Hershey: A debate to be had, not censored

A series of complaints has recently been directed against Yale for hosting a conference intended to address modern manifestations of anti-Semitism. On Aug. 30, the U.S. representative of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Maen Rashid Areikat, denounced Yale for providing a platform for “right-wing extremists” and accused Yale of enabling the dissemination of “racist propaganda.” On Wednesday, Yaman Salahi LAW ’12 asserted that Yale was “providing a haven for bigoted ideas about Muslims and Arabs” by hosting the conference (“Anti-Semitism but not anti-hatred,” Sept. 1). But these charges fail to justify why Yale should be in the business of censoring speech that could potentially engender offense and, more importantly, they exploit legitimate sensitivity towards racism in order to preclude honest discussion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

As an institution aimed toward the education of its students, Yale is obliged to expose its students to all points of view, no matter how controversial. Given the emotionally charged nature of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is unsurprising that some took offense to the statements advanced by the pro-Israel advocates who spoke at last week’s conference. Were Yale to have sponsored a conference dedicated to the cause of a Palestinian state, or were it to finance an event featuring a speaker with strong Palestinian sympathies, many Yale students who support Israel would take offense for analogous reasons. Some might even go as far as to publicly condemn Yale for promoting an apologetic attitude towards Hamas.

The inherently subjective nature of what is considered offensive makes it impossible for Yale to impartially restrict the promulgation of “offensive” viewpoints, and the call for such measures to be taken threatens the free exchange of ideas on campus. To criticize Yale for failing to censor the views of academics is to subject legitimate discourse to the whims of those who are most vocal about their offense. By encouraging the administration to regulate what can and cannot be said on campus, such criticism puts the entire educational mission of Yale at risk — we cannot be expected to learn in an environment that is inimical to free-thinking and free-expression.

Even if one believes that free speech should be curtailed in certain cases, the question still remains as to whether any of the content of last week’s conference on modern anti-Semitism was truly “offensive.” The most controversial feature of the conference, cited in both the PLO’s vitriolic letter to President Levin and Salahi’s recent column, was a seminar titled “The Central Role of Palestinian Antisemitism in Creating the Palestinian Identity.” Of course, no thinking individual would allege that anti-Semitism is a universal characteristic of Palestinians, and though I did not personally attend this seminar, I highly doubt that this characterization was ever made.

Regardless of what was said in this seminar, it is undeniable that the Palestinian leadership has endeavored to inculcate its constituents with anti-Semitism. Hamas’s own charter favorably cites “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” and it explicitly labels the Jews as the enemy of Palestine. For some time there was a Palestinian children’s television show, “Pioneers of Tomorrow,” in which a character resembling Mickey Mouse espoused violent jihad and advocated the annihilation of the Jews (excerpts from this program can easily be located via search on YouTube).

All of this is simply to say that there is a legitimate discussion to be had regarding the extent to which anti-Semitism has shaped Palestinian identity in recent years, whether such prejudice is the result of Hamas’s machinations or of some other contributing factor. Academics should be free to dispute the prevalence of anti-Semitism in the Palestinian population, and similarly, they should be equally free to debate the extent to which anti-Muslim sentiment pervades Israel and other pro-Western societies. To take advantage of our society’s sensitivity towards racism by denouncing anyone who is willing to entertain the plausible belief that anti-Semitism may exercise an undue influence upon the lives of the Palestinian people as “bigoted” inhibits meaningful discourse concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is only likely to further enable the very sort of blind, unthinking prejudice that it seeks to criticize.