For a school which has produced some of the largest names in American politics, Princeton is not particularly political. Many students carry on with their studies more focused on their schoolwork than the operations of the world around them. This is not meant to be a moralistic polemic from the ivory tower; I think the priorities of many students may be unfortunate, but also perfectly understandable. With one of the highest workloads of any American institution of higher education and the presence of oppressively politically “neutral” institutions, politics are not on the forefront of many students’ minds. For a school which so desires open, academic discussions the general apolitical environment of Princeton’s campus—as opposed to our rival institutions such as Columbia and Yale—surprised me when I first arrived. Despite the apolitical air, there are still some politically active people on campus, and it is those few who have once again launched Princeton into the spotlight. This time it was into the crosshairs of many conservative American and Israeli publications. This is the story of MK Tzipi Hotovely’s excursion into our little orange bubble.
Hotovely left Israel, where she serves as the acting foreign minister under Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud government, to embark on a tri-school tour of New York and New Jersey’s most prestigious universities. Her goal was to preach the virtues of ethno-nationalism and vigorous opposition to the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction movement—a “white genocide” type bogeyman for hardline Zionists and reactionaries both here, in the states, and in Israel. Unlike many of the left-wing speakers invited to campus which have been shot down by the executive director following recommendation from the Israel Advisory Committee (IAC), a part of the Center for Jewish Life’s (CJL). Hotovely was not invited to speak on campus: rather she reached out to the CJL. It should also be noted that unlike those left-wing speakers denied the sponsorship of the CJL, Hotovely was not vetted, nor even discussed by the IAC and this is the crux of the Alliance of Jewish Progressive’s (AJP) position on why they petitioned the CJL to withdraw their sponsorship from the event.
Though there were rumblings of discontent with Hotovely’s presence on campus in the days preceding her visit the opposition came to a peak with the publication of an open letter drafted by members of APJ in the Daily Princetonian. This letter—signed by many students and political activist groups on campus—outlined a formal dissent to the CJL-sponsored event and later served as the basis for many of the articles which would proceed to cover the event, or rather, the event’s supposed “cancellation.” Here is where it becomes crucial to separate the inflammatory rhetoric and vitriol which surrounded the media coverage of this event and the facts of what actually happened. The letter outlined the AJP’s—and many other students’—opposition to Hotovely’s visit: they focused on her inflammatory and dangerous rhetoric surrounding occupation of the West Bank, but more importantly it outlined the perceived hypocrisy of letting Hotovely speak even though she violated the CJL’s Israel policy, the same policy which they alleged had been used to silence and exclude speakers who skewed left. Most with a semblance of reading comprehension—so excluding the writer of the Breitbart article, Deborah Danan, on the issue penned—can understand what this letter was: not an attempt at Stalin-esque censorship by tyrannical, left-wing students on campus, but rather a “reject[ion of] the CJL’s choice to host a racist speaker like Hotovely while it continues to quiet progressive voices.” (The Daily Princetonian).
The pressure of Princeton students and the outlining of this hypocritical policy enforcement worked. Late in the night, the day before the speech was scheduled, the CJL announced its their decision. In an email sent to students, Rabbies Julie and Lior announce the “indefinite postponement” of Hotovely’s speech so as to provide time to “vet the program in the CJL.” The outrage was near immediate and sourced almost entirely from reporters who had never set foot on this campus. “Outrageous censorship,” decried controversial Israel Advocate and Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz in his paternalistic, removed response to the postponement: “It suggests that the students lack the ability to assess a speaker’s ideas and need a committee to tell them who they can listen to.” (PRINCETON HILLEL DIRECTOR CANCELS DEPUTY FOREIGN MINISTER’S TALK ON CAMPUS). Hotovely herself weighed in on the issue, denouncing the rescinding of the sponsorship as a “liberal dictatorship,” which was, “silencing the voice of Israeli democracy.” (Princeton Hillel cancels Hotovely speech after dovish Jewish groups protest). She was soon joined by such esteemed publications as Breitbart—this was not longer the hypocrisy of policies implementation being reexamined, this was the construction of a proverbial ideological gulag for opinions deemed non grata by the oppressive, liberal elite. The goalposts were rapidly relocated; context and nuance were lost—Princeton was no longer a stop on Hotovely’s anti-BDS tour, it was the newest backdrop for the purported war being raged against free speech by the insidious left.
Unsurprisingly, the headlines did not read “Hotovely speech postponed” they read: “Princeton Hillel cancels Hotovely speech after dovish Jewish groups protest,” (Times of Israel) or, “Princeton Hillel Bows To Pressure from ‘Progressive’ Group, Cancels Speech by Deputy Israeli Foreign Minister.” (Brietbart). These were not thought-out articles about hypocrisy or the limits of free speech, they were—for the most part—character assassinations of those who would dare to share their displeasure at a speaker known for such civil opinions as opposition to “miscegenation,” i.e. race mixing. Casually read through the comments on these articles and you will find enlightened takes, such as: “I, a Jew, despise the Left. I despise the Jewish Left with a passion. ‘our Israel Advisory Committee’ And the members of that committee are likely: Abdul, Hammid, Linda Sarsour, and Bernie Sanders!” or, “Alliance of Jewish Progressives is a anti-Semitic group that hate their own Jewishness, at par with Bernie Sanders, Soros and Karl Marx.” (Breitbart comment section). Some articles chose to bury the fact that the Chabad on campus ended up sponsoring the event and it happened as planned, others decided that information was superfluous. Regardless, all’s fair in clickbait and war.
I attended Hotovely’s lecture. I was not accosted by antifa, I was not maced, I didn’t find my face acquainted with a fist nor did I have to walk through broken glass to be dully lectured to about the merits of annexation and apartheid. At the time of the speech, students lined the wall, holding signs reading: “End the Occupation,” and “If this is Judaism I am not a Jew,” among others with similar slogans. Around them swarmed an assortment of university officials and people associated with the talk: photographers in business casual, two Psafe officers one in a Hi-Vis vest, an imposing Israeli man equipped with an ear-piece aggressively pacing and talking on the phone in Hebrew—presumably part of some security detail—and a university official who informed the students protesting that he would like them to sit in the back if they were to enter so as not to block the view of eager attendees. This protest was civil, much more so than the rhetoric of Hotovely during the speech. Before the protest had started a member of the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students (ODUS) approached the person who seemed to be the leader of the protest. He was gently reminded of the rules: protesters must sit in the back if they have signs, they are able to engage with the speaker, but most importantly—no interruptions.
Princeton is a university that cares deeply about free speech. This is the message that gets drilled into our heads constantly; Princeton is a marketplace of ideas, a place where free discussion and academic curiosity thrive. However, Princeton, much like the CJL, at least suggests the idea that it does believe in limits to free speech. That limit is when free speech becomes hate speech. “As an intellectual community, [Princeton] attaches great value to freedom of expression and vigorous debate, but it also attaches great importance to mutual respect, and it deplores expressions of hatred directed against any individual or group,” reads an excerpt from the ODUS website in a section titled “Respect for others.” It takes this so called respect seriously enough to say that: “[any individual who violates Princeton’s rules on protesting] will be subject to University discipline and/or arrest.” Civility must be, and, in the case of Hotovely’s visit, was definitely, preserved. This is the public message Princeton wishes to put out and this is why Princeton condemns the sister of violence in negation of civil, open discourse: hate speech.
Yet Princeton seemingly does not hold speakers up to the standard of mutual respect and rejection of hate speech: “The campus is open to any speaker whom students or members of the faculty have invited and for whom official arrangements to speak have been made with the University.” (ODUS website). It seems that the protesters followed the regulations of the University and went above and beyond to preserve any semblance of open or fair debate—a Sisyphean task seeing as Hotovely did not take part in a debate. There was no panel nor speaker to offer rebuttals to her points, there was only her on stage indulging in spurious regional historiography, ignoring well sourced questions or using them to engage in tangents about the glory of the Fatherland (Israel), and taking part in the most impressive act of shared cognitive dissonance I have ever witnessed. As a democracy is said to need a well informed electorate, so too, I believe, a debate needs an acknowledgment of demonstrably true facts, a shared desire to further any form of discourse, and an air of academic rigor. Hotovely’s speech contained none of these elements. Hotovely’s speech was not a paragon of academic virtue, it was a boldfaced example of propaganda and an indulgence in hate speech disguised as an attempt to further an estranged idea of academic inquiry. No one really went to Hotovely’s speech to have their minds changed on Israel—the people who went were either supporters or a protesters. Sure, there might have been some centrists attending, but one would be hard pressed to find more than a handful of non-partisans. Hotovely, and her presence on campus, was little more than a thinly veiled display of ideological force and a message to those who share views similar to her own. Any attempts to disguise this as a debate are duplicitous and in bad faith.
This type of behavior is unfortunately not uncommon among reactionaries. This ersatz rebranding to optimize display and disguise hate speech as free speech is not uncommon, neither is routinely censoring left-wing speakers nor is engaging in the entire crux of this debacle: hypocrisy. This isn’t an issue of free speech, this isn’t an issue of anti-Semitism or self-hating Jews, this isn’t an issue of a “liberal dictatorship”—this is an issue solely of hypocrisy: the alleged hypocrisy of the CJL’s Israel policy, the hypocrisy of Princeton’s rubric for civility and respect, and the hypocrisy, as always, of right-wing rags trying to pass themselves off as papers of record.
I do not understand how someone like Dershowitz could lament about the death of academic freedom while waging a protracted war against pro-Palestinian professors like Norman Finkelstein whose tenure was denied after Dershowitz wrote to his colleagues and the Dean of the University at which Finkelstein was teaching. Though the departments which Finkelstein taught in voted to give him tenure, the dean of the university, seemingly moved by Dershowitz’s lobbying, denied the tenure. Dershowitz’s charges of anti-Semitism and academic dishonesty were taken very seriously; when similar claims of academic dishonesty and plagiarism were leveled against Dershowitz, nothing happened. Dershowitz also tried to prevent the publication of one of Finkelstein’s books by writing letters to its publishers.
This is what a war on academic freedom looks like. Academic freedom’s death does not look like students exercising their first amendment rights to protest, it does not manifest its ghastly visage as examinations of hypocritical policy enforcement. When academic totalitarianism rattles its chains it can be heard as the intimidation of those petitioning for divestment, the presence of websites meant to monitor professors’ attitudes towards Israel, the smears of “anti-Semitism” or “self-hating” applied to anyone opposed to the Likud agenda, or the illegalization of choosing to protest Israeli policies through how one spends their money. Institutional policies meant to privilege a specific narrative and protect speakers whose hateful rhetoric are already widely publicized and elevated is more antithetical to academic freedom and free speech than students utilizing their own free speech and civil disobedience to object to the ideology being protected, propagated, and allowed to be freely disseminated without obstruction. The posters and projects most routinely desecrated on our campus are those put up by the Princeton Committee on Palestine. I think Princeton should ask itself whose speech it wants to protect: its students or an un-vetted propagandist.