Tuesday, Apr 24, 2012
What kind of person goes to college and demands to be shielded from political views they dislike?
An Associate Professor at UCLA has been formally admonished for the crime of including a link on his course website to a political statement about Israel that some students dislike, as reported by The Daily Bruin:
David Shorter, an associate professor of world arts and cultures, was the subject of a late March complaint from an organization of University of California faculty that fights anti-Semitic sentiments on college campuses. The organization, AMCHA Initiative, decried that Shorter had linked his course website to a campaign calling for a boycott of Israel.
The chair of the Academic Senate responded to the complaint by saying that Shorter was counseled to not use the link again. But Shorter said he has not agreed to do so, and was only approached informally about the issue.
During winter quarter, Shorter taught a class titled "Tribal Worldviews." The class focused on "native people’s worldviews as they are expressed through language, mythology, ritual, health practices, languages and ecology," according to the syllabus.
As part of the class materials, Shorter posted a link to a site advocating for a cultural and academic boycott of Israel. Currently, he is also listed on the site as one of the endorsers of the boycott.
His status as an endorser, as well as a complaint from a student who dropped the course, led AMCHA to file a complaint with the university’s Academic Senate and other UC officials on March 29.
Tammi Benjamin, co-founder of AMCHA and a lecturer in Hebrew and Jewish studies at UC Santa Cruz, said she does not see a way that the link could be used for pedagogical reasons and believes Shorter’s use of the link is promoting activism that harms Israel. . . .
Shorter said he recognizes why the link could be seen as problematic, but added that the subject fit within the context of his course because Palestinians are recognized as a native people by the United Nations.
Shorter also said he discusses the issue in context during his lectures on the subject and that he points out areas where he disagrees with the boycott and discusses his evolving stance on the matter.
In an email to AMCHA, Andrew Leuchter, chair of the UCLA Academic Senate, wrote that it was "not appropriate" for a UCLA faculty member to post a link as a course resource to a political petition of which he is a signatory.
Shorter was also warned that his affiliation with the boycott could be perceived as political advocacy.
Shorter said the link to the boycott was intended as a resource for a research paper on Gaza, and was to be understood through the lens of indigenous studies.
The essay on Gaza was not a required assignment, Shorter said. It was one of four possible topics for a class research paper. Only about five out of 90 students chose to tackle the issue, he said.
AMCHA, however, saw the link as a means of political indoctrination, Benjamin said.
"We felt he was pushing and promoting (the boycott) in his class," Benjamin said. "(Students) have to go to it as a requirement for the course. … He’s promoting his own political agenda and our academic integrity told us this is wrong."
This is far from new. The widespread attempt in the U.S. to suppress and even sanction criticisms of Israel has long extended to academia. Neocons succeeded in blocking a tenure offer for Michigan Professor Juan Cole from Yale based on their dislike of his political positions on Israel. Alan Dershowitz did the same thing, for the same reasons, to Israel critic Norman Finkelstein at DePaul University. Professors at Columbia, mostly Arab, have long been accused of anti-Semitism, and have even been the subject of formal complaints, for their views on Israel. The UCLA complaint goes a bit beyond those incidents because it seeks to penalize a Professor for nothing more than a link on his website and out-of-classroom advocacy.
But I want to leave to the side the obvious threats to academic freedom this poses. My real question is this: what kind of person goes to an academic institution and then demands to be shielded from political ideas that they find objectionable? Of all places, academia is supposed to permit and encourage the challenging of one’s assumptions and beliefs. At least in theory, that’s the prime value of studying at a university: learning how to think critically, which requires subjecting one’s views to rigorous dispute. The petulant entitlement needed to demand that nobody in that setting ever cite or mention objectionable political views is just staggering; it also reveals a severe lack of confidence in the validity of one’s own views. Whatever one thinks of it on the merits, the belief that Israel should be targeted with boycotts and divestment for its apartheid policies the way South Africa was is one that is embraced by many people in many places around the world. It’s hard to express how anti-intellectual and oppressive it is to demand that such a view never even be discussed or aired — of all places — on an academic campus, and to formally complain against a Professor who merely mentions it on a website.
But, as the completely unhinged and bitter (and predictable) reaction to Peter Beinart’s new book about Zionism (and his proposal to boycott Israeli settlements) demonstrates, there are a sizable number of people conditioned to equate criticisms of Israel with some sort of deficiency worthy of punishment. That view is always odious, but particularly so when it asserts itself in an academic setting.
UPDATE: Paul Krugman today praises Peter Beinart’s critical book about the Israeli Government and, when doing so, explains why he — Krugman — almost never writes about Israel:
The truth is that like many liberal American Jews — and most American Jews are still liberal — I basically avoid thinking about where Israel is going. It seems obvious from here that the narrow-minded policies of the current government are basically a gradual, long-run form of national suicide — and that’s bad for Jews everywhere, not to mention the world. But I have other battles to fight, and to say anything to that effect is to bring yourself under intense attack from organized groups that try to make any criticism of Israeli policies tantamount to anti-Semitism.
As M.J. Rosenberg says, that even Krugman, given his position at the NYT, is deterred by the inevitable attacks from writing about this topic is a testament to how potent the suppression efforts still are (albeit less so than they once were).