You Got to Be Kidding Me!

Academic Freedom Protects What?

Posted in Politics by Stacy McMahon on February 17, 2007

A researcher named Asaf Romirowsky seems to be confused on that point in a column in the Washington Times.

Post-September 11, the most intense debates about “academic freedom” have involved Middle Eastern studies, especially the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The “right” to teach Israel as original sin and the Israel lobby as a Jewish conspiracy controlling America has been challenged, and, unfortunately, has produced even more virulent rhetoric and overt attacks on Jews.

Eugene Volokh reminds us that the answer is any opinion anyone wants to express, however rude or outright evil. Anything short of the few and specific limits on free expression–you know, shouting “fire!” in a crowded theater, or telling your followers to go over there and kill those ___ right this minute.

Of course arguing that Israel shouldn’t exist as a state […] is within the scope of academic freedom, both the freedom to engage in academic discussion defined narrowly (e.g., in a scholarly publication or in an academic panel) and defined broadly (e.g., in a broader political discussion on campus or off it). Whether Israel should exist as a country — or whether Palestine, the U.S.S.R., the former Yugoslavia, North Korea, or a unified Iraq should exist as a country — is an eminently legitimate subject for academic debate.

In fairness to Mr. Romirowsky, the unquoted parts of his column seem not so much to ask that anti-Israel voices be silenced, as that pro-Israel or anti-Islamist voices be given equal time instead of being boycotted, disinvited or any of the other roughshod treatment mainstream academia has handed out to Jewish scholars and pundits in the last five years. I think what’s going on here is simple frustration. If he subconsciously wants to wish the assholes into the cornfield, I can understand it. People tend to expect open debate to be able to resolve absolutely any differences, but there are some differences that nothing can resolve. ‘Agreeing to disagree’ isn’t an option when the other person’s viewpoint is that you and yours should vanish from the earth. And people get tired of going over the same old ground when the other side never has an open mind.

None of that is to say that I think academic freedom should be limited to people who advocate what I see as liberal ideas. I don’t have any sympathy at all for the Palestinian cause, every atom of which is soaked in racism and hate, but as a liberal I can only quote Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”.


4 Responses

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  1. Christina said, on February 18, 2007 at 7:24 am

    I think people should be alllowed to say anything they want, with the exception of the examples you cited. But this is a really difficult subject to debate, because people tend to have strong opinions about it and when that happens, you can debate till the world ends and change no minds. And questioning the right of Israel to exist is absolutely taboo here in Germany. It’s because of Germany’s actions in WWII that Israel does exist. I’m not sure, but I think it’s actually illegal to question the right of Israel to exist (it is definitely illegal to deny that the Holocaust happened, and you will go to jail for that sort of stuff).

    I think it’s a case where there is no right or wrong side. Israel does exist and has for the past 50 years. It’s not really something that’s feasible to “take back”. But it _was_ the land of the Palestinians and the Allied powers just decided to give it to the Jewish folks who did not want to stay in Germany after WWII. The Palestinians were not given any say in this matter.

    Israel has the protection of the United States, nobody is really standing up for the Palestinians (I think Germany would like to, but criticizing Israel is still not really possible). I don’t condone terrorism in any way, but I can see why some Palestinians think it is the only way to get anyone to listen to them. It is sad that no matter what they do they’re screwed. If they just shut up and live with what’s going on, Israel will just encroach further upon their limited space with new settlements. They can’t fight the US-supplied Israeli military. But terrorism just makes them into the “bad guys” in the eyes of the industrialized world. I think this is the root of terrorism all over the world, there is such a huge gap between the rich and poor of the world now that there is no way for the poor to make themselves heard. Resorting to violence is never an answer, but it’s what many people do when they feel they have no other choice.

  2. Clint said, on February 18, 2007 at 1:10 pm

    1) How can you have no sympathy for the Palestinian cause? How would you like to live 60 yrs in a refugee camp just because some other country, which had no sovreignity over yours, decided to take away your land? “No one is innocent”?

    If America were overrun by China, and americans had no army or militia (see: gun control), would it be wrong for us to attack our occupiers using any and all methods possible? Or would we simply give up our country to our occupiers, pledge allegiance to the Chinese flag, and lay down and present our rectums to our new occupiers? Would THAT be the right thing to do?

    2) Big bonus points for using “wishing away to the cornfield”. Kick ass.

    3) I’ve changed my mind. You SHOULD be able to yell fire in a crowded theatre. That whole argument is a slippery slope to prevent people from saying anything that could be rationalized as causing harm. People, even in crowded theatres, need to learn to think for themselves rather than blindly follow “authority” or panic:

  3. Stacy McMahon said, on February 18, 2007 at 2:03 pm

    I’m going to amend my earlier comment: I have sympathy for the “plight” of the Palestinians. That is, I don’t think that a people should have to live in a situation where they are treated as a criminal class, have to go through ten checkpoints to commute five miles, etc. There has to be an end to that at some point, preferably sooner than later.

    That said, from what I can gather about their society, leadership and politics, it appears that they’ve collectively chosen racism and hate as their vehicle of expression, and they consistently express genocide as their preferred solution. That’s not acceptable no matter what. If China occupied the US, I would not call for the genocide of Chinese people and insist on terrorism as the only way of “communicating”. Aside from the other issues, that just wouldn’t work, because the rest of the world would quickly decide that a.) my situation is terrible, but b.) I’m such a psycho that they really can’t see going to any effort on my behalf. That’s roughly the fate of the Palestinians, because while individuals and NGOs advocate on their behalf, no western government actually sticks up for them since that would mean in some sense sticking up for racism and genocide. The Palestinian “cause” is to exterminate Jews, and I can’t support that even if their basic complaint is valid.

    You can compare it to the Civil Rights Movement in that the black community tried both approaches–there was Dr. King, and also the Black Panthers, and white America politically ranged from indifferent to hostile toward the idea of equality. The Black Panthers got nowhere with their “any means necessary”, but Dr. King’s quiet dignity in the face of oppression ultimately appealed to the conscience of the oppressors, who afterall considered themselves liberal, just as Israelis do.

  4. Clint said, on February 22, 2007 at 12:22 pm

    I actually don’t consider the civil rights movement for blacks to be at all won. More black people in prison than college? Makes me think perhaps a Black Panthers approach might have actually helped — but I don’t claim to know anything about the group. Pure pacifism only gets compromised solutions, not real solutions. They played the “Civil Rights Board Game” in Family Guy — Cleveland said: “You never win. You just do a little better each time.” Funny and relevant.

    But yea, you make some good points. Still, to declare an entire culture racist COULD be considered racist in and of itself. They’re not ALL out to destroy Jews. My best friend my freshman year was a Palestinian, you may remember him….. My [Arab] boss was born in Palestine too.

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