Under pressure from a coalition of left-leaning students and groups such as the Alliance of Jewish Progressives, the Center for Jewish Life cancelled an address by Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely on Nov. 5, a day before her scheduled appearance at the University. The coalition seized on process as an instrument of protest and argued that the CJL violates its own Israel Policy in the instance of Hotolevy. Hotovely, they contend, never entered the review process that CJL’s Israel Advisory Committee oversees in order to prevent sponsorship of speakers who might “foster an atmosphere of incivility, intend to harm Israel, or promote racism or hatred of any kind.” Rabbi Julie Roth, the executive director of the center explains in the cancellation letter to the Israeli consulate that the CJL was not “consistent in the application of our process for program sponsorship,” but adds, “We look forward to continued robust and healthy debate around Israel in our community.”
It strains credulity here to attribute AJP’s ire to violation of process – “Hotovely is a racist,” they spit. She causes, “irreparable damage" to the peace process, they argue. And she is using the CJL to “legitimize her goals." These comprise naked displays of rejectionism and knee-jerk moral panic. Yet when we sponsor a speaker, does that mean that we endorses their values in full? To penetrate into morally difficult domains with opponents that our primitive ancestors would have simply killed belies the entire purpose of the academic enterprise and the apotheosis of Western civilization. How can we possibly expect to engage in difficult conversation when we rush to displace all of those we despise in the “inhuman box” every time someone hits our moral panic buttons?
Hardly unique to Princeton, this creep of moral panic emerges at a time of clear and present danger for public dialog nationally. Ben Shapiro requires nearly half a million dollars in security to speak at Berkeley. Riots and cancelled events well up across universities to afflict honest conversation. In the modern era, a specter of mutual delegitimization now threatens to caricature us into the permanent isolation of non-concentric political bubbles.
In this environment, to withdraw sponsorship from a foreign dignitary because of cognitive dissonance precisely fails the environment for healthy dialogue that the AJP purports to protect. Simultaneously, these actions villainize, as racist, students who perceive that a visiting dignitary from Israel, a key American ally, deserves the right to speak at its highest institution of learning and free thought. The AJP argues that they will “not be silent as members of our Princeton community further these hateful and racist policies.” Indeed, they will not. It seems the moral panic of the AJP demands the silence of all others instead.
The ability to endure fraught moral conversation comprises a value that we as a community must protect, because a value like this deteriorates when we fail to protect it. In the interest of fair and open conversation, I challenge members of the AJP to an open debate on the importance of hard conversation on campus and invite the CJL to sponsor a dialogue about this. Moving forward, let us hope that we as a community seek to invite the hard conversations rather than flee from them. Let us aim to to move conversation forward rather than undermine it through bureaucratic censorship. Let us aim to deploy arguments rather than unilaterally force outcomes.
Joel Finkelstein is a Ph.D candidate in the Princeton Neuroscience Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.