Academic Free Speech For Me, But Not For Thee

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 own Professor of Anthropology and of African and African American Studies, L. Roland Matory, called upon his academic peers once again in a November faculty meeting to foster

"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 view, through "widespread censorship of dissent about Israel-Palestine." Professor Matory's implication is that on this one issue-criticism of Israel-the sacrosanct notion of "academic freedom" is being threatened by those pro-Israel opponents who wish to stifle all speech critical of the Jewish state.

But like many of his fellow travelers on the academic left, Professor Matory makes the mistake of assuming that academic freedom, and its stepchild academic free speech, is a bundle of rights that can be exercised without regard to those two other fundamental principles of higher education: academic responsibility and a fervent commitment to actual scholarship, as opposed to ideology parading as what he calls "reasoned and evidence-based ideas." With great regularity, academic imbecility and fraudulent scholarship have been substituted for reasoned inquiry on our campuses, and, observes Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, "academic freedom is meant to protect scholarship, not replace it."

Professor Matory is not the first academic to bemoan the oppressive and fearful might of pro-Israel forces in stifling any criticism or discussion of Israel; and his outrage and trepidations might inspire sympathy save for the inconvenient fact that the sheer volume and frequency of chronic, unrelenting, vitriolic, and one-sided demonization of Zionism and Israel on campuses worldwide makes Professor Matory's claims of being cowered into silence by Israel's supporters a bit disingenuous. 

In that respect, Professor Matory shares a similar view with the Kennedy School's Stephen Walt, who, with University of Chicago's John Mearsheimer, recently published The Israel Lobby, a book-length version of an earlier paper that revealed the existence, in their minds, of a powerful, cabalistic lobby in America working to sway public policy and jeopardize America's international standing, all to Israel's advantage. 

"The goal [of the Israel Lobby]," they wrote, in words similar to Matory's own wild observations, "is to prevent critical commentary about Israel from getting a fair hearing in the political arena."  While their insidious bit of scholarship, which Eliot A. Cohen, a professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, called an "inept, even kooky academic work," soared to the top of the non-fiction bestseller's list and sent the pair off on a nationwide book tour, they still manage without embarrassment to proclaim that they are, like Matory," touching the "third rail" of political discussion and fearfully go public with criticism of Israel.  

Professor Matory also recalled how another luminary of the academic netherworld, Norman Finkelstein, was disinvited from Harvard because of his unrelenting criticism of Israel. Finkelstein is a man who Professor Steven Plaut of the University of Haifa has called a "pseudo-scholar and Holocaust trivializer" who "used his position at DePaul University in Chicago to promote his open celebration of Middle East terrorism." His best known screed, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections On The Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, 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.

Finkelstein, who was recently denied tenure at DePaul, has now also adopted the position that his failure to thrive, academically speaking, 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 visit college campuses nationwide where his forbidden speech apparently is heard by eager audiences.

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; academic freedom grants the professors the right to spew forth any academic meanderings they wish, but it does not make them free from being challenged for their thoughts.

"Free speech does not absolve anyone from professional incompetence," says Michael Rubin; 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 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., former director of publications at the Kennedy School of Government and a lecturer at Boston University, Simmons, and Babson, is currently writing a book about the demonization of Israel taking place on college campuses.
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