Israeli political theorist considers limits on free speech

Notre Dame’s Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government (CCCG) hosted American-Israeli philosopher, biblical scholar, and political theorist Yoram Hazony on February 26. In the wake of heated debates regarding free speech and anti-Semitism on college campuses, his visit is part of Notre Dame’s ongoing effort to promote open academic discussions.

Hazony’s lecture, titled “Judaism and Free Speech on Campus Post-October 7, 2023,” addressed the politically hostile atmospheres on college campuses surrounding the Israel-Palestine conflict. Hazony also examined the role universities play in using free speech as a weapon to silence differing viewpoints.

After the October 7, 2023 Hamas terrorist attack—the single bloodiest day for Jews since the Holocaust—leading American universities began to issue public declarations of support for either Gaza or Israel. These statements sparked debate and protests between administrators and students on campuses across the country. 

Professor Philip Muñoz, director of the CCCG and a professor of political science and law, introduced Hazony. Muñoz remarked briefly on American educational mores: “What happened on America’s college campuses after 10/7/2023 was shocking. The events on campus brought into question the moral health of our universities, brought into question the role of free speech at our universities—what it should be and what its limits ought to be.”

Hazony argued that elite American universities have been taken over by neo-Marxists, pointing to the congressional testimony of three Ivy League presidents who refused to unequivocally denounce calls on their campuses for the genocide of Jews.

Hazony said that he disagreed with the response championed by intellectuals such as Robert P. George, Jonathan Haidt, and Stephen Pinker. George recently argued that individuals at universities should be free to “examine and defend or criticize any idea, including ideas we judge to be extreme and even evil.”

Hazony denounced this view of free speech: “The substance of the arguments that are circulating is that what would be best … is to just allow everybody to call for the extermination of everybody else. And then let’s bring out the best arguments on all sides and see the truth win out.”

He continued, “I think this is naive. What we are watching is the conquest of the most prestigious idea-producing institutions in America by a group of people who have no interest in participating in a legitimate debate of free speech. … Rather, they express their views in the context of a broader strategy of employing threats, aggression, deception, and a wide variety of forms of abuse in order to intimidate and silence anyone who dissents.”

For Hazony, the solution is not to throw open the doors to any and all forms of expression, but rather to renew efforts to abide by the original aims of free speech: “An exchange of honors is what makes free speech possible. Free speech can’t help where speech is being used to destroy free speech. … In a sphere of free speech there are always boundaries, there always were boundaries, there always will be. There’s no such thing as absolute free speech.”

Some students disagreed with Hazony. Junior Will Grannis argued, “Notre Dame hasn’t had the same sort of trouble with extreme speech since October 7 as other elite universities, despite the fact that we are generally friendlier to all sorts of speech. It seems like genuine free dialogue constrains extremism far better than top-down pronouncements.”

He added, “I don’t think that the primary role of a university is to be a hub of free speech; it ought to be in the business of forming students. … The best way to create intelligent, well-formed graduates is with free speech, but establishing free speech as an end in itself is putting the cart before the horse.”

After the lecture, Hazony answered further questions in a conversation with political science professor Patrick Deneen, the organizer of the event. In the session, Hazony elaborated his position: “I think our only hope is to try to transcend whether someone feels insulted and move to some kind of objective standard of what kinds of things our students should be taught to avoid as part of participating in a society in which we need to coexist with other people.”

During his visit, Hazony also attended a breakfast and discussion with the CCCG’s undergraduate Tocqueville Fellows. Sophomore Alejandra Ricardo commented: “The Tocqueville breakfast with Dr. Hazony was an incredibly enriching experience. I was already sympathetic toward his views about anti-Semitism on college campuses, but his visit definitely strengthened my commitment to that position.”

Fr. Bill Miscamble, C.S.C., professor of history at Notre Dame, reflected on Hazony’s lecture and the role of the Catholic university in protecting and restricting speech: “A true Catholic university like Notre Dame should be a place in which genuine intellectual and political conversations occur within the framework of our Catholic intellectual tradition.”

Fr. Miscamble continued, “Hazony noted persuasively that there are certain ideas which can be generally incorporated under the label of ‘progressive wokeism’ that deeply handicap a genuine pursuit of truth. It has been deeply worrying to see the extent of anti-Semitic activity on some campuses, and it is important that Notre Dame faculty and students grasp this reality and work to ensure that such thinking is rejected here.” 

Lucy Spence is a freshman from Northern Virginia studying piano performance and constitutional studies. Her depleted number of FlexPoints, a result of her exorbitant coffee intake, has recently prompted her to start a GoFundMe. Donate to the cause at

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Photo Credit: CCCG