No prejudice allowed on campus – unless it’s against Israel?


It has seemed to me that a double standard regarding what constitutes prejudice exists on American college campuses. There is hypersensitivity to prejudice against most minority groups but hyper-insensitivity to anti-Semitism.

At Bowdoin College, holding parties with sombreros and tequila is deemed to be an act of prejudice against Mexicans. At Emory, the chalking of an endorsement of the likely Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, on a sidewalk required a review of security tapes. The existence of a college named after a widely admired former U.S. president has been condemned at Princeton, under the duress of a student occupation. The dean of Harvard Law School has acknowledged that hers is a racist institution, while the freshman dean at Harvard College has used dinner place mats to propagandize the student body on aspects of diversity. Professors acquiesce as students insist that they not be exposed to views on issues that make them uncomfortable.

This is inconsistent with basic American values of free speech and open debate. It fails to recognize that a proper liberal education should cause moments of acute discomfort as beliefs are challenged.

But if comfort is elevated to be a preeminent value, the standard should be applied universally. Unfortunately, there is a clear exception made on most university campuses for anti-Semitic speech and acts.

The State Department regards demonizing Israel or "applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation" as anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism by this standard is ubiquitous in American academic life. Nearly a dozen academic associations have enacted formal boycotts of Israeli institutions and in some cases Israeli scholars. Universities’ student governments have demanded the divestiture of companies that do business in Israel or the West Bank. Guest speakers and some faculty compare Israel to Nazi Germany and question its right to continued existence as a Jewish state.

Yet, with few exceptions, university leaders who are otherwise so quick to stand up against microagressions remain silent in the face of anti-Semitism. Indeed, many major American universities remain institutional members of associations engaged in boycotts of Israel. The idea of divesting Israel is opposed only as an intrusion into politics, not as immoral or anti-Semitic.

That is why the recent statement of the University of California Board of Regents is so welcome. It is forceful on anti-Semitism, while recognizing the importance of free speech. It says, "Anti-Semitism, anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California." Let us hope similar statements will be made by leaders of universities across the country.

Lawrence H. Summers, the Charles W. Eliot university professor at Harvard, is a former treasury secretary.