On Behalf of Free Speech, Even When it Hurts

A distinguished academic who has vigorously opposed academic boycotts of Israel and a veteran senior administrator in American Jewish organisational life have protested the decision by the University of Southampton to cancel a planned academic conference challenging the legitimacy of the state of Israel under international law.  They have sent a letter in this regard to the Vice Chancellor of the University and published the letter in Inside Higher Education.  The link to the letter may be found at http://jkrfoundation.org/british-university-shouldnt-cancel-anti-israel-conference/.  I have also reproduced the letter below.


Dear Vice Chancellor Nutbeam,

We write as two North Americans who oppose academic boycotts and support academic freedom. While we find the upcoming conference on International Law and the State of Israel disturbing (it questions the right of Israel to exist, it includes panelists who have made gross antisemitic statements, etc.), we are shocked by the report that the university might cancel the conference.

Academic freedom requires that scholarly meetings, even ones that can rightly be criticized for promoting bigotry, are permitted to be held. The correct answer to the problems this conference poses is for others to use their own academic freedom to document what is wrong when, as here, history and principles are twisted to promote a bigoted political agenda. Especially given the University’s track record of supporting important and valued teaching and research in Jewish studies, it is well poised to answer speech with speech, rather than with suppression.

Canceling the conference because of security concerns is called, in the American context, a “heckler’s veto.” We ask Southampton not to eviscerate the right its faculty and students have to hear what the organizers of this conference present, even if what is presented is troubling and bigoted.

Campus security can surely handle a demonstration against the conference. Indeed people participating in such a protest would be exercising their own academic freedom so long as the event was allowed to continue.

We also worry about the precedent Southampton would set by canceling. Whether pro-Israel or anti-Israel (or pro-immigrant or anti-immigrant, or pro-gay rights or anti-gay rights, etc), it would effectively be saying that forces inside and outside the academic community who don’t like a particular point of view can shut down speech by threats. How can learning take place in such an environment? Would Southampton only then have conferences and speakers on “safe” topics? How can students learn to think when difficult issues and hot topics are no longer appropriate for campus programming?

We call on the university to allow this conference to take place, on campus, with adequate security. And we call on you and your colleagues to use your own academic freedom to speak out about both the bigotry that will likely be evidenced at the conference, and the danger to the academic enterprise when speech, even troubling and bigoted speech, is suppressed.

Cary Nelson, co-chair, Alliance for Academic Freedom
Kenneth Stern, executive director, Justus & Karin Rosenberg Foundation, executive committee, Alliance for Academic Freedom



Political Responsibility in a Democratic State

The much-anticipated and highly-divisive Israeli elections have come and gone, and I’d like to offer some reflections on what the elections mean about the nature of Israeli democracy.

The structure and integrity of the Israeli electoral system means that the outcome accurately represented the will of the people, proving beyond any doubt that a plurality of Israeli citizens would rather be ruled by the right than the left.

The Likud won fair and square.  Netanyahu used racist language to get out the vote, but there was no ballot tampering, let alone intimidation at the voting stations.  Had the electorate decided otherwise, the Zionist Union would be forming the government, and Netanyahu would have handed over the keys to the Prime Minister’s residence.  Netanyahu may be a demagogue but he is not a dictator.  Israel is still a democracy in which elected representatives serve with the consent of the people.  All citizens have the same political rights, although the Jewish majority enjoys social privileges that the Arab minority does not.

As a stable democracy, Israel remains qualitatively different from its Arab neighbours.  Arab states have a long tradition of serving narrow elites and being disconnected from the populace except as providers of public employment.  Ordinary Arabs, even in putative democracies, have felt little connection with the state apparatus.  The Arab uprisings strove to tear the old system down, and many Arabs wanted to install genuine democracies in its place.  For the most part, the uprisings failed, with authoritarianism back in place in Egypt and chaos in Libya, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.

Arabs are bitterly angry and frustrated about their condition, yet because of the anti-democratic, non-inclusive tradition of politics in Arab states, they have not felt personally responsible for their states’ crimes.  Yet Arabs commonly blame Israelis for everything their state does.  This behaviour is in part irrational and even anti-Semitic, but it is also justified to the extent that in Israel the government is accountable to the electorate. In the Arab world, the only way to change things is to go out into the street and protest, thereby risking jail or death, or to take up arms  (and, of course, face an even greater risk of jail or death).

In Israel, people vote governments in and out power.  There has never been a coup or civil war. New governments do not carry out reprisals against the former government’s members and their friends and families.   Israelis and their supporters throughout the world can take justifiable pride in their country’s steadfast attachment to democratic government.  They should also realise that if governments are accountable to the people, the people are accountable for the governments they elect.



Polls and Elections

Surprisingly, amidst the obsessive attention in the world press to Israel’s pre-election polls, there’s been little discussion about whether historically these polls have predicted the election results.  During the 1980s and 90s there were six elections, and in most of them Labour did more poorly in the actual election than the pre-election polls suggested.

Even people who were dissatisfied with the Likud for one reason or another found that when they got into the voting booth they just couldn’t bring themselves to select the party of the secular, Ashkenazic elite.  There was too great a legacy of resentment against Labour, the successor to Mapai, the party that put new Jewish immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East in tent cities and treated them with condescension, if not outright scorn.  Thirty years after the Great Immigration of the 1950s, Labour was still associated with cutting off the forelocks of Yemenite immigrant males or belittling Moroccan immigrants for their hearty gutturals.

Since the 90s, Labour has suffered for another reason – its association with the now-deceased Oslo peace process.  Labour has been considered soft, “defeatist,” a party of “freyerim” (suckers).  Unable to gain much ground on the Palestinian issue, in the last election in 2013 Labour focused on Israel’s growing economic inequity and weakening social safety net.  It helped a bit, but not enough to revive the party, which got only about eleven per cent of the vote.

If as the polls are predicting the Zionist Union (Labour plus Tzippi Livni’s Ha-Tenuah party) wins several seats more than the Likud, it will be a sign that Labour has finally overcome a dual curse of bygone hegemony and failed peacemaking.  But even if the Zionist Union wins a plurality of the vote, a centre-left coalition will be difficult to form and no less difficult to maintain.  Much of Israel’s Jewish electorate is still more hawkish than Labour’s current incarnation.  If nothing else, though, in this election Labour may get rid of some old ghosts and reclaim a place for itself in Israeli politics, a place that it has all but lost over the fourteen years since its last government under Ehud Barak.

The Occupation as Chronotope?

Israel is widely criticized for its occupation of Palestinian land.  Which land?  Does “the Occupation” refer to Israel’s 1967 conquests or does it include the pre-1967 state as well?  For the international community and for many critics of Israel, as well as many of Israel’s more dovish supporters, the Occupation refers to the former.  For a small but vocal minority in the western world, and larger numbers in the Muslim and Arab world, the Occupation refers to the state itself.

How one conceives the Occupation in time affects how one conceives it in space.  The Occupation is what the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin called a chronotope, a “time-space,” in which time is visible, and space is perceived through the lens of history.

For many years, the chronotope of an Occupation that began in 1967 made it possible for Israeli Jews to conceive of the Occupation as a temporary situation, an irregularity.  Normalization would eventually occur – not a return to the precise June 5 1967 borders, which most Israelis believed to be indefensible, but the drawing of secure borders and establishment of peaceful relations with its neighbours.  The expansion of settlements in the West Bank and Gaza in the 1980s did not result in annexation, leaving the whole enterprise in a state of temporal suspense.

The First Intifadah of 1987-1993 forced Israelis to realize that the Occupation could not continue indefinitely without some major change in policy.  In 1991, Mark Heller and Sari Nusseibeh mooted a “two-state” solution to end the Occupation.  At the time, the idea was furiously attacked in Israel by all but the far left, but a decade later it had gained currency.  This was because of the Oslo Process.  By the time the process began in 1993, the Occupation was already a quarter-century old, but with the establishment of the Palestine Authority, Israelis began to conceive of “Palestine” as something separate from “Israel.”  Granted, the PA had highly limited powers, and when Israeli Prime Minister Yizhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995, he had not embraced Palestinian statehood.  But a critical mass of Israelis were moving towards accepting a structural differentiation between Israel and Palestine.  The Occupation seemed more provisional than ever.

The Oslo Process was destroyed by many actors, Jewish and Arab alike.  But the Second Intifadeh, which killed over 1000 Israeli civilians in spectacular acts of terrorism, is the key for understanding the transformation of the Occupation in much of Israeli political discourse from provisional to permanent. Israelis who came of age during or before the 1990s could conceive of the Occupation as transitory, but for those who have come of age since 2000, the Occupation has assumed a new form as lacking a beginning and therefore having no end.

This way of thinking causes many Israeli Jews who have never adopted the ideology of settlement activists to passively accept the steady expansion within the West Bank of Jewish settlements, the expropriation of Palestinian private lands, and the encircling of eastern Jerusalem with Jewish developments to forestall territorial continuity of Arab territories in a Palestinian state.  The chronotope of eternal mastery over the land makes possible the Israeli hard Right’s confident discourse about annexing Area C, the largest of the three areas into which the Palestinian Authority is divided.  And this way of thinking accounts for increasingly violent Israeli military interventions in Gaza, carried out against what is assumed to be an utterly irreconcilable enemy.

In another blog I will write about the second chronotope, of the Occupation as beginning in 1948, and how it affects the thinking of Palestinians and their supporters about the space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

L’Affaire Salaita

For the past two months the academic blogosphere has been filled with debate about the case of Professor Steven Salaita, who was poised to accept a tenured position in Native American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champagne. A few days ago, that appointment was blocked by the University’s Chancellor.

The reason for the blockage (or, if one believes that the hire was fully effected, rescinding) of the hire has to do with Salaita’s public comments, made via Twitter. Intriguingly, the debate has had little to do with Salaita’s published scholarship (he wrote a monograph in 2006 comparing the concepts of indigeneity, settler colonialism, and land rights amongst Native Americans and Palestinians) or even his many journalistic opinion pieces, which were published in 2011.  Instead, Salaita’s academic future has been hanging on a few dozen 140-character-or-less tweets, many of them made during this summer’s Gaza war.   As anyone who has been following the story knows, the tweets are vulgar and nasty.  Some of Salaita’s defenders term them provocative, but his critics would call them incendiary. Debate has gone back and forth whether they cross the line from anti-Zionism into antisemitism and whether they advocate violence.

The real questions, though, are:  does the principle of academic freedom apply to extramural speech?  Does that freedom apply across the board to hostile speech directed against any individual or group?   Is extra-mural speech an issue only when it touches upon the scholar’s areas of expertise and so might reflect on her/his competence?  Are nasty comments licit regardless of what kind of group is being attacked, or only if the object of abuse is perceived as powerful, oppressive, exploitative, or just plain wrong-headed?  That is, are abusive tweets by academics against Israel, the NRA, the NSA, and the Koch Brothers permitted, yet equally harsh comments about Palestinians, gun-control advocates, anarchists, and Pacifica Radio grounds for censure or dismissal?

All this brings up two related questions:  Is the academy a continuation of the political battlefield or a shelter from it?  Does the university replicate conflict or strive to transcend it?  

I have no answer to these questions, and I would not trust anyone in the University to answer them for me.  Even constitutional protections of speech have limits, and in universities scholars may not say whatever they want, however and whenever they want to. But the bar for unacceptable speech must be set very high, and it cannot be set at different heights for different kinds of opinions.   A few – well, even more than a few – outrageous ideologues on all sides of the spectrum may be a small price to pay for the freedoms that lie at the core of our humanity.

At the link below, two scholars at the University of Illinois discuss these questions in an unusually informed and civil manner: