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Jews on Campus: Wave Your Flags

As world leaders convened at the United Nations General Assembly recently to discuss issues of global importance, corrupt dictators such as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came with a more narrow-minded and nefarious purpose: to delegitimize and demonize the only viable democracy in the Middle East, Israel. Rather than promote peace and stability, he undermines the lofty goals of the United Nations by spreading a message of bigotry, repression, and even Holocaust denial, which morally inverts the foundations of free speech. Most unfortunately, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s distorted message reverberates beyond the walls of the UN and penetrates the minds of naïve college students. Rather than rejecting him for the pariah he is, many students and academics propagate his intolerance under the guise of “freedom of speech” and “political debate,” and in turn create a university environment in which many students feel intimidated and unsafe.

As a victim of abusive and threating behavior directed at me due to my Jewish identity and my affiliation with the State of Israel, I have experienced firsthand the vitriol-infused “political debate” that pervades even the most prominent universities. While studying abroad in Scotland earlier this year, another student, a supposed supporter of Palestinian rights, came into my room in the middle of the night. He saw an Israeli flag hanging on my wall.  The sight apparently perturbed him so much that he began screaming that I was a terrorist.  He then physically desecrated my flag in a revolting manner. The following day, apparently still disturbed that “there was a Zionist in his residence hall,” he continued his incitement on Facebook to the point of advocating violence against me.  I reported the incident to the police and the student was subsequently found guilty of a racially motivated hate crime under Scottish law, which also includes hate crimes based on a person’s nationality or ethnicity, and was expelled from the university. The court sentenced him to 150 hours of unpaid community service and a fine of $600, which was later donated to survivors of the Itamar massacre.

Astonishingly, my attacker’s defense in court centered around his belief that by physically desecrating the flag of the Jewish state in my room without any provocation, he was exercising his right to free speech and meaningful debate.  Even more shocking was that my attacker had widespread support from the various pro-Palestinian groups active on the university campuses in Scotland, and from some university faculty.  A vocal faculty member even went so far as to brand my pursuit of the case as “shameful,” and criticized the court’s verdict for stifling free speech and political debate.

The support that my attacker received from the pro-Palestinian groups, and even from a faculty member, shows that there is a very serious global problem, even at the most prestigious universities in Europe and the U.S. The problem is people who ignore the significant difference between the right to free speech and the right to violence, incitement and ethnic hatred.  The objective of those who lent support to my attacker is simple: to delegitimize Israel and anyone connected to Israel, in any way possible and at any cost.  Displaying the flag of the Jewish state is, in their mind, a “controversial statement” that immediately warrants intimidation, attempts at de-legitimation,and even physical abuse.  Their aim, like Ahmadinejad’s in the UN, is to create an atmosphere on college campuses where any association with the Jewish state creates an automatic stigma.

When I was a child, my family immigrated to the United States from the former Soviet Union, seeking freedom from communist oppression. For the seventy years of the Soviet Union’s existence, any outward expression of Jewish identity was suppressed by the state security apparatus. Displaying an Israeli flag or other Jewish symbols could easily land a person in prison.

I felt compelled to bring the case to court because I am not in the former Soviet Union anymore. I am a Jew. I am proud of my people. I am proud of my history. And I am proud of the Jewish State. I felt compelled to pursue this case because no person – Jew, Gentile, Arab, Christian, Muslim, American, Scot, Israeli or Palestinian – should face abuse and intimidation based on their membership or affiliation with an ethnic, national or religious group. To display my affiliation with the Jewish State is not a “controversial statement.”  It is my right, just like anyone else’s.  I hope that my case sets a precedent and sends a clear message to university communities in Europe, the U.S. and around the world:  freedom to criticize Israel, or any other country, does not include the freedom to delegitimize or incite hatred against members of ae academic community simply because of their affiliation with, or support for, Israel.

On behalf of myself and all those students who have ever felt afraid or intimidated to express themselves and their beliefs, I wish to send a message to Mr. Ahmadinejad and his campus proxies: your morally bankrupt behavior does not scare us. You only embolden us further to fight for our ideals of democracy, peace, and morality.

Chanan Reitblat is an undergraduate Honors student at Yeshiva University.  He attended St. Andrews University in Scotland last year as an exchange student.