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An “Israel Exception” Seems to be Emerging when It Comes to Free Speech and Academic Freedom

Allan C. Brownfeld
Special Interest Report
December 2014

Freedom of speech and academic freedom seem to be under attack when it comes  
to criticism of the Israeli govern¬ment and its policies. Some believe that  
there is an “Israel Exception” to free speech emerging at many colleges and  
In response to an op-ed about anti-Semitism in Europe, the Rev. Bruce M.  
Shipman, Episcopal chaplain at Yale Univer¬sity wrote a letter to the New  
York Times (Aug. 26, 2014). Commenting on an article which had previously  
appeared, the letter states: “Deborah Lipstadt makes far too little of the  
relationship between Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza and growing  
anti-Semitism in Europe and beyond. The trend to which she alludes parallels  
the carnage in Gaza over the last five years, not to mention the perpetually  
stalled peace talks and the continuing occupation of the West Bank.”  
The concluding paragraph declares: “As hope for a two-state solution fades  
and Palestinian casualties continue to mount, the best antidote to anti-  
Semitism would be for Israel’s patrons abroad to press the govern¬ment of  
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for final-status resolution in the  
Palestinian question.”  
For this three-paragraph letter saying that Israel’s “carnage” in Gaza is a  
factor in growing anti-Semitism in Europe, Rev. Shipman lost his job. He  
says he experienced “an avalanche” of criticism and hate mail almost  
instantaneously, and that calls for his termination went to the Yale  
president’s office from angry alumni — calls that were promptly conveyed to  
him by the university, although Shipman was employed by the Episcopal  
Church, not Yale.  
Elizabeth Dias of Time magazine spoke to Shipman, and wrote: “For Shipman,  
the controversy raises a number of ‘troubling questions’ about free speech  
on campus. In addition to the hate mail, Shipman says he has also received  
letters of support from people thanking him for taking a courageous stand  
for Palestinian rights. University chaplains, he adds, have a long history  
of advocating unpopular cultural positions. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., a  
chaplain at Yale during the 1960s, gained fame for practicing civil  
disobedience in protest of the U.S. war in Vietnam. Clergy today, he  
continues, need to know that protections they do and don’t have when it  
comes to taking unpopular positions.”  
He states: “I think of abolitionism and the role the church played in that.  
I think of the civil rights movement. I think of the anti-war movement and  
the role the chaplains played in that, often incurring the wrath of big  
givers and donors to the univer¬sity, but they were protected and they were  
respected. That seems not to be the case now. I think the truth must be  
brought out and it must be discussed on campus by people of good will  
without labeling anti-Semitic anyone who raises these questions. Surely this  
debate should take place on the campus of the leading universities across  
the country. If not there, where?”  
In another widely publicized case, Prof. Steven Salaita, a Palestinian-  
American, was offered an appointment as associate professor at the  
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). He left his tenured  
position at Virginia Tech to assume his new job, which would have given him  
lifetime tenure. Instead, during the summer he tweeted his strong feelings  
about Israel’s assault on Gaza and, as a result, the job offer was rescinded  
by UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise.  
A number of wealthy donors pressured the UIUC board of trustees and  
chancellor to rescind Salaita’s offer of employment. In early August, two  
weeks before Salaita was scheduled to start teaching classes, he received a  
letter informing him that his offer of employment had been terminated. More  
than 5,000 scholars announced a boycott of UIUC until he is reinstated.  
In The Los Angeles Times (Sept. 13, 2014), Michael Hitzik wrote: “The  
University of Illinois Board of Trustees voted 8-1 to uphold the firing of  
Steven Salaita … Even before the trustees’ vote … e-mails became public  
showing that UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise and her fellow administrators were  
immediately responsive to donors unhappy with what they saw as Salaita’s  
anti-Israel tweets. One donor told Wise that two fellow donors ‘both have  
less loyalty for Illinois because of their perception of anti-Semitism’ and  
pushed against Salaita himself: ‘He gave me a two-pager filled with  
information on Steven Salaita and said how we handle this situation will be  
very telling,’ she told members of her staff…For any university, but  
especially a public institution such as Illinois, the encroachment of donor  
pressure on the administration is a harbinger of the destruction of academic  
Maria LaHood, senior attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights,  
said: “The university has violated the Constitution by terminating Prof.  
Steven Salaita’s appointment based on the content of his speech. It has also  
sent a chilling message to faculty and students everywhere that the First  
Amendment and basic principles of academic freedom will be ignored when it  
comes to speech that is controversial or critical of the Israeli  
Within the organized American Jewish community, free speech and open debate  
has virtually come to a halt. Voices critical of Israel are unwelcome at  
college Hillel Foundation events. Hillel CEO Eric Fingerhut, apparently  
unaware of the long history of Jewish opposition to Zionism, declared that,  
“Anti-Zionists will not be permitted to speak using the Hillel name or under  
the Hillel roof, under any circumstances.”  
Even Israeli speakers who are critical of their government’s policies have  
been banned from Hillel. At Harvard in November 2013, Avraham Burg, former  
speaker of Israel’s Knesset and now a sharp critic of its occupation  
policies, spoke in an undergraduate dormitory after being barred from  
speaking at Harvard’s Hillel. “It’s such a shame that Harvard Hillel would  
not allow an open discussion about Israel to take place within its walls,”  
said Sandra Korn, who helped organize the talk. “Hillel should be a space  
for students to engage with Jewish issues regardless of religious or  
political beliefs.” •

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