Right, wrong, and a moment for clarity: Why universities must adopt a zero-tolerance policy

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The situation unfolding at Columbia University and at campuses across the country should not come as a surprise. This did not happen overnight.

Universities have for a long-time tolerated antisemitism compared to other forms of discrimination. The demonstrations of the past three weeks are merely the latest example of what happens in the void of leadership between firmly taking a stance and trying to placate both sides. Tensions rise. Words escalate to actions. Threats turn to violence.

There is right and wrong. Protesting in a passionate and lawful way is a beautiful exercise in freedom of speech. Supporting Palestinians fight for independence is a view. Calling for the divestment of your university from Israel is a view.

Terrorizing, intimidating, and calling for antisemitic action toward Jews and the annihilation of Israel is not a view. It is not freedom of speech. It is not a demonstration. It is wrong. And it is dangerous.

This is what happens when antisemitic behavior and rhetoric is left unchecked, if not encouraged for a long time. Inaction, tolerance, and equivocation leave space for hate, intimidation, and terror. Universities must take a very clear stance and demonstrate a zero-tolerance policy for antisemitism just as there should be zero tolerance for racism, Islamophobia, discrimination based on sexual orientation, or any other form of bigotry. There is no other option.

Protestors have infringed on and threatened law-abiding students’ rights to safety—basic rights that Columbia president Minouche Shafik and all university leaders are duty-bound to provide. In-person classes were cancelled. Many students—feeling unsafe amid aggressive and noisy protests and facing threats and harassment—have left campus and this intolerable atmosphere just when students should be studying for exams and preparing to walk at graduation.

No one has the right to disrupt campus operations materially, nor to threaten or intimidate students, nor to damage and destroy property—not students, nor faculty, and certainly not outsiders to the universities. Would similar expressions against the Black or LGBTQ communities (or any other minority) be tolerated?

There is nothing complicated about what’s been going on at Columbia, UCLA, and college campuses nationwide. The right to protest does not equal the right to cause chaos—sentiment shared by President Joe Biden in his address to the nation last night, calling this a “moment for clarity…Violent protest is not protected. Peaceful protest is.”

Shafik’s recent testimony before Congress was a strong example of leadership, outshining that of her Harvard, Penn, and MIT presidential peers. She was unequivocal that calls for genocide of Jews would violate Columbia’s student conduct codes. I applaud Columbia for announcing in February its new Interim University Policy for Safe Demonstrations. But is it working?

For a while, it felt like Opposite Day at Columbia: putting the bystanders “in jail” for their own protection and allowing the offenders to run free on campus while university leaders accommodate their transgressions. At campuses across the country, police have been called and arrests have been made, but what is the end result?

Strong words from university leadership will not end the chants for the killing of Jews or curb the harassment that’s driven students and faculty from campus fearing for their safety. University presidents: Your Jewish students and faculty need you to lead. To act. Unequivocally. To take a very clear stance and demonstrate a zero-tolerance policy for hate, intimidation, and terror. And to enforce those policies, consistently.

These escalations have become dangerous and disruptive to public safety and to order. But it had to get to this point. This is a moment of reckoning. It’s time to get back to basics and do what is right: protect the safety of students and faculty; preserve the spaces we hold for education and discourse; make clear the principles of freedom of speech; establish expectations for what actions are not tolerated and enforce them consistently.

Understand that the only way to do that is to draw a line in the sand and set very clear guidelines about behavior that is racist, violent, and unlawful. Update policies and codes of conduct to add antisemitism specifically. Congress is reviewing legislation that would expand the definition of antisemitism—this is a good place to start. Require every student and faculty member to sign that they acknowledge what is free speech, what is passionate protest, and what is unacceptable behavior that crosses a line and carries consequences.

Allowing these protests at college campuses is not about free speech—and there should be no question as to whether to put a stop to them. There is right and wrong, and the distinction here is very clear.

Enough, is enough.

Gil Mandelzis, a native Israeli, is founder and CEO of Capitolis, a financial technology company with offices in New York, Tel Aviv, and London. He believes that everyone matters.

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