The claim of universities to be fostering diversity and preventing discrimination against vulnerable minorities is oddly compromised by a surge of anti-Semitism. With the recent addition of Columbia and Yale, over 50 campuses are currently circulating faculty petitions to divest from Israel and from American firms selling arms to Israel. Faculty at Georgetown, Michigan and Harvard have gone out of their way to invite speakers best known for their defamation of Israel and the Jews.
To be sure, hundreds of university presidents have either spoken out publicly or signed a statement deploring the presence of anti-Semitism on campus. But none have tried to explain the phenomenon, much less undertaken to do anything about it. So questions abound. How does one know, for example, that the divestment petition is anti-Semitic? Why should Jews have become a target in a campus atmosphere of such advertised sensitivity? And what can universities do to remedy the situation without stifling healthy debate?
Like many such initiatives since the 1960s, the petition campaign against Israel is promoted by relatively small numbers of faculty with interlocking interests. Its driving force are Arabs, Arabists and their sympathizers, who help prosecute the war against Israel as a way of diverting attention away from Arab regimes. They are joined by leftists--including Jews--who see in Jewish particularism the chief hindrance to their internationalist faith, by radicals who consider Israel and America to be colonial powers and who promote their reactionary or revolutionary alternatives, and by antiwar enthusiasts who blame Israel for inviting Arab aggression against it.
The call for divestment sets up an implicit comparison between Israel and South Africa, whose apartheid policy once inspired a campaign of divestment aimed at forcing democratic change. In South Africa, a minority of whites had established a government based on racial criteria. But not only is Israel a vigorous democracy; it is, with Turkey, the only democracy in the Middle East. Arab autocrats and despots attack the Jewish state precisely because it embodies the democracy they are determined to resist. Arab rulers see in Israel's free and open society a threat to Muslim hegemony and to autocratic rule.
Most university professors and students who support divestment do so in the misguided belief that it will force Israel to improve its human-rights record in the West Bank and Gaza. What they fail to recognize is that, far from championing human rights, the divestment petition is a springboard for the spread of anti-Semitic hostility to American campuses. The economic boycott has been part of the Arab arsenal in the war against Israel for the past 50 years. Last month, the Arab League formally reactivated its boycott at a meeting in Damascus, Syria. Saudi Arabia recently blacklisted some 200 European, American and other companies for importing Israeli products or product parts under other labels; and its Chamber of Commerce and Industry called on citizens to report the presence of any Israeli product exported through a third country. The divestment petitioners are asking their universities to join the Arab boycott that has the destruction of Israel as its larger goal.
The divestment campaign did not just happen, and speakers assaulting Israel do not appear of themselves. This antipathy toward Israel grows from a campus culture that is selectively repressive. All the while that students, in the spirit of diversity, are actively discouraged from making pejorative comments about other vulnerable minorities, some Arab and Muslim students have been actively fomenting hatred of Israel as an expression of their "identity." On campuses with a large Arab presence, such as Wayne State in Detroit, this has resulted in a palpable threat to Jewish students, and outbreaks of physical violence have actually occurred at San Francisco State and Concordia University in Montreal.
Since Arab and Muslim students are currently the only ones who exuberantly defame another group, and who blame that group rather than Arab and Muslim governments for the failings of their own antidemocratic societies, it is hardly surprising that they should be joined by others looking for a villain or scapegoat. Anti-Semitism thrives because slandering Israel is the only aggression against a minority that is encouraged by the rules of political correctness.
Along similar lines, universities have allowed Middle East departments to disseminate anti-Israel propaganda to an extent unimaginable a generation ago, representing violations of intellectual honesty and academic impartiality that may be unique in our academic life. Martin Kramer's book on Middle East Studies in America, "Ivory Towers on Sand," points out the conditions that encourage this abuse. Instead of scrutinizing the obsession with Israel that has retarded the development of Arab societies, many professors of Arab and Muslim civilization have themselves become obsessed with the obsession. Here the damage to America is at least as great as to Israel, for had these scholars been submitting Arab regimes to honest scrutiny, they would have long since have been investigating the connections between anti-Semitism, opposition to democracy and hostility to the U.S. Why has it been left to private think tanks to inform us about the rise and nature of terrorism in the Middle East?
The last thing university authorities ought to do in addressing this latest outbreak of what has been called "the longest hatred" is to enforce the kind of speech codes that have been invoked to protect other sensitive minorities. What is wanted is more honest debate, not less--but honest debate on both sides of the issue. Anti-Semitism works by making Jews the defendants of a political charge. Its hostile agenda invites counterscrutiny. The more the Arab world and its defenders try to blame Israel, the more critically we should be studying the Arab world to see how it uses anti-Semitism to divert attention from its problems, and where the responsibility for those problems really lies.
Anti-Semitism perverts the ideal of a mutually tolerant campus. The faculty and administration, and students who wish to uphold that ideal, will have to exercise their free speech to address the function and the roots of this virulent phenomenon.
Ms. Wisse, a professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard, is the author of "If I Am Not for Myself: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews" (Free Press, 2001).