Leonard Zwelling

In this front-page article from The New York Times on December 17 by Vimal Patel and Anna Betts, the authors describe the environment on college campuses vis a vis pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Without arguing about who is right and who is wrong in the current Middle East crisis and war, I think reasonable people can agree that free speech is to be preserved on college campuses, yet intimidation of any group must not be permitted. Unfortunately, these two forces are competing with one another when the speech begins to border on intimidation and bullying.

What is not appreciated, but which is discussed in the article, is that so many students self-censor themselves in the classroom and in social situations feeling afraid that they will be targeted because of their political views when their opinions are labelled microaggressions. Pro-Palestinian speakers are cancelled for fear that they espouse anti-Semitism. Jewish students are afraid to wear their yarmulkes and substitute baseball caps as head coverings. This is all wrong and the administrators of these universities have encouraged it when they decided that people are not people but members of oppressing or oppressed groups subject to the corrective action of DEI officers. Black Lives Matter, but it is not clear that Jewish lives do. That’s the rub.

It is going to take an active plan to dismantle the thought processes that generated DEI and return to a world where individual initiative and accomplishment is more important than gender, race, religion, or country of origin. I understand that the impetus behind DEI was to right past wrongs, but DEI has instead generated more wrongs and created a mind-set that belittles individuals and mutes any protest against the current, liberal movement.

The Arab population of the part of the Middle East that was designated Palestine by the British do have rights. Many are Israeli citizens, but still suffer discrimination even as they continue to rise in Israeli society.

And on the other hand, incendiary rhetoric against Jewish students won’t be helpful either.

I am all for free speech as this blog indicates, but there are limits to everything and calling for genocide of any group and ”from the river to the sea” is outside the bounds of free speech. By the way, please ask the next chanter to identify the “river” and the “sea.” Just curious if they even know.

The universities have to push the reset button and clarify what is acceptable speech and what crosses the line.

There is one other consequence of this discussion of free speech. There is also the resultant silence caused by intimidation and fear. While many are raging about Palestinian freedom, many Jews are staying out of sight and hiding on campus feeling they are no longer welcome.

Even at a major cancer center in Houston, faculty are afraid to speak up for fear of being labeled unprofessional and being dismissed as a result of leadership’s embrace of cancel culture. This is not theoretical at MD Anderson. This has happened. It has largely happened because there is a crazy quilt of responses to incidents of disagreement between two people from having a cup of coffee to work it out to filing an EEO suit to get a faculty member dismissed.

The legal team at MD Anderson needs to work with the faculty and leadership to clarify these many policies with regard to unprofessional behavior and bullying and intimidation. And after that, they need to apply these rules equitably to everyone which is not happening at the current time.

The pressure is on academic institutions from the Ivy League (now designated the Poison Ivy League) to MD Anderson to create environments where free speech is valued and welcomed, but intimidation and bullying prevented. It’s a very tough balance to create an environment of freedom and justice. Do the leaders of these academic institutions have anything better to do? I think not.

When free speech becomes yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater, it has crossed the line. But when good people sit in silence for fear of retaliation should they speak up, that’s not good either.

In many college campuses, the calls for Palestinian justice have drifted into anti-Semitic rhetoric. That’s too far.

At MD Anderson, the heavy-handed treatment of faculty who become a bit confrontational has managed to suppress all kinds of speech that would lead to improvements at the cancer center. That’s not good either.

Dr. Pisters has to worry less about his latest rankings in some external poll of excellence in health care and get back to the job of improving life for the faculty which will in turn lead to better patient care. Not only does Pisters have nothing better to do, he has nothing more important to do.

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