Jewish tradition celebrates  ‘makhloket l’shem shamayim’  or ‘disagreement for the sake of heaven’ – the principle that open debate and critical dissent on ethical and moral issues is a necessary and holy task. Open debate, especially on controversial moral issues, is critical in any community committed to the sacred Jewish commitment to pursue justice,  tzedek,for all.

As a Jewish child growing up in Apartheid South Africa, I saw how many of those who opposed Apartheid were often silenced, shamed, banned, not allowed to organize, arrested, imprisoned and murdered. As a result, we all lived in fear of openly expressing our opinion and too many in my Jewish community and in other faith communities betrayed our faiths by not speaking up for justice and not challenging the denial of freedom of speech.

When I heard last month that Fordham University denied students the right to form a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter on campus, it brought back memories of my early life in South Africa. And I was shocked to hear that, last week, Fordham issued a disciplinary charge against a Jewish student for organizing a rally to defend free speech rights. As a university that claims to be driven by faith-based values of justice, Fordham must allow SJP to exist on campus and must protect free speech for all.

The students in SJP support the nonviolent, grassroots Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which calls on the government of Israel to end its Occupation, apartheid, and denial of human rights of the Palestinian people. As a person who grew up in South Africa I saw first hand the important role that the international boycott movement played in ending the horror of Apartheid. As a rabbi, I also know that my tradition understands deeply that those who wield unjust power – like Pharaoh in Egypt – will not act justly unless there is a a cost to maintaining the unjust system.

As a Jesuit and Catholic university, Fordham claims to uphold these same values. Its website  states  that all parts of the university “seek to insert themselves in the world on the side of the poor, the marginalized, and those seeking justice”and that“this core identity of Fordham fosters an insatiable desire to question, debate, and discern that which is good and also to help lead and serve those in need.” If Fordham claims that its faith-based values compel it to stand with the oppressed and to foster critical inquiry, it should amplify SJP’s demands for justice in Palestine – or, at the very least, not ban SJP and punish students for protesting!

In the era of Trump, as many marginalized communities face attacks on their fundamental human rights, the values of freedom of speech and expression, on and off campus, are under threat as well. Now more than ever, if Fordham wants to live up to the values it professes as a faith institution – values my Jewish faith holds dear as well – it must protect the rights of students to free speech. It must instate SJP as a student club, drop the charges against students, and protect the right to political speech free from intimidation and fear.

[The views and content of this piece are the responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or editorial stance of Tikkun or the Network of Spiritual Progressives.]

Photo credits:Martin Nunez-Bonilla

Rabbi Walt is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace’s rabbinical council and is the rabbi at Congregation Tikkun v’Or in Ithaca, New York. He was the founding executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights-North America from 2003-2008 (now called T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights).


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