Which is it? Do universities these days want to be zones where no one will ever get offended, or do they want to promote free speech and academic freedom with all their attendant risks and discomforts?
The University of Massachusetts Amherst is just one place that can’t make up its mind. For years now it has been touting its earnest commitment to diversity, inclusion, and equity. Its website prominently advertises that “Hate Has No Home at UMass.” Resources are listed for combatting offenses directed at those with “protected identities,” and students are pressed to practice “active bystandership” when a “harmful” or “risky” situation, or “problematic behavior,” is observed.
Numerous “reporting options” are listed online for those experiencing or witnessing “an act of hate or bias incident,” including anonymous reporting. Concern for the feelings of safety and inclusion of protected groups seems to be a major and constantly reiterated focus of the university.
But not all protected classes are equal, it seems. While the university takes a dim view of Jew-bashing, as it does of attacks and even imaginary slights to many other identity groups, when this can be dressed up as “criticism of Israel,” somehow it slips by the usual restraints. The latest example is unfolding as I write.
An anti-Israel event is scheduled to be held at UMass Amherst on May 4th. Titled “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech, and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights,” the event promotes the BDS movement. When criticized for presenting such a one-sided panel with four like-minded speakers, the event’s promoters, echoing the title, present their position as that of a threatened underdog bravely taking on an overwhelmingly pro-Israel media and political establishment. Criticisms of their criticisms, they claim, are nothing but efforts to “stifle” and “silence” pro-Palestinian activists. In this topsy-turvy scenario, promoting the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel requires extraordinary courage.
The fame of the anti-Israel propagandists such as Linda Sarsour, Roger Waters, and the others slated to appear at the UMass event would seem to belie such a claim. For anyone just back from Mars, a few words about the particularly notorious Linda Sarsour may help. She is a pro-Palestinian activist and an organizer of the Women’s March, who has declared: “nothing is creepier than Zionism.” She has written, in a 2011 tweet vilifying two outspoken critics of Islam, “Brigitte Gabriel = Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She’s asking for an a$$ whippin’. I wish I could take their vaginas away—they don’t deserve to be women.”
Sarsour is also an apologist for sharia law and a fund-raiser for a terror-linked organization. She has no scholarly or academic credentials that lend her expertise on the Middle-East, has nothing to say about the status of women in numerous Muslim countries, nor the treatment of gays and religious minorities. Yet she is making the rounds of U.S. universities (and has spoken at Umass Amherst before).
Three students have filed a lawsuit for a preliminary injunction to stop the May 4th event, noting that the BDS movement uses typical anti-Semitic arguments. Some faculty members and scores of groups have written to the Chancellor protesting the event, and its evident sponsorship by academic departments within the university: Communication; Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies; and the Resistance Studies Initiative (yes, that really exists at UMass). Other sponsors are more predictable: Jewish Voice for Peace Western Massachusetts; The Resistance Center; Arise for Social Justice; with support also from Students for Justice in Palestine, Black Student Union, Prison Abolition Coalition, and Graduate Students of Color (see the poster:).
In response to this outcry, the Chancellor sent an email on April 26, 2019, weighing in with a bracing defense of academic freedom and “debate.” He asserted that the event does not reflect the views of the university (which is opposed to academic boycotts) and, furthermore, no university or taxpayer funds are being used. Rather, it is a privately sponsored event that has merely rented space at the university. Thus, he concludes, the listing of the event’s co-sponsors is not to be taken as an endorsement by academic departments or programs.
Well, not quite: The private sponsoring organization turns out to be the child of a rabidly anti-Israeli professor still on the state payroll. He is Sut Jhally, chair of the Communication Department at UMass and founder and executive director of the off-campus Media Education Foundation, devoted to promoting his beliefs. Jhally is an obsessive propagandist against Israel, well-known for using his classroom to promote his views, even including multiple-choice questions on his exams that allow the only “right” answer to invariably be the one critical of Israel. He has made many other excursions into this arena, such as his film, “The Occupation of the American Mind” (narrated by Roger Waters), which presents a familiar conspiracy theory about how the Israeli government and pro-Israel lobby work together with the U.S. government to shape American media coverage in a pro-Israel direction. Tell it to the New York Times.
Ironically, the Chancellor’s defense of the BDS event on May 4th included mention of the AAUP’s 1940 Statement of Principles, which not only explained the importance of academic freedom but also spoke of “correlative responsibilities.” These latter, of course, are routinely ignored in today’s academy, as more and more universities require explicit fealty to social justice as if there is agreement about what this might be or how it might be achieved.
Nonetheless, the Chancellor is, in my view, correct. I don’t see how the university can restrict academic sponsorship of politically committed events without also abandoning its mission to educate. Of course, it’s obvious that defense of that mission is not done in an even-handed way, as demonstrated by the existence of harassment policies and all the directives intended to aid students in reporting anything that makes them uncomfortable.
It’s the sheer hypocrisy that I find most disturbing, the double and triple standards, which is why I don’t find the Chancellor’s statement defending “academic freedom” and “debate” impressive. The same website that carries the Chancellor’s statement also has links to extensive instructions about reporting “bias” and “hate” incidents. Despite the university’s proud renunciation of hate, evidently hatred of Israel–the sole nation that is majority Jewish–does have a home at UMass.
Still, as an opponent of de-platforming, shouting down, rescinding invitations to controversial speakers—in short, any kind of censorship–I cannot support efforts to stop this pro-BDS event.
Academic freedom means nothing if it does not involve tolerating all sorts of speech and ideas. But if the university proclaims that it is committed to inclusivity and comfort, and prohibits certain kinds of speech on campus (including jokes, flirtation, comments on appearance, etc.) in the name of preventing harassment and bias, how can that same university then turn around and defend an event that constitutes an attack (however familiar by now) on one and only one nation in the entire world?
Furthermore, propagandizing one’s students in the classroom is a different story, and there the issue should be one of professional behavior, not the content of the propaganda. Unfortunately, a concern with professional behavior, or even merely discouraging professors from using their classrooms as platforms for advocacy of their political passions, has never been much in evidence at UMass. This is one kind of speech that is never punished or even mildly curtailed.
My conclusion is simple: We are living through an odd moment, characterized on the one hand by rampant censorship and self-censorship, and on the other hand by extraordinary license. It all seems to depend on which identity groups are to be protected and which aren’t.
That is intolerable.