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With regularity, campuses in the United States debate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- and with regularity, many of those debates degenerate. Students on all sides accuse opponents of creating one-sided programs, of engaging in inflammatory or bigoted rhetoric, of protesting in ways that squelch free speech. This spring, for example, a Jewish former student sued the University of California at Berkeley, saying that it had failed to protect her from an attack with a shopping cart by a pro-Palestinian student. On the other side of the country, the Zionist Organization of America filed a complaint with Rutgers University, saying that it was failing to prevent "anti-Semitism, Israel-bashing and violent threats."

On Monday, leaders of the American Association of University Professors and the American Jewish Committee issued a letter that urges greater scrutiny for claims that anti-Israel statements and activities on campuses amount to illegal intimidation of Jewish students. In particular, the letter says that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- which bars discrimination by organizations receiving federal funds -- is not generally a tool for resolving such disputes.

Such complaints have been used to "seek to silence anti-Israel discourse and speakers. This approach is not only unwarranted under Title VI, it is dangerous," says the letter. The authors are Cary Nelson, president of the AAUP, and Kenneth Stern, director of the American Jewish Committee’s program on anti-Semitism and extremism.

The statement notes that "[u]niversities can do many other things to combat bigotry, from surveying students to see if and how they are experiencing bigotry, to offering courses on why and how people hate, to bringing in outside scholars and others to speak on relevant topics. Title VI is a remedy when university leadership neglects its job to stop bigoted harassment of students; it is not a tool to define 'politically correct' campus speech."

While "anti-Semitism should be treated with the same seriousness as other forms of bigotry," the letter says that by "trying to censor anti-Israel remarks, it becomes more, not less, difficult to tackle both anti-Semitism and anti-Israel dogma. The campus debate is changed from one of exposing bigotry to one of protecting free speech, and the last thing pro-Israel advocates need is a reputation for censoring, rather than refuting, their opponents."

The letter suggests that campuses differentiate anti-Israel rhetoric (however strong or offensive) from anti-Semitism by applying a "working definition" of anti-Semitism drafted by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. The definition notes that expressions of hatred toward Jews as being collectively responsible for Israel may well be anti-Semitic, as are comparisons of Israel to Nazi Germany. But the definition adds that "criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic."

Nelson, in an interview, said that he felt the letter was needed because of the number of incidents in which campuses have debated whether anti-Israel activities have created a "hostile environment" for Jewish students. He stressed that he is generally skeptical of "hostile environment" claims about all groups, not just Jewish students. And he said that he was not endorsing the kinds of statements that generate claims of hostile environment.

When "the use of one word" can create a claim of hostile environment, Nelson said, "it's damaging to free speech." He also warned (speaking for himself, not the letter) that even situations like those cited in the European Union statement may not always be anti-Semitism. For instance, he said that it has become "relatively commonplace" on campuses to compare Israel and Nazi Germany -- a comparison he rejects. But he added that "sometimes these comparisons represent crude emotionalism, sometimes they represent sloppy history. sometimes they represent bombast, and sometimes provocation. So I can't take an instance of that and say it always represents anti-Semitism."

Sam Edelman, executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (a pro-Israel group), said he viewed the AAUP statement as "a beginning point" for discussing these issues, and that he welcomed the letter for that reason.

Edelman said that "criticism of Israel should be acceptable, just as criticism of every country should be acceptable."

But he said that he thought the letter "understates the depth and breadth of anti-Israel activity" on campus, and the way some of that activity is anti-Jewish. He said that when groups compare Israel to Nazi Germany, he believes that "crosses a line" past debate into anti-Semitism. Further, he said that when groups on campus focus on Israel alone, and ignore the human rights issues in every other country, people should question whether that is simply debate or "hate" focused on specific groups.

Edelman stressed that it is difficult to generalize about how Jewish students feel, but that "increasing numbers" report that they feel attacked for speaking out in defense of Israel or intimidated from doing so. "And many feel that administrators aren't doing anything about it."

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