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No, you can’t make it illegal for California professors to disagree with you

A plaque at the University of Wisconsin honors the idea of academic freedom.

A plaque at the University of Wisconsin honors the idea of academic freedom.

Two right-wing activists are calling on California Attorney General Kamala Harris and the Legislature to investigate California professors who have publicly advocated for the so-called academic boycott of Israeli educational institutions. They claim California tax dollars “are funding the promotion of the boycott of Israel” because these professors, by expressing their views, are using “their state university’s name and taxpayer-funded resources to promote a boycott of Israeli universities and scholars.”

But their claims, on their own terms, make no sense. For in the same breath, the authors praise leaders of California universities like UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks and UC President Janet Napolitano (of deportation infamy) for, they say, along with “more than 200 university leaders,” condemning a resolution by the American Studies Association “endors[ing]” and “honor[ing]” that boycott.

Unlike individual professors who can do no more than speak for themselves, whether through a vote or lecture, both President Napolitano and Chancellor Dirks present their condemnation of the boycott idea as the university’s official point of view. In other words, they are public officials using “their state university’s name and taxpayer-funder resources,” like UC’s website and their communications teams, to promote a political view they support.

The last thing these right-wing activists want, then, is for anyone to take their position seriously, that public university officials and academics are forbidden from expressing their views on disputed issues like the proposed boycott from their posts. Because they do not want Chancellor Dirks or President Napolitano or professors to remain silent about this issue. They want condemnations so loud and clear they can then cite them to convince legislators to make it illegal for professors at public universities to express alternative views on the topic—a clear-cut case of marshaling the state’s resources to enshrine a political orthodoxy by punishing one viewpoint (support of a boycott) while amplifying the opposing viewpoint (opposition to a boycott).

Not to mention that punishing university professors for having opinions about contentious issues is like fining a baker for making bread. One aspect of an academic’s job is to contribute to a public body of knowledge by developing informed opinions and ideas through research and study, not to come to a consensus, tow a party line, or satisfy the public or political interest groups’ pre-existing views. Their task is not artificially constrained to limited areas of expertise or so-called non-political issues, forbidding them from commenting on current events. (Case in point: Alan Dershowitz, the criminal law professor who has also made a career as an ardent defender of Israel, and torture with a “sterilized needle underneath the nail,” but that’s another matter.) That straightjacket would deprive the public of insights from people of knowledge, leaving the public arena to politicians, wealthy businesspeople, and others who hold the reins of power. And it would reflect a world entirely different from our own, where university professors are often featured in television interviews, quoted in newspapers, or published in the op-ed columns to make sense of current affairs.

I am not making a case for or against an academic boycott. I am simply arguing that the government should leave professors and academics alone so they can make their arguments, on any issue and from any perspective, on the merits. Political favoritism, where some political viewpoints are rewarded by the government but others are punished if not banned, is forbidden by the First Amendment and runs afoul of the values necessary not only for free universities, but also a free society. All Californians, regardless of their views on U.S. foreign policy or Israel and Palestine, should recognize this fundamental point.

Truth Matters: A response to the Vanguard Leadership Group

"I have been to the Occupied Palestinian Territory, and I have witnessed the racially segregated roads and housing that reminded me so much of the conditions we experienced in South Africa under the racist system of Apartheid. I have witnessed the humiliation of Palestinian men, women, and children made to wait hours at Israeli military checkpoints routinely when trying to make the most basic of trips to visit relatives or attend school or college, and this humiliation is familiar to me and the many black South Africans who were corralled and regularly insulted by the security forces of the Apartheid government." - Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Standing in opposition to moral giants like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Nelson Mandela, and Ronnie Kasrils — seasoned anti-apartheid activists who resisted injustice and suffered for it — a group called the Vanguard Leadership Group (VLG) has run advertisements in campus papers at Brown University, UCLA, the University of Maryland, and Columbia University, in which 16 of its members criticize Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) for calling Israel an “apartheid” state.

The VLG is an organization whose cryptic website reveals little about who is involved, who it represents, what it does, and what it believes in, though the website is peppered with references to the VLG’s participation in AIPAC conferences and tours to the Israeli Knesset.

Nevertheless, under the headline “Words Matter,” this advertisement (offering little in the form of substance, but standing on a slew of bold claims about the intentions and personal qualities of students in SJPs around the country, with whom they have never spoken) boasted the signature of 16 members of the highly opaque AIPAC-affiliated organization.

Apparently that was significant enough to merit international noteworthiness. Before some campus papers like the Columbia Spectator had even had a chance to print the advertisements, the Jerusalem Post triumphantly reported on the VLG’s advertisement, trumpeting what it saw as the very important fact that these 16 signatories are so-called “black student leaders.”

It may be impossible to tell what the VLG members were thinking when they opted to sign this advertisement, since it offers little insight into the reasoning that supports their conclusions about Israel or about SJP — strange qualities for aspiring “leaders.”

What is certain, though, is that moral perspective, sound reason, and the facts of Israeli oppression were not involved in the VLG’s deliberative process. It is unlikely that each of these VLG members made an attempt to reach out to SJP students, and it doubtful that any of them ever took detours from their Israeli Knesset appearances to visit Palestinian refugee camps or witness the Israeli occupation.

Giving the VLG members the benefit of the doubt, maybe they had not bothered to try visiting Gaza for themselves because they were already aware of the fact that the people of Gaza have been under a merciless Israeli military siege since 2006, one that has given dietitians unprecedented influence and prestige in the Israeli military apparatus.

The product of such leadership, then, could not be anything more than the VLG’s incredible claim that: “the Arab minority in Israel enjoys full citizenship with voting rights and representation in the government.”

One might point the VLG student leaders to The Inequality Report, a freshly-minted report by Adalah, The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, which found that “Inequalities between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel span all fields of public life and have persisted over time. Direct and indirect discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel is ingrained in the legal system and in governmental practice,” and that “More than 30 main laws discriminate, directly or indirectly, against Palestinian citizens of Israel, and the current government coalition has proposed a flood of new racist and discriminatory bills which are at various stages in the legislative process.” (p. 7).

One might also point the 16 VLG members to the State Department’s Country Report on Human Rigths Practices for Israel and the Occupied Territories, which in 2004, in a rare instance of candor, reported that Israel had done “little to reduce institutional, legal, and societal discrimination against the country’s Arab citizens. The State Department’s most recent report, published April 8, 2011, confirmed that 7-year-old finding, that “Principal human rights problems [in Israel] were institutional, legal, and societal discrimination against Arab citizens.” (It should go without saying that racism in Israel is not limited to the anti-Arab variety.)

Setting aside how sincerely the 16 signatories of this op-ed might have felt about their views, there is no question that the excitement of outlets like the Jerusalem Post, the Forward, etcetera, and their rush to cover the breaking story about a paid-advertisement in 4 campus papers signed by a mere 16 students, is supposed to convey an image of entrenched support by Black Americans for Israel, as if (a) such support exists at the grassroots level (an empirical question; given the VLG’s secretive and apparently exclusive nature, it is unlikely to be so representative of Black Americans) and (b) such support, if it even existed, would justify the reality of Israeli apartheid (an easily dismissed logical matter, a simple non sequitur).

The real question is not where the VLG stands on Israel, but rather where people who fight against racial injustice stand. In the experience of groups like SJP at UC Berkeley, solidarity between people who care about racism and social justice has formed a strong rebuttal to Israeli propaganda, which is directly at odds with such struggles. If the VLG believes that it participates in a struggle against racism, then it cannot remain true to its ideals while also standing on the side of racism in Israel.

In that light, it is baffling that, at a time when support for Palestinian freedom and opposition to Israeli oppression grows continuously amidst veterans of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, and while racism in Israel reaches unprecedented heights, that the 16 members of VLG who issued the statement would make such an uninformed proclamation about Israeli racism and SJP.

Such striking inaccuracy is either the work of a group that is out of touch, or deliberately disingenuous. One hopes that the VLG aspires to be neither.

Cross posted at KABOBfest

Solidarity is a weapon against Israeli propaganda

Perhaps the most important success of the divestment movement at Berkeley has been overlooked. Yes, it is true that a super majority of the student senate supported divestment from Israeli war crimes and the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. It is true that the vote was reversed only after pro-Israel mobilization kicked in to remind people where the interests of power reside. It is true that it was thus clear to all, including the flip-flopping senators, what the “right” thing to do was. It was also clear that the right thing to do, would not be the easy thing to do.

Yet the greater success lies elsewhere. While many have hailed the diversity of the bill’s proponents, few have pointed out that these coalitions were built in spite of extensive and expensive campaigns by pro-Israel propagandists to conjure an image of Israel as the natural cause for people of color, queer communities, and other progressive-minded activists working on environmental issues. In and of itself this is a huge victory for Palestinians and their supporters, and a huge defeat for the Israeli propaganda machine.

Continue reading “Solidarity is a weapon against Israeli propaganda” »

Only Students Will Save Our University: Response to Raffi

Following the occupation of Wheeler Hall on Friday November 20, former Student Action Senator Tara Raffi penned a regrettable op-ed decrying the protest and its participants. I know Raffi, who has always been kind and respectful towards me, but her demeanor cannot save her claims from criticism or scrutiny.

Unfortunately Raffi’s column appears to misapprehend crucial facts both about the strikes and the situation facing the university. For one, Raffi draws an offensive and elitist image of the protesters. Second, she imputes onto the strikers a simplicity and ignorance that is simply dishonest given all that has been discussed at campus teach-in’s and in various fora that allow for more elaboration than a protest placard or chant. Third, she takes for granted that University administrators are acting in students’ interests (as if students cannot decide for themselves their own interests) and lets them off the hook when they should actually be spending every conscious moment lobbying on behalf of students. Continue reading “Only Students Will Save Our University: Response to Raffi” »

November 13th and the Whitewashing of a Berkeley Hate Crime

UC Berkeley Students Protest Israel's Offensive on GazaAs the House of Representatives passed its delusional resolution condemning the Goldstone Report last week, Congressman Kucinich forcefully objected: “Almost as serious as committing war crimes is covering up war crimes, pretending that war crimes were never committed and did not exist. Because behind every such deception is the nullification of humanity, the destruction of human dignity, the annihilation of the human spirit, the triumph of Orwellian thinking….

Today marks the one year anniversary of November 13 2008. On this evening one year ago, a group of three Palestinian students holding flags in silent protest were violently confronted by a group of three concert organizers for the right-wing anti-Arab organization, Tikvah Students for Israel. Unsurprisingly, the assailants quickly tried to discredit their victims by reporting the story backwards, claiming they were the victims. Conflicting narratives do not a dispute of fact make, however, and while many were inclined to put faith in one group or another, it takes nothing less than a deliberate suspension of reason to refuse to acknowledge the bruises that appeared the next morning. Continue reading “November 13th and the Whitewashing of a Berkeley Hate Crime” »

"Nothing so tires a person as having to struggle, not with himself, but with an abstraction." - Jose Saramago, All the Names