When free speech crosses over into hate speech

Turning the other cheek is indefensible when Jews or anyone is being targeted.

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Imagine being a Jewish college student who cannot study for finals because the antisemitic chants outside your dorm are too loud for you to focus. Imagine having classmates- -and outsiders- - taunt and threaten you as you walk to class. Imagine having your professor offer extra credit to your classmates who are doing this. Imagine your professor moving class to where that harassment is centered.  

Imagine how it feels when the university is silent.  

That is why Chicago Jews are so upset by these anti-Israel tent encampments on local college campuses.  

Our Jewish community is outraged because these protests, invoking free speech as insulation for their hate, don't chant for peace. Many of the virulent protests are orchestrated by outside, professional agitators espousing hate, threatening Jewish students, and coaching student protestors to flout campus rules with impunity.  

This is what that "free speech" looks like:  

At DePaul, it is celebrating-and promising a repeat of-the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.  One masked protestor, outfitted to resemble a Hamas terrorist, hand-signaled "10-7" (October 7) to the crowd, and then drew his finger across his neck, pantomiming slitting his throat.   

At Northwestern University, Jewish students are told to "go back to Poland."  

At University of Chicago, an encampment sign threatens that "Jewish safety cannot be achieved until Palestine is freed."  

Yet zero suspensions, zero expulsions, zero consequences for known violators.  

Imagine the outrage were other students told to "go back to" China, or Mexico, or Iraq, or Africa. Imagine the horrified response were protestors to mimic a lynching. This would never-and should never-be tolerated.  

This is what Jewish students are facing, as their professors encourage the protestors, and as the administrations either stand idly by or reward those violating campus rules with concessions.  

This is not about the right to free speech, which Jews revere. But when free speech crosses over into hate speech, the rules are different. Messages of hate and threats of violence are not protected. But at these encampments, hate speech and threats are displayed-and shouted-with impunity.  

Turning the other cheek is indefensible when Jews or anyone is being targeted. University leaders must follow their own campus policies and dismantle these encampments, eject outside agitators, and discipline students, professors, and staff who flout the rules.  

University administrators, elected officials, and interfaith leaders must denounce the hatred being spewed at Jewish students on Illinois campuses.  

The failure to do so sends a powerful message to antisemites. We refuse to accept the normalization of this kind of hate.   We refuse to accept that we are the only ones so committed.  

This column first ran in the Chicago Sun-Times on May 12, 2024.  

Jay Tcath is Executive Vice President of JUF.  

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