I tried to speak about a two-state solution at a university. The police had to evacuate me. 

In Short

If I cannot speak peacefully on a campus about both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because “Zionists are not welcome,” what does that herald for the future of Jewish scholars and scholarship in American higher education?

Having worked all my adult life on university campuses, I am no stranger to student protests. When I was a student, I even joined some of them. But these protests have always been outdoors and civil, and have never jeopardized people’s safety. In my 22 years of teaching about Israel and the Middle East, I have never seen campuses as threatening to Jewish students and faculty as today. 

Last week, police had to evacuate me from a building at San Jose State University (SJSU) after anti-Israel protesters flooded a hallway outside my guest lecture and created imminent danger for me and everyone else on that floor. The idea that I needed armed security at a university, which is supposed to epitomize the free and civil exchange of ideas and knowledge, appalls me as an academic. 

Here’s what happened: I was invited by SJSU’s director of Jewish studies to speak to a class about the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I was prepared to discuss with students that between Oslo in 1993 and Taba in 2001, the two sides were achingly close to a solution, complete with maps and detailed plans. I believe that Israel’s long-term security ultimately lies in a two-state solution, which guarantees security for the Jewish state and self-determination for the Palestinians. 

When I arrived on campus, I learned that a student organization was organizing a protest outside my lecture, including creating a flier stating, “Show SJSU that Zionists are not welcome here.” As I began my talk, I heard the commotion in the hallway grow louder, the result of about 50 protesters who would not leave despite police orders. About 20 minutes into my talk, the campus police — who had brought in the San Jose Police Department as a backup — came into the room and said they had to evacuate me. 

The mob in the hallway was bordering on violence, shoving us and trying to grab the camera of someone filming the chaos. As an academic and not a political figure, I have never experienced anything remotely like this. I did not want to leave and give the crowd the victory of achieving their goal of disrupting my lecture, but I had no choice. 

This incident, and the protests on campus around the country, strike at the core of the identity of a university as a place of learning. A student group decided they did not want me to teach a class and intervened to stop me from teaching. If allowed to continue, these protesters will destroy higher education. 

At the heart of a university ethos is that faculty must be permitted to teach, and that free speech is for everyone, not just the opinions we agree with. A classroom should not have to be a defensible fortress, but a place where we counter speech with which we don’t agree with more speech, not shouts for violence. 

Sadly, too many anti-Israel protesters, like the ones who threatened me at SJSU, are not interested in hearing other perspectives or educating themselves about a nuanced and complex situation. They are clearly not interested in the exchange of ideas, and I fear they are not interested in peace. 

Today’s campus protests expose the lie that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism. Disagreeing with the policies of an Israeli government is not inherently antisemitic, but calling for a “free Palestine” in all of Israel’s current territory is. I ask the campus administrators who have equivocated in their defense of Jewish students and refused to see these protests as hateful: Where is the largest Jewish community in the world supposed to go? And if I cannot speak peacefully on a campus about both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because “Zionists are not welcome,” what does that herald for the future of Jewish scholars and scholarship in American higher education?

While Jewish students on campuses across the country have found havens and connections at Hillel, Chabad and other Jewish campus groups, creating and supporting these “safe spaces” is not enough. Yes, we must strengthen these organizations so Jewish students and even faculty have a place to gather where they are not under attack — but if we stop at creating safe spaces, we risk ceding the rest of campus as an unsafe space for Jews. 

Parents want to shelter their children, but today’s antisemitism on campus shows us that these students will not benefit at college if they are thrust into it from a cloistered background. It is crucial for Jewish students to understand what it means to be Jewish and all the nuances of events in the Middle East, so they have the confidence to advocate for themselves. It is equally crucial that well before arriving at college, parents ensure their children are exposed to myriad opinions on all sorts of issues, not just Israel and Judaism. If students aren’t raised to hear opinions that may make them uncomfortable, they will never be prepared for higher education and certainly the wider world. They must have the basis of resilience and self-confidence when they graduate high school so they can further develop those qualities at college. 

Yes, we want Jewish safe spaces on campuses to thrive and for students to engage in activities and organizations that build their Jewish identity, however they want to define it. But Jewish students also deserve and are entitled to engage with their larger university surroundings, both in the classroom and outside it. I hope that, in time, dialogue, education and understanding will once again be possible, and that Jewish students and faculty will have both the knowledge to engage in them and the resilience and confidence to stand up for themselves in this current environment. All university campuses should be safe spaces for all students and faculty.

Jeffrey Blutinger is the Barbara and Ray Alpert Endowed Chair in Jewish studies and a professor of history at California State University, Long Beach.