Chill the Champagne?

by Marilyn Kleinberg Neimark

In a world with a surfeit of bad news, two recent victories for freedom of expression are worth celebrating. Both were cases in which apologists for the occupation sought — unsuccessfully! — to stifle criticism of Israeli policies.

The first ruling, which came down last month from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR), threw out claims that three University of California campuses — Berkeley, Irvine and Santa Cruz — violated TItle VI of the Civil Rights Act by fostering antisemitic climates by allowing protests against Israeli policies to take place. As part of the ongoing “lawfare” campaign to silence pro-Palestinian speech, some Jewish UC students contended that the political speech expressed in these demonstrations created a “hostile” atmosphere and amounted to illegal harassment and intimidation. But encountering views contrary to one’s own, hardly constitutes harassment, the OCR concluded. As their letter closing the Berkeley complaint aptly stated, “In the university environment, exposure to such robust and discordant expressions, even when personally offensive and hurtful, is a circumstance a reasonable student in higher education may experience.” That something so obvious would be contested through a series of formal complaints suggests that there is nothing “reasonable” about students cynically trying to silence political opponents.

Second, on September 8, a district court in Israel ruled that five left-wing activists who on Facebook described the right-wing group Im Tirtzu as a fascist movement were not guilty of libel. (The court did find that an implication in the posting that Im Tirtzu concurs with Nazi race theory, was slander.) No surprise that Im Tirtzu will appeal the ruling to the Israeli Supreme Court.

Muzzlewatch readers will recall that Im Tirtzu (meaning “if you will it,” a fragment of Herzl’s famous expression about the founding of Israel) has itself used classic antisemitic tropes against critics of Israeli government actions. (For example, a picture of an evil-looking Naomi Chazan, board president of the progressive NGO, the New Israel Fund, with a horn coming out of her head). We might not want to uncork the celebratory champagne until after the resolution of the appeal. But given than the judge in the first case criticized Im Tirtzu for bringing suit at all, we can definitely put it on ice.