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Answering Israel’s Campus Critics By: Richard L. Cravatts
FrontPageMagazine.com | Monday, July 14, 2008


As evidence of what Professor Edward Alexander has called "the explosive power of boredom" in rousing the liberal professoriate to its ideological feet, Harvard's prolific Professor of Anthropology and of African and African American Studies, L. Roland Matory, was yet again fulminating in the June 5th issue of the Harvard Crimson about the “chilling” of free speech on campus and seeking, as he has been for some time now, "a civil dialogue in which people with a broad range of perspectives feel safe and are encouraged to express their reasoned and evidence-based ideas."

And what were those "reasoned" ideas that had caused professor Matory to feel "unsafe" on Harvard's insulated campus? Criticism of Zionism and Israel, of course, an issue about which Professor Matory and others have many notorious opinions, but which are being suppressed, in his ominous view, through "imbalances in access to money, media, and society’s administrative apparatuses [which] constitute the censorship of dissent." Professor Matory's implication is that on this one issue—criticism of Israel—the sacrosanct notion of "academic free speech" is being threatened by Israel’s defenders who wish to stifle all speech critical of the Jewish state.

That reference in Matory’s opening line to “access to money, media, and society’s administrative apparatuses” as a tool to obviate criticism of Israel is itself particularly odious, as it echoes precisely the classic form of anti-Semitism which positions Jews as the holders of great power, wealth, and influence, and those able to sway public opinion to protect Jewish interests—which in current times has meant Israel’s interests. And like others who are confounded by what they see as an unjustified continuing support of Israel by the United States, Matory makes the same mistaken assumption that Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer made in their notorious recent book, The Israel Lobby: that there is a sinister, powerful cabal working in the shadows to deflect criticism of Israel and silence its foes, and that the truth about Israel’s moral and political flaws are therefore never widely known.

Instead, though it is apparently difficult for Matory or the “Israel lobby” foes to believe so, Israel’s case in the “marketplace of ideas” is strong because history, reason, and evidence-based ideas are on its side, despite the fervency with which its detractors try to tear it down. So the problem of not being listened to that Matory and others so regularly bemoan is not due to the wily machinations of speech-stifling pro-Zionists, but possibly to the vacuity and extremism of the critics’ own views. Professor Matory, for instance, points to the fact that the New York Times and Boston Globe have never published his opinions as evidence of a conspiracy to silence him, when it is far more likely that he goes unpublished in mainstream media precisely because his ideas are egregiously wrong-headed and not worthy of widespread dissemination.

Professor Matory also mentioned how another high-profile, outspoken academic, Norman Finkelstein, had a speaking invitation from Harvard withdrawn because of his unrelenting criticism of Israel, using this as more proof that critics of Israel are regularly silenced on campus. But Finkelstein has loudly pronounced his extreme views on the Middle East, not to mention his loathing on what he has called the Holocaust “industry,” something he has called an “outright extortion racket,” and in fact blames Jews themselves for anti-Semitism.  Writing in Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, his off-handed, sardonic response to Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz’s own book, Chutzpah, Finkelstein accuses Jewish leadership, a group he defines as a “repellent gang of plutocrats, hoodlums, and hucksters,” of creating a “combination of economic and political power,” from which “has sprung, unsurprisingly, a mindset of Jewish superiority.” What is more, he continues, “from this lethal brew of formidable power, chauvinistic arrogance, feigned (or imagined) victimhood, and Holocaust-immunity to criticism has sprung a terrifying recklessness and ruthlessness on the part of American Jewish elites. Alongside Israel, they are the main fomenters of anti-Semitism in the world today.” 

Finkelstein’s best known work, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections On The Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, cruelly minimizes the magnitude of the Holocaust while simultaneously making the perverse accusation that it is used by Zionists to extract sympathy from the world community and to justify the oppression and subjugation of the Palestinians by Israelis. Despite its popularity with anti-Semites, Islamists, and neo-Nazis worldwide, one critic, Brown University genocide expert Omer Bartov, an authority on genocide, described the book in a New York Times review as "a novel variation on the anti-Semitic forgery, 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion' . . . brimming with indifference to historical facts, inner contradictions, strident politics . . . indecent . . . juvenile, self-righteous, arrogant and stupid." Historian David Greenberg was similarly critical of the level of scholarship in The Holocaust Industry, calling it "a hate-filled screed" filled with "pseudo-scholarship, extreme anti-Israel ideology and—there is no way around it—anti-Semitism."

Finkelstein, who was recently denied tenure at DePaul, has now also adopted the position that this professional set-back is the direct result for being bold enough to speak up against Zionism and Israel, and he has been punished into silence accordingly, even while he regularly visits college campuses nationwide, usually at the invitation of the Muslim Students Association, where, as he is demonizing Israel and America, he coddles homicidal Palestinians and defends the terror of Hezbollah with such admissions as: "I did make a point of publicly honoring the heroic resistance of Hezbollah to foreign occupation . . . Their historic contributions are . . . undeniable." 

The real question is: not why was Finkelstein’s invitation to speak at Harvard withdrawn and who was responsible, but why would such an incendiary figure be invited in the first place?

The truth of the matter is that “not every idea is worth the university’s attention,” as Bruce S. Thornton, professor and chair of the Humanities Department of California State University, Fresno, recently observed. “Today, no one wants to give time to someone arguing for a geocentric cosmos, a flat earth, or space-alien construction of the pyramids. Nor should we grant a hearing to those endorsing more contemporary, but equally dubious, ideas that obviously violate the canons of rational thought and knowledge. Holocaust denial, for example, is not an acceptable idea on a university campus, since believing that the Holocaust didn’t take place violates the accepted standards used to establish historical truth. . . Such ideas are today’s equivalents of the flat-earth point of view. The town square can tolerate their presence; the university should not.”

So, too, should universities be free to make moral judgments about the suitability of their invited speakers, as Harvard did, eventually, in the case of poet Tom Paulin, who Matory also mentions in recounting of instances when Israel–haters were denied a Harvard platform. When Harvard's English department in 2002 invited Paulin to speak as a prestigious Morris Gray Lecturer, it did so, according to English Department chair, Lawrence Buell, “to affirm a belief in the importance of free speech as a principle and practice in the academy.” That of course is a noble and purposeful role for universities, save for the fact that Paulin, poet and lecturer at Oxford University, had been quoted articulating the odious sentiment that "Brooklyn-born” Jewish settlers should be "shot dead." "I think they are Nazis, racists, I feel nothing but hatred for them," he told Egypt's al-Ahram Weekly. "I can understand how suicide bombers feel . . . I think attacks on civilians in fact boost morale.”

What Professors Finkelstein, Walt, Mearsheimer, and Matory have all apparently failed to realize is that they have not been silenced at all in their unrelenting rants against Israel; in fact, the very opposite is true: they have achieved world-wide notoriety and, in some quarters, wide acclaim for their views. More importantly, in their zeal to preempt the insulating force of this notion of "academic freedom," they have sought to deprive their ideological opponents of the same rights and protection; that is, while they want to be able to utter any calumny against the Jewish state and suffer no recriminations for their speech, they view any speech from those challenging their views to be oppressive, stifling, unreasonable, and, in the popular term used by those who frequently utter second-rate ideas, "chilling."

But the issue is far more obvious than the professors care to realize, and much less insidious. Those who speak back to ideologues such as Matory, Finkelstein, Walt, and Mearsheimer do so not to suppress criticism of Israel, but to contribute to the debate about it; academic freedom grants the professors the right to spew forth any ideologies they wish, but it does not mean that they can do so without being challenged over the content of their thoughts.

"Free speech does not absolve anyone from professional incompetence," says Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; and those who question divestment petitions, or critique the anti-Israel and anti-American "scholarship" parading on campuses as Middle Eastern Studies, or answer back when a work purports to reveal a sinister Jewish cabal controlling U.S. foreign policy, or criticize those who condone or apologize for terrorism, or correct such notions as Professor Matory's that Israel is "quashing the rights of millions of Palestinians refugees to lands, houses, and goods stolen as a condition of Israel's founding in the late 1940s" are not stifling debate about Israel. They are using their own academic freedom to rebut what they see as distortions, half-truths, propaganda, mistakes about history, or outright lies.

There is nothing unseemly about countering speech—even hateful speech—with more speech. In fact, that is the very heart of the university's mission. Professor Matory claims that he is seeking a greater civility on campus through reasoned academic discourse, but his real intention seems to be to create that civility by having only his side of the discussion be heard—without the uncomfortable necessity of hearing other, dissenting views. Like many of his fellow academics, he proclaims widely the virtues of open expression, but only for those who utter those thoughts with which he agrees. But true intellectual diversity—the ideal that is often bandied about but rarely achieved—must be dedicated to the protection of unfettered speech, representing opposing viewpoints, where the best ideas become clear through the utterance of weaker ones.


Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., director of Boston University’s Program in Publishing at the Center for Professional Education, is currently writing a book about higher education, Genocidal Liberalism: The University’s Jihad Against Israel.


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