Free Speech, Fair Play, and Fragile Truths

Accepting an Honor and Exercising my Responsibility as a Tufts Alumnus

Thank you. I want to thank the Awards Committee, President Monaco and my dear friend Dean Alan Solomont for helping to make this honor possible. It’s wonderful to be here on campus at Tufts. I’m so proud to be a Jumbo, and I’m humbled — and grateful — to receive this award today. Being here on the Hill brings back powerful memories from a truly formative time in my life.

When I was on campus, along with logging my hours for Tufts Dining Services, I found time to take classes at the “Ex College.” To attend services at Hillel with Rabbi Jeff Summit whose compassion and warmth still enriches Tufts today. To write and edit articles for the Observer. To host a radio show at WMFO. To sneak off campus and buy $8 tickets and watch Red Sox games in the bleachers at Fenway Park. And, yes, to intern at the Boston office of ADL.

The liberal arts education I received at Tufts allowed me to explore the world at my own pace, to investigate and probe my own interests, and to form a set of deeply held values — values that build from the core insight that I could change the world. I hope this potential will continue to be cultivated in each student here on campus because its never been more needed.

Tisch College of Civic Life, Lincoln Filene Center, Tufts University

And, in a moment when we face a series of seemingly intractable challenges, Tufts and in particular the Tisch College of Civic Life can be among the most vital instruments in addressing these issues and shaping the next generation — giving them the knowledge and tools to engage and shape our society.

What are those tools?

It’s a broad curiosity in the world around us — a curiosity that can lead someone from this campus to a Silicon Valley venture… to a bottled water start-up…to the C-suite of a Fortune 500…to the White House… and to the helm of a century-old non-profit.

It’s the fundamentals of knowledge that are taught in Tufts’ liberal arts classrooms and honed in its science and engineering labs. It’s the critical social skills that are learned on the courts of Cousens Gym and in work-study arrangements.

It’s the enduring civic values that make our democracy possible: Community. Inclusion. Equality for all. Not just a respect, but a reverence for free inquiry. A passion for debate. And an enthusiasm for all those who join it.

I don’t need to tell you that these values seem to be falling out of fashion in our current environment.

As the CEO of one of the nation’s most respected civil rights organizations, I would say that we’ve never really seen anything quite like this before. Hate crimes are on the rise. Intolerance is on the upswing. Fundamental liberties and important gains secured during the last century such as voting rights, LGBTQ equality and education equity appear to be at risk.

The country’s central institutions are being tested. Our free press and independent judiciary are subject to withering, unsubstantiated criticism from people in power. Truth is out. Trolling is in.

Instead of building bridges between various communities in our country; too many seek to divide us. Instead of embracing the tired and poor seeking refuge on our shores, there are those who seek to exclude them by subverting the sacred values inscribed on the Statue of Liberty. So, I stand before you concerned about the civic health of our country.

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Tufts taught me that, to tackle challenges of this magnitude, there is no silver bullet, no single policy fix. Instead, we need committed, coordinated and comprehensive citizen-driven responses. We need balanced approaches that mix activism and advocacy, non-profits and for-profits, politics and principles.

I carry those lessons with me everyday. I would, therefore, be remiss if I did not share that I also stand here today deeply concerned about Tufts and see a need for a balanced responses to recent challenges on campus.

As many of you may know, on the eve of the Passover holiday a week ago, the Tufts Community Union Senate voted in favor of a resolution calling for Tufts to divest its investments in companies that do business in Israel. This is part of a wider, anti-Semitic movement known as Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions or BDS that is making itself heard on campuses across the country and beyond.

I, the ADL, and many, many others see the BDS for what is — an initiative that does not seek to resolve the crisis in the Middle East, but rather, to perpetuate it by delegitimizing the state of Israel and denying the Jewish people the right of self-determination. In this way, BDS is an attack on the Jewish people itself.

I do not have time to get into all the details of this debate, but know that if you believe in a just, equitable, and peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as I do and as do the vast majority of individuals across a wide political spectrum, then a simple read of the facts and basic grasp of history demonstrates the necessity of a two-state solution. And that solution will not come about with BDS resolutions that foment distrust, distance, and demonization.

So, on its face, I find the BDS resolution passed by the TCU Senate deeply disturbing from all of my personal perspectives: as an alumnus who cares about Tufts; as a nonprofit executive who cares about justice and fair treatment; and as a Jew who cares about the fate of his people.

Now some will say that this resolution is pure rhetoric, that this university like others across the country will not modify its investment decisions or abrogate its fiduciary duty based on a symbolic student resolution. In fact, just yesterday, we should note that Tufts’ Trustees reaffirmed their commitment not to divest from companies doing business in Israel.

But, as I learned more about the process that preceded the vote and the actions that followed it, I must confess that I also feel deeply troubled by the way in which the leadership of the university handled this issue.

Faced with an emotional and explosive topic such as this resolution, it is the role of the University — as educators — to teach and guide its students. To show them how a respectful and inclusive debate happens. Not to influence the outcome per se, but to guide young people with policies and processes that allow all voices to be heard and all views to be considered.

By all accounts, that did not happen here.

This vote intentionally was timed right before Passover in order to reduce the ability of all the interested Jewish students from participating in the debate. This meant that a number of individuals were forced to choose between practicing their faith and defending their people. This was a shameful tactic designed to silence the voices of Jewish students and the pro-Israel community at Tufts.

Moreover, I have heard several firsthand accounts that the resolution’s backers basically bullied students who abstained and condemned those who voted no with deeply personal attacks. Such indecent behavior debases the entire Tufts community.

In the face of such a situation, it is vital for university leadership to step up and model moral leadership — to teach the student body as it explores controversial issues and to draw boundaries when individuals or groups overstep. And yet, last week, that did not happen.

To paraphrase the recent Passover holiday, this moment was not like other moments. The emotional nature of this issue warranted more than a clinical letter written after-the-fact and buried on the Tufts website. The letter neglected to adequately address the pain that resulted from the deeply cynical tactics of the proposal’s supporters, let alone the hostility of the resolution itself to the essence of modern Jewish identity. The lack of empathy did little to soothe the “punch in the gut” felt by so many who love Tufts but felt inexplicably left in the lurch. And this was particularly​ challenging because Rabbi Summit and so many have worked so hard to cultivate a rich and supportive community on campus, one that appropriately embraces Jewish students of all levels of observance from secular humanists to Chabadniks and political persuasions from AIPAC to J Street U.

But what concerned alumni, students, friends, and community groups like ADL expected and still need to hear now is a forceful and public acknowledgement of the right of freedom of speech and the integrity of the TCU Senate — and that principles of free speech and fair play mean that all students will have ample opportunity to express themselves and participate in an inclusive and open process.

I encourage this Administration to step forward in a more serious way and recognize the anguish caused by this action and the alienation it has sown among the Jewish members of the Tufts community, both those currently on campus and those living in diaspora, so to speak.

I urge you to demonstrate the humility to engage this community in town halls or online forums, to hear their pain and to help with the healing.

I appeal to you to organize a task force that convenes alumni and administrators to review how this transpired and recommend steps to ensure it is not repeated.

And I advocate that you consider introducing a code of ethics — call it a covenant of active citizenship — for student leaders, one that demands ethical behavior, that upholds democratic processes and that creates accountability for those who fall short of these basic standards.

Now, I realize that it may seem odd for an alumnus to criticize his alma mater on the very day when I am receiving an honor from this institution.

But, from what I learned at Tufts, this is exactly what you taught me to do.

To take responsibility. To speak out. To defend free speech. To demand fair play. To make arguments respectfully and forcefully but also factually and rationally. And to defend and support the university that I so deeply love.

In closing, let me reaffirm my gratitude for this award and express the privilege that I feel to still be part of this community some 25 years after my graduation.

And for those reasons, I commit today to do whatever I can and to offer whatever expertise and resources we have at ADL to assist Tufts, its students and its leaders, as you seek to learn from this series of errors, to create a stronger campus, and, to paraphrase a certain businessman, to put a light on a hill.

THANK YOU.