredding is the height of hypocrisy. The Ivies especially have, almost to a one, become cesspools of hate, teaching garbage to their students, celebrating and hosting terrorists on their campuses, and subjecting Jewish students to vile propaganda and physical attacks—all while suppressing free speech and free inquiry at every chance they could get.

Enter a graduate seminar these days, and you’ll notice right away a strange obsession with language. Academics understand words not as most of us have traditionally understood them—as sharp and useful tools with which to explore reality in all of its complexity—but rather as pagans do, as fetishized, magical spells and incantations that have the power to cause actual harm or bring about real rapture. This is why academic papers overwhelmingly feature such groan-inducing titles like “(Re)membering the Body: A Herstory of Sexual Desire”: If you believe words can actually hurt, you ought to make sure they’re used safely and only by those trained magi who can say the right things in the right order and not upset the angry gods.

Indeed, we might go so far as to argue that everything you’re seeing on college campuses these days—all the madness—in one way or another relates to speech, and these new, mangled ideas of it. The arc of censorship is long, but it bends toward Hamilton Hall.

But these are all reasons to abandon universities. They are not reasons to abandon free speech.

As a people whose secular and religious culture has been founded in the idea of open, often-contentious debate for thousands of years, and as a tiny minority in a pluralistic and increasingly fractious society, Jews have a special—we argue necessary—attachment to free speech. Without it, Jews will become a powerless minority at the mercy of much larger and more powerful groups that historically have found plenty of reasons to hate us, and which have taken active steps to erase us, both spiritually and physically.

Instead, take your once-prestigious, now-embarrassing degrees from these places and burn them on your front lawn. Addiction to the honor and prestige systems of 5, 10, 20 years ago isn’t secretly clever; it’s foolish. The fact that Studio 54 was the height of Manhattan nightlife nearly 50 years ago doesn’t mean that you should take your friends there tomorrow for a glamorous night out.

The wholesale failure of American institutions—including a complex of stellar universities that was the envy of the world—is a tragedy. It is also a great opportunity to build new things. Maybe UATX or New College in Florida is for you. Maybe it’s someplace like the University of North Carolina, whose chancellor, Lee Roberts, at least had the balls to take down the Palestinian terror banner that had been raised over his campus and replace it with the American flag. Or maybe you should take the $350,000 that you were planning to give to some failing “university” for your kid’s education in higher Jew-hatred and buy him a bunch of acres of land, a shelf full of great books, and an online course in smart investing, or basic algebra. You have plenty of options.

The answer is certainly not to give bad-faith actors at universities or the federal government even more power to police speech, in the hope that they will use it to “protect the Jews.” They will not.

The freedom and successes that Jews have enjoyed in America have been due to the protections afforded by our Constitution, and the respect for individual rights that became part of our culture. The most legitimate tax we owe—to each other, to our fellow citizens, and to those who fought for our right as Americans to say whatever the fuck we want—is the work we are asked to put in, day in and day out, to protect that freedom.

That’s where our strength lies. Don’t lose sight of it. 🇺🇸

From the editors of Tablet Magazine.