Israel and Academic Freedom

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), one of the most prominent organizations supporting college and university professors, has forcefully and inappropriately spoken out in support of uncivil discourse.  In an ironic twist, this development stands in stark contradiction to what organizations such as the American Association of Universities have stated:

In order to fulfill their responsibilities to academic freedom and intellectual development, universities must provide a forum in which individuals and groups can advocate their views, the Association of American Universities wrote in January. In a statement on the "responsibility of universities at a time of international tension and domestic protest," the organization of research universities said that such institutions must ensure an environment for civil discourse that is free of violence and intimidation; protect the rights of all members of campus communities to pursue learning, teaching, scholarship, and research; and actively promote informed dialogue and analytical thought.

Recently, we witnessed an incident at Kent State University of uncivil discourse in which Professor Julio Pino made an outburst against Israeli Bedouin diplomat Ishmael Khaldi, shouting "death to Israel."  Consequently, Nelson, on behalf of the AAUP, stated:

Calling out a political slogan during a question period falls well within the speech rights of any member of a university community[.] Expressive outbursts do not substitute for rational analysis, but they have long played a role in our national political life. More surprising, to be sure, is President Lefton's invention of an absurd form of hospitality: you must not question the moral legitimacy or the right to exist of a guest's home country. Awareness of history would suggest such challenges are routine elements of international life.

This is only Cary Nelson's latest statement supporting uncivil discourse.  Previously, in a well- publicized and widely discredited letter written with Ken Stern of the American Jewish Committee, Nelson attacked the Jewish community's efforts to protect Jewish students from harassment and intimidation on college campuses through the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights change in Title VI language; the new language would add Jewish students to the list of protected classes of students based, in part, on the European Union's "Working Definition of Anti-Semitism."  Nelson condemned this approach as a freeze on freedom of speech regarding criticism of Israel.

There seems to be a pattern developing in Nelson's writing.  Blanket support of both academic freedom and freedom of speech without restriction has enormous implications for civil discourse on campuses.  What Professor Nelson forgets is that while both freedom of speech and academic freedom are important and critical rights afforded faculty, these rights also come with responsibilities.

Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a grassroots academic network with more than 50,000 academics on 4,000 campuses all over the world, has been extremely concerned about the degradation of civil discourse on the campus, especially with regard to debate on Israel and on increasing harassment and intimidation of pro-Israel and Jewish students and faculty.  We have seen the rise of anti-Semitism under the guise of criticism of Israel leading to incidents of harassment and intimidation against Jewish and pro-Israel students and faculty in Europe, Canada, the U.S., and elsewhere.

Our concern led our Legal Taskforce to produce an important document on academic freedom and freedom of speech, "The Legal Task Force Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and the Freedom of Speech."  We believe strongly that instead of glorifying the speech of hate-mongers such as Kent State's Julio Pino, Cary Nelson and the AAUP, as an organization ostensibly concerned with civil discourse, should turn their attention to how to better support civil discourse without defending hate, vituperation, denigration, and rudeness, while at the same time protecting both freedom of speech and academic freedom as guided by their critical and significant attendant responsibilities.

Defending an academic who screams out "Death to Israel" as an acceptable example of academic free speech, scholarly inquiry, or even political discussion is both disingenuous and in contradiction to acceptable standards for civil discourse on campuses.  The AAUP would never condone or protect speech of this nature that made death threats against African-Americans, Muslims, LGBT individuals, illegal immigrants, or other perceived victim or minority groups on campuses or elsewhere.  With that in mind, the organization should certainly refrain from embracing and apologizing for this odious discourse simply because it is directed against the Jewish state.

We walk a thin line between protection and destruction, between free speech and the promotion of hate.  Let us walk that line cautiously.

Samuel Edelman is the executive director, and Asaf Romirowsky is the deputy director, of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME).

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