I know university presidents can respond better to odious speech
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OpinionGuest columnist

I know university presidents can respond better to odious speech

Because I saw it happen at my school

Ari Kohen
Universities could learn something about handling antisemitism from the University of Nebraska, according to Ari Kohen. (Photo by Phil Martine, courtesy of flickr.com)
Universities could learn something about handling antisemitism from the University of Nebraska, according to Ari Kohen. (Photo by Phil Martine, courtesy of flickr.com)

As a political science professor for two decades and as the director of the Harris Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Nebraska, I’ve been through several rounds of odious speech and debate over how to handle it.

So I’ve been extremely surprised by the whole university presidents congressional hearing debacle.

First, I’m surprised by the number of people who think Rep. Elise Stefanik — who in the not-so-distant past has spoken approvingly of Hitler and promoted the antisemitic Great Replacement conspiracy theory — was somehow acting in good faith or is some sort of friend of Jewish people.

She wasn’t and she isn’t.

Second, I’m surprised by the people who think the university presidents were somehow tricked or couldn’t have answered differently. They weren’t and they could have.

It should be possible for very smart people to stake out a position that notes how strongly we want to adhere to a free speech position while also making clear that any code of conduct that allows students to call for genocide at their university should be reexamined.

I know this is possible because I’ve seen it happen, here at my public university in the Midwest that could be a model for this moment.

Years ago we had some Nazis on our campus. I’m not being hyperbolic and calling someone a Nazi because they voted for bad candidates or something. I’m talking about students who posted on a white supremacist forum about wanting to drive their car into Black Lives Matter rallies or who traveled across the country to chant “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville and posed doing Nazi salutes with prominent Nazi groups.

When one of these students was “outed” by groups like Unicorn Riot and the Nebraska Antifascists, many students called for removing him from campus for his speech.

University leaders considered the demands and rejected them. Instead, the university threw itself behind more speech, namely rallies against hate and a campaign about the inclusivity we want to promote on campus. A “Hate Will Never Win” rally drew 1,500 people to the school’s basketball stadium, and the school helped distribute T-shirts with that message to anyone who wanted one. The message could be seen all over our campus.

That moment wasn’t easy, let me assure you. A lot of people — including at least one Jewish student —  said that having Nazis on campus was dangerous and that they presented a safety concern for members of minority groups who felt directly threatened.
I felt it, too. It’s not comfortable to walk around campus wearing a kippah, as I do, when you know there are people on the same campus who say they hate Jews, “love violence,” and own a bunch of guns. There is an exhaustion that comes from being on high alert and also a real temptation to blend in, to remove the kippah. And what follows is a sadness and even an embarrassment, a desire not to be the sort of person who is concerned about someone looking at you from across the street and certainly not to be the sort of person who decides to hide their identity to avoid being called out, picked on, targeted.

But I left the threat assessments to the professionals. I was pleased to see the campus stand up against bigotry, and I maintain that the University of Nebraska made the right call. A year after the initial conflict, the university was continuing to support students in having constructive conversations about diversity and inclusion — though under a different name because of a copyright issue related to “Hate Will Never Win.”

What happened on my campus wasn’t easy, but it didn’t feel that difficult, either. Yet, in 2023, in response to demonstrations that repeatedly veer into antisemitism or allow for antisemitic comments, a lot of universities don’t seem to be very interested in holding big rallies against bigotry like Nebraska did in 2018.

Instead I see a lot of explaining that “From the river to the sea” could plausibly mean something positive rather than something genocidal. And this means Jews are feeling left alone, without the support that campus leaders offered to targeted minorities in the past.

Jews are being asked to deal with a level of hostility that feels like targeted harassment due to its repetition, intensity and pervasiveness. And, rather than people telling us they’ve got our back, we’re being told, especially on social media and especially from people on the left, that perhaps we’re being overly dramatic about our feelings.

The university presidents should have been able to explain that people can say odious things but that all of the rest of us must respond by calling out those things for being odious.

They should also have been able to explain that calling for genocide almost certainly would amount to harassment and an unsafe environment but that we have to work together to be clear about what is and what isn’t targeted harassment.

Their inability to say these things is not someone else’s fault, and the message it sent to American Jews was received loudly and clearly. I’m grateful I heard a different message on my campus several years ago — and saddened for students today who aren’t on a campus where their classmates are encouraged to say “Hate Will Never Win.” PJC

Ari Kohen is a political scientist and the Schlesinger Professor of Social Justice and director of the Norman and Bernice Harris Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Nebraska. This article first appeared on JTA.

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