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College Campuses Weigh Free Speech vs. Anti-Semitism

Supporters of the 'BDS', Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement protest for lifting the Gaza blockade and to boycott the 2019 Eurovision Song Contest, outside the venue where the contest final will take place, in Tel Aviv, Israel, Saturday, May 18, 20

A recent presidential executive order declaring Judaism a nationality has further divided campus groups that either support or denounce Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

While the Trump administration says its Dec. 11 order targets anti-Semitism on campus, critics say it threatens free speech and the right to protest against the Israeli government. Anti-Semitism is hostility to or prejudice against Jews.

"If the government thinks it can sanction educational institutions for permitting students to say things like, 'I oppose Israel's West Bank settlements,' or 'Israel's treatment of Arabs is racist,' and say that the students who say those things are discriminating against Jews as a race, color, or national origin group, well, then the government is nuts," said Don Herzog, First Amendment expert and professor at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor School of Law.

Herzog was referencing student and campus movements that oppose Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and Israeli settlements, such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS). SJP started at the University of California-Berkeley in 1993, and has more than 80 chapters in the U.S. and Canada. BDS was started on the West Bank in 2007 and has spread to college campuses in the U.S. and worldwide.

Those who support the executive order lauded U.S. President Donald Trump.

"We appreciate @realDonaldTrump's decision to give the @usedgov the authority to counter discrimination against Jewish students," the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel lobbying group in the U.S., said in a Dec. 11 tweet.

The order will "recognize the importance of the problem" and gives "the Jewish people and the land of Israel large-scale recognition and acceptance, something President Trump should be commended for," said Syracuse University student Katie Berman.

Student Sari Leff, a senior at the University of Georgia, saw it differently.

"It may end up inciting more hatred and violence than we are already seeing. … The executive order feels incredibly inauthentic," Leff said. "The intention appears to be to criminalize criticism of Israel rather than protect the safety of American Jews on college campuses."

On college campuses, hate crimes increased from 862 to 1,070 between 2015 and 2016, a 25% increase, and continues to climb, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which analyzed FBI data of hate crimes on college campuses.

Increased awareness

Some people, including Trump, say the BDS movement has led to anti-Semitism because it has increased awareness about the conflict between the Israeli and Palestinian governments. On its website, the Anti-Defamation League, an international pro-Jewish and Israel nongovernmental organization, said, "The founding goals of the BDS movement and many of the strategies used by BDS campaigns are anti-Semitic."

An Indiana University fraternity was suspended Dec. 15 because of anti-Semitic and racist slurs. The Intrafraternity Council stated it is investigating the "disturbing increase of alleged anti-Semitic incidents," according to University of Indiana's student-run newspaper Indiana Daily Student.

Syracuse University suspended a fraternity's social activities Nov. 20 because of anti-Semitic events, including swastika graffiti.

BDS supporters push back on these depictions.

"The purpose of BDS is to fight for human rights, and is not about hostility or discrimination against the ethnic or national identity of the people of Israel," said Ramin Zareian, a junior at the University of Georgia and a campus BDS organizer.

"We want to use BDS and explain what it is, and talk about how it can be used to protest Israeli goods, lobbyists and right-wing supporters," said Jojo Darazim, vice president of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at University of Georgia.

Cut contracts

Shelby Shoup, president of SJP at Florida State University, said the group is "pressuring Florida State University to cut contracts with companies that profit from Israeli occupation" and that they "fight for Palestinian dignity and freedom" with BDS.

The liberal nonprofit Jewish advocacy group J Street, however, said in a statement it believes "the prime driver of anti-Semitism in this country is the xenophobic, white nationalist far-right" and called the order "misguided," "harmful" and "cynical."

"If President Trump truly wanted to address the scourge of anti-Semitism he helped to create, he would accept responsibility for his role emboldening white nationalism, perpetuating anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, and repeating stereotypes," said Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America in the organization's press release, which also called the order "the height of hypocrisy."

The executive order could allow the U.S. Department of Education to deny funding to schools that receive federal funding if they are perceived as discriminating "on the basis of race, color, and national origin," as stated by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The U.S. State Department's example on their website for anti-Semitism says "manifestations might include the targeting of the state of Israel."