Dissent in the classroom
, a professor of sociology at the University of California-Santa Barbara, came under fire in January after he sent an e-mail to students that drew parallels between the Nazi's treatment of Jews and Israel's treatment of Palestinians. Although only two students complained, the Anti-Defamation League and other pro-Jewish lobbying groups quickly stepped in to put tremendous pressure on the university to sanction Robinson.
But Robinson, fellow academics and students from across the country have responded with a campaign in defense of the right of academic freedom. Robinson described the events that sparked the controversy, and what's at stake, in May at the seventh annual international convention of Al-Awda (The Palestine Right to Return Coalition).
ACADEMIC FREEDOM is under attack at the University of California. I am under investigation by the university--and I face possible sanctions--because of my vocal condemnation of the nearly one-month-long Israeli invasion of Gaza that began last December.
This campaign against academic freedom is not just an attempt to punish me. Much more importantly, it aims to create an environment of fear and intimidation in which any criticism on Israeli policy is subject to sanctions and censorship.
But silence in the face of social injustice is complicity in that injustice
Last January 19 was the birth date of Martin Luther King Jr. We had already been following, with growing horror, the one-month siege of Gaza--the destruction of mosques, schools, hospitals, united nations supply centers, food warehouses, the demolition of civilian infrastructure, the blatant targeting of civilians, including the use of white phosphorous against them.
That morning, I listened to some of the speeches delivered by king shortly before his death. These included his famous condemnation of the U.S. war against Vietnam. In that speech he explained that some people had warned him, if he spoke out against the war, he would risk losing the support of some sectors of the civil rights coalition.
His answer was unequivocal: You cannot speak out against one injustice and not against another, he said. You cannot compromise with fundamental principles, such as justice, truth and solidarity with all oppressed and abused peoples.
That afternoon as I prepared to give my evening course at the University of California at Santa Barbara, my course on the sociology of globalization, I put together two news items from the on-line world press for classroom discussion along with a commentary by me.
I do this every week in my class. Each week I select several news items from the world press and distribute them to my students, sometimes with my own commentary, as a way of initiating classroom debate on contemporary global events and controversies.
One of the items was an article written by a Jewish American journalist, Judith Stone, who had recently returned from the occupied territories. Her article was critical of the occupation. It was published in the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle. The day after it was published, the editor of the newspaper, another Jewish American, Debbie Ducrocq, was promptly fired by the magazine's publishers for having printed the article.
The second item I included in the material for classroom discussion was a photo essay that had been circulating in the public realm for weeks. It juxtaposed Nazi atrocities against Jews in the Second World War and Israeli atrocities against Palestinians in Gaza.
I introduced these items with a commentary of my own that I want to read to you now with just as much passion and conviction as when I wrote it:
If Martin Luther King, Jr. were alive on this day of January 19, 2009, there is no doubt that he would be condemning the Israeli aggression against Gaza along with U.S. military and political support for Israeli war crimes, or that he would be standing shoulder to shoulder with the Palestinians. I am forwarding some horrific, parallel images of Nazi atrocities against the Jews and Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians. Perhaps the most frightening are not those providing a graphic depiction of the carnage but that which shows Israeli children writing "with love" on a bomb that will tear apart Palestinian children.
Gaza is Israel's Warsaw--a vast concentration camp that confined and blockaded Palestinians, subjecting them to the slow death of malnutrition, disease and despair, nearly two years before their subjection to the quick death of Israeli bombs. We are witness to a slow-motion process of genocide--defined by Webster's dictionary as "the systematic killing of, or a program of action intended to destroy, a whole national or ethnic group"--a process whose objective is not so much to physically eliminate each and every Palestinian than to eliminate the Palestinians as a people in any meaningful sense of the notion of people-hood.
The Israeli army is the fifth most-potent military machine in the world and one that is backed by a propaganda machine that rivals and may well surpass that of the U.S., a machine that dares to make the ludicrous and obnoxious claim that opposition to the policies and practices of the Israeli state is anti-Semitism. It should be no surprise that a state founded on the negation of a people was one of the principal backers of the apartheid South African state, not to mention of the Latin American military dictatorships until those regimes collapsed under mass protest, and today arms, trains and advises military and paramilitary forces in Colombia, one of the world's worst human rights violators.
WELL, WHAT happened after I distributed this course material?
Two students out of 80 enrolled in the course, and whom I do not know personally, took offense at the photo images and withdrew from the class.
That was January 19. On February 9, the Anti-Defamation League, or the ADL, sent a letter of protest to me with c.c.'s to the president of the University of California, to the chancellor of the Santa Barbara campus and to other university officials.
Ten days later, on February 19, the two students submitted a grievance against me with the university. Their letters were clearly modeled after the ADL letter, and have been posted at the blog www.sb4af.wordpress.com.
It was subsequently revealed that from the start, the two students had been advised by the ADL, Hillel, Stand With Us, the Simon Weisenthal Center and other groups from the Israel lobby.
Then on March 9, the director of the ADL, Abraham Foxman, flew into Santa Barbara from Washington and met with nine to ten members of the faculty and with two deans. Some of those present were led to believe that the meeting was to be about the Jewish studies program on campus. But Foxman opened up the meeting with one single agenda item--prosecuting me--an agenda item that was then discussed for one hour.
This was on March 9. Two weeks later, on March 25, the university decided to investigate me for possible violations of the faculty code of conduct.
As you can see from the dates in this sequence, from the start, outside groups from the Israel lobby first brought pressure to bear on the university, and then the University decided to take measures against me.
In the past couple of weeks, new details of this political campaign against me by these ideologically extremist groups with a political agenda have been brought to light.
For instance, one of the board members of the group "Stand With Us," apparently met with the chancellor in mid-march--before I was brought up on charges. According to the "Stand With Us" Web site, he warned the chancellor that funders may withdraw their support for the university and he called on the chancellor to investigate me.
Moreover, it has now been reported that the different pro-Israel lobby groups met with other university officials before the decision was made to bring me up on charges.
You will find all of this information and all of the original documents in my case, posted on the blog I mentioned.
AND WHAT exactly are the charges against me? There are two:
The first charge is that I am anti-Semitic. The claim that condemnation of Israeli state policies and practices is equivalent to anti-Semitism is an obnoxious attempt to stifle any criticism of Israel. It has no more merit than to claim that criticism of the Iranian government is anti-Muslim, or criticism of the Zimbabwe government is anti-black racism and so forth.
It is a vicious political ploy, intended to deflect criticism of Israeli state policies and practices, and should be exposed and denounced as such.
The second charge against me is that I introduced into my course material that was "substantially unrelated" to the course. How the Israeli invasion of Gaza is unrelated to a course on contemporary global affairs is beyond my comprehension.
What is going on here is very clear: I am simply the latest victim in the campaign by the Israel lobby and its backers to harass and attack and silence critics of Israeli state conduct, including Israel's blatant disregard for international law, its illegal occupation, its human rights violations, its war crimes, its ethnic cleansing and its apartheid system.
Israel may be winning the military battles--given that it is the fifth most-powerful military machine in the world, and the recipient of $3-4 billion in U.S. military aid every year. But in the wake of the invasion of Lebanon followed by the brutal invasion of Gaza it has been losing the battle of legitimacy.
The director of the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Howard Kohr, acknowledged this erosion of legitimacy, when he opened the AIPAC annual convention earlier this month. He said, there is a huge and growing international campaign against the policies of Israel. "No longer is this campaign confined to the ravings of the political far left or far right," he said, "but increasingly it is entering the American mainstream."
It is in this context that the Israel lobby is stepping up its vicious attacks on anyone who would speak out against Israeli policies. Last year, the ADL announced that it would start to target the big state universities, beginning with the University of California.
This is the context in which this political apparatus has targeted me. The persecution I am experiencing is part of a larger--and well documented--pattern throughout the United states and Canada of McCarthyist repression unleashed on university campuses against faculty who dare bring up for debate Israeli policies, much less those who would come out in support of Palestinian rights.
These campaigns to silence debate constitute a grave attack on academic freedom, on free speech and on democracy itself.
WHY IS academic freedom so important?
Academic freedom is the life-blood of the university. Any attack on such freedom exercises a potentially chilling effect on the ability of the university community to engage in open debate and exchange of ideas of contemporary matters, free from intimidation and the threat of sanctions.
Academic freedom is therefore not negotiable. It encompasses, in accordance with the definition set forth by the American association of university professors, among others, the right of faculty to full freedom in research and in the publication of results, freedom in the classroom in discussing their subject and the right of faculty to be free from institutional censorship, discipline or other forms of restrictive interference in teaching, research, speaking and publishing, wherever the search for truth and understanding may lead.
Academic freedom is such a threat to the Israel lobby--and, indeed, to any anti-democratic, authoritarian, or totalitarian project--precisely because it proscribes censorship and prohibits any attempt to limit what is and is not acceptable to research, to teach, to question and to debate, and precisely because academic freedom thrives on controversy and critical thinking.
It is no wonder that academic freedom was suppressed in Nazi Germany, in apartheid South Africa, in the military dictatorships of Latin America, in the former Soviet Union and in the United States under McCarthyism and at other times in U.S. history. And it is certainly no wonder why academic freedom is seen as such a threat by the Israel lobby and its sponsors.
Our mission as educators is to help develop citizens who can think critically and independently on the burning issues of our day, and who can participate in a meaningful and constructive way in society.
Let me read to you one passage from the statement on academic freedom by the American Association of University Professors:
It is a mistake to assume that students have a right not to have their most cherished beliefs challenged. This assumption contradicts the central purpose of higher education, which is to challenge students to think hard about their own perspective, whatever those might be. It is neither harassment nor discriminatory treatment of a student to hold up to close criticism an idea or viewpoint the student has posited or advanced.
Ideas that are germane to a subject under discussion in a classroom cannot be censored because a student with particular religious or political beliefs might be offended. Instruction cannot proceed in the atmosphere of fear that would be produced were a teacher to become subject to administrative sanction based upon the idiosyncratic reaction of one or more students...controversy is at the very heart of free academic inquiry."
From beginning to end, this attack on me constitutes a patent, ominous and politicized violation of academic freedom.
Very simply, two students submitted a grievance with the university administration because they had a different political position than mine and because my course material disagreed with their own political position. And it has now become clear that these two complainants were part of the Israel lobby. They went directly to the Israel lobby, and then the massive machinery of the Israel lobby's repression came down on me.
Does anyone really think that I would be facing charges right now if I had introduced into my course reading material that was pro-Israeli and two Palestinian students in my course submitted a grievance?
What is even worse than the politicized nature of these grievances themselves, and the blatant interference in the university's affairs by extremist outside groups with a political agenda, is that the university has been complicit in all this. The university's process against me has been conducted by systematically violating university procedures and denying me due process, as is documented on the blog www.sb4af.wordpress.com.
LET US be clear that when we suppress academic freedom the university becomes an indoctrination camp where truth is subordinated to ideology and power. That is the threat we now face.
Now, if the university administration has acted in such a reprehensible manner, has brought such shame to the University of California, how have the student body and the faculty reacted?
Well, when they learned of the charges against me, graduate and undergraduate students on my campus, established a "committee to defend academic freedom" and set up the blog that I mentioned and which includes a petition.
For their part, many faculty members across campus are also outraged by this attack on our academic freedom and are mobilizing in a number of ways to defend it.
The Committee to Defend Academic Freedom has received hundreds of letters from faculty, from academic associations and from members of the public around the world, demanding that the charges against me be dropped.
Members of the faculty on my campus are at this time circulating a petition that states, in part:
Since February 25, our colleague William I. Robinson, professor of sociology, has been the subject of a series of attacks from two students and a number of off-campus individuals that represents a serious breach of academic freedom and a threat to the autonomy of the university.
Displeased by the contents of an e-mail and two articles forwarded by Prof. Robinson on January 19 to his class opposing the recent Israeli campaign in Gaza, two students filed a complaint with the senate alleging "academic misconduct" and "anti-Semitism."
On February 25, the UCSB academic senate opened an official inquiry into these allegations. This inquiry is ongoing and has become nationally and internationally known. Quite aside from the merits of the students' complaints, over the past few weeks the public exposure of this case has brought to light apparent violations of Prof. Robinson's rights to due process by the senate and its committees, along with worrisome news of pressures received by the administration from organizations such as the anti defamation league to administer an exemplary punishment to Prof. Robinson.
We have learned that organizations such as the ADL have organized a campaign directed at pressuring the administration and the academic senate to make this case an example to prevent vocal opposition to the state of Israel and its policies.
The situation demands decisive, public and swift response by the UCSB faculty in defense of due process and academic freedom on both procedural and substantive grounds.
Meanwhile, I have received several thousand emails and letters from all around the world. Much of this correspondence has been supportive but there has also been a lot of hate mail, some of it violent and vulgar.
Clearly, drawing historical comparisons between Israeli state behavior and Nazi behavior is a very difficult thing for defenders of Israel to swallow. It touches a raw nerve, which indeed it should.
On the one hand, as one reader of a Los Angeles Times interview with me put it in a letter he sent to the editors and to me: "[I]f you do not like Nazi comparisons then urge Israel not to commit Nazi-like atrocities rather than condemn and ostracize those who make the comparison." That is, one evokes Nazis to point to Nazi-like behavior.
This much should be evident. In this regard, there is a definite parallel between the Warsaw Ghetto and Gaza. The Nazis undertook forced population transfer and then sealed off the ghetto, locking their victims in, controlling all movement, controlling what food, medical supplies or anything else could go in or out, generating in this way a humanitarian crisis, disease, and starvation, and responding with disproportionate force against the slightest sign of resistance from the ghetto.
The Israelis have done the same thing in Gaza, in effect, turning it into a concentration camp, a massive ghetto.
As a result of the Israeli blockade of Gaza and the destruction of its food supply system, according to the United Nations, acute malnutrition in Gaza is on the same scale as the poorest nations in southern Sahara, with more than half of all Palestinian families eating only one meal a day.
On the other hand, quite evidently, the comparison between Nazi atrocities against Jews in the Second World War and Israeli atrocities against Palestinians in the present is not intended to suggest that the latter replicates the former. The differences are numerous. No two historic events or processes are ever identical.
Drawing analogies or comparisons between historical and contemporary events or processes is not intended to suggest they are identical.
Rather, such comparisons are a pedagogical tool meant to uncover patterns of human conduct--or better put, human misconduct--that may manifest themselves in a variety of historical circumstances; to identify what structural conditions may give rise to these forms of conduct; and to reflect on the past, so that collective agents in the present may gain a greater understanding of the significance or meaning of such contemporary events that share similar characteristics with those of the past; and then, hopefully, to act upon that understanding.
Zionists and defenders of the Israeli state take great offense at any analogy between the Nazis and Israeli state actions, in part, because the Jewish Holocaust is used by the Israeli state and the Zionist political project as a mechanism of legitimation, so that to draw such analogies is to undermine Israel's legitimating discourse.
It is crucial to point this out, because that discourse has gradually come to legitimate current or proposed Israeli policies that demonstrate an ever more frightening similarity with other historical instances of genocide. In fact, what we are seeing at this time is pre-genocidal activities.
The political party of Israel's foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman recently proposed a law to imprison for three years anyone who commemorates the Nakba.
This proposal coming from a party in Israel's governing coalition should set off alarm bells that fascism is emerging. The proposed law amounts to criminalizing acts of memory, of collective identity, of cultural and political expression.
Imagine criminalizing Black commemoration of slavery, or Indian commemoration of genocide in the Americas? Or Jewish commemoration of the Holocaust?
Lieberman has described Israeli Arabs as a "dangerous fifth column" and has proposed they be removed. Such a racist project of population transfer is all too similar to other historical and contemporary instances of ethnic cleansing and genocide, including the Nazi experience. Yet polls show that a solid majority of Israelis--60 percent--now favor such forced relocation. This is but one more warning bell that a population who suffered the nightmare of Nazi extermination is now itself embracing fascist proposals.
And so we see in these developments the pedagogical value of drawing analogies between historical and contemporary situations, as well as the ethical imperative that is revealed through the comparison.
The capacity to commit the atrocities associated with the Nazi Holocaust is within us all.
Therefore, condemnation of oppression and domination cannot be selective. Either we condemn it in every instance or we lose the moral authority to condemn it in any instance. If we condemn the Nazi Holocaust we must also condemn what I have described as slow-motion Israeli genocide against the Palestinians. That these two events are not identical is irrelevant to the pedagogical purpose of the analogy or to the moral imperative that adheres to the comparison.
The noted Jewish historian Benny Morris, who is a professor at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, and who closely identifies with Israel, gave a lengthy interview to the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, and published on January 9, 2004. In that interview, he referred to the genocide of Native Americans in what is today the United States in order to suggest that genocide may be acceptable. He said: "Even the great American democracy could not have been created without the annihilation of the Indians. There are cases in which the overall, final good justifies harsh and cruel acts that are committed in the course of history."
Then he went on to call for ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, saying: "something like a cage has to be built for them. I know that sounds terrible. It is really cruel. But there is no choice. There is a wild animal there that has to be locked up in one way or another."
Such a statement should cause us to pause. We must consider very carefully what Morris is proposing, and the historical project in whose name he makes such a proposal.
This leads me to conclude with an urgent warning.
Beyond Palestine and Israel, beyond the University of California, we are in the midst of a global crisis, the worst crisis in decades.
As this crisis unfolds, the means of violence are more large-scale and more destructive than humanity has ever known, and we face an ecological collapse that threatens life itself on the planet.
It is at times of crisis such as this that social and political tensions rise and that fascist and totalitarian projects rear their ugly heads.
There is only one way to prevent such projects, and that is through social justice. And social justice requires speaking truth to power.
It is time to draw the line. The Second World War began when democracy was overthrown in Spain and Franco came to power. That war led us to the holocaust, and as well, opened up space for the Zionist project to exercise its hegemony over the Jewish community worldwide, in alignment with the victorious imperialist powers in that war. That in turn brought us the tragedy of the Nakba, of Gaza, of the occupation, and now the threat of genocide against the Palestinians.
By standing up for social justice in Palestine, by defending democracy and academic freedom on university campuses in the United States, we do much more than act on principle, on ethnical grounds, as Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded us.
By standing up for what is right, and decent, and human, without fear of the sanctions we may face for doing so, we also close the door on a possible future that in the 21st century can only be many times more tragic than a tragic past.