CAMERA Op-Ed: Anti-Israel Crybullies and the Free Speech Inversion

[Editor’s Note: A slightly different version of this article originally appeared at The Algemeiner on December 8, 2023.]

The term “crybully” rose to prominence over the last decade to describe a phenomenon that was becoming increasingly common on campuses. As defined at, a crybully is “a person who self-righteously harasses or intimidates others while playing the victim, especially of a perceived social injustice.” It’s a particularly accurate label for the crowd of anti-Israel activists who have spent decades working to silence and intimidate Jewish and Israeli voices on campuses while also portraying themselves as victims of an attack on their free speech.

Let’s set the scene of the bully side of the label.

Anti-Israel activists have long engaged in conduct designed to suppress the ability of Jewish and Israeli voices to speak on campuses. Through the so-called “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” movement (BDS), these activists have openly called to silence an entire category of speakers. For decades, BDS activists have disrupted events, even including Holocaust memorial events, and one can only guess as to how many Israelis and Zionists have been overtly or quietly denied opportunities or platforms because of their identity.

The bullying became even more extreme over time. Student groups began banning Zionists, which includes the overwhelming majority of American Jews, or declaring that Zionists were not welcome on campus. Jewish institutions on campuses have become increasingly targeted for vandalism and threats. Overt expressions of antisemitism became increasingly normalized.

The effect has been palpable. A recent survey found that 31.9% of Jewish students have “felt unable to speak out about campus antisemitism” and 38.3% said they “would be uncomfortable with others on campus knowing about their views of Israel.” Less than half of Jewish students said they felt “very” or “extremely” physically safe on campus. Another study found that among Jewish sorority and fraternity members, two-thirds had felt unsafe on campus at some point, and half had felt the need to hide their identity. That is, those students were not just withholding their speech; they felt afraid to even be identified as Jewish on campus.

An anti-Israel demonstration at Brown University.

Their fear is not unjustified. Nationally, hate crimes against Jews are at shockingly high and disproportionate levels, with four times as many anti-Jewish crimes as anti-Muslim and anti-Arab crimes combined. One need only look at some of the recent scenes on campus, such as anti-Israel demonstrators besieging Jewish students locked in a room at Cooper Union, to understand why Jewish students are afraid. Moreover, it is not the pro-Israel rallies and activists that have regularly descended into violence, intimidation, and vandalism, or barrages of antisemitic and genocidal chants. It is the Jewish students being attacked at their own rallies or while putting up posters of those taken hostage. It is Jewish students who are being forced to reject a central part of their Jewish identity if they want to participate in university functions.

We know where much of this is coming from. As shown by one study, the presence of the major anti-Israel student organization, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), is one of the best predictors for the perception of a hostile climate for Jews on campuses. As one New York appellate court ruling explained, a university’s conclusion that an SJP chapter would “work against, rather than enhance [a university’s] commitment [to] open dialogue” was “not without sound basis in reason” nor “taken without regard to the facts.”

Which brings us to the “cry” part of “crybully.”

Anti-Israel activists shriek and howl over alleged threats to their free speech. But the evidence is thin that there is any reason for anti-Israel students to feel that their freedom of expression is under any serious threat on campus. Moves against various SJP chapters on universities have not been on the basis of their beliefs or expression, but rather their violations of legitimate university rules and even plausible arguments that National SJP has run afoul of the Anti-Terrorism Act.

That a handful of students have lost out on job offers because they expressed support for a designated terrorist organization that had just murdered and raped its way through southern Israel is hardly a threat to free speech, either. Private actors are not restrained by the First Amendment, and as explained in Ilya Shapiro’s brilliant piece at The Free Press, one can hardly qualify these examples as “cancel culture.”

And while there has been a rise in hate crimes against Arabs and Muslims, the demographic typically associated with the Palestinian cause, the figures still pale in comparison to hate crimes against Jews, which have skyrocketed from their already disturbingly high levels.

Unfortunately, some otherwise laudable free speech advocates are falling for the crybully trick and adopting some perplexing positions. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), for example, has repeatedly opposed the use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s non-legally binding definition of antisemitism, incorrectly suggesting that it would limit speech. On the other hand, FIRE has curiously refused to take a position on BDS – which openly works to limit the speech of an entire category of people – and has even joined failed lawsuits against anti-BDS laws.

This is not to say that FIRE shouldn’t stand up for anti-Israel activists when their legitimate rights are infringed. To the contrary, I encourage FIRE to continue to do so. But free speech advocates, like those at FIRE, should rethink their role in protecting America’s sacred belief in free speech. When substantial numbers of Jews and Israelis are afraid to express themselves and are being pushed out of entire academic communities because of who they are, that is as big of a threat to free expression as any.

Just the other day, the concerned father of a Jewish student, who was personally facing intimidation on campus, shared with me his conversation with a senior university official. The official acknowledged that most Jewish students were afraid to even report the antisemitism they were facing, given the hostile climate. But, the father explained, the official wasn’t saying this because he had any intention of addressing the hostile environment he just acknowledged existed. Rather, it was a warning: make a fuss over this and it might get even worse for your son.

That is the disturbing reality Jews and Israelis are facing on campus: not just hostility, but apathy from those in a position of responsibility to address the situation. That is why I hope free speech advocates will find a constructive way to help address the situation before it gets even worse.

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