Invoking ‘academic freedom’ to silence debate
Academic freedom, like democracy, is one of those things everyone supports because it can mean anything to anyone. In this sense, it is the opposite of anti-Semitism, which everyone opposes because it can be defined so narrowly that it means virtually nothing at all. What’s interesting is when the two concepts collide.
This is precisely what happened, for example, on Oct. 28 at Kent State University. Guest speaker Ishmael Khaldi, a former Israeli consul official, got a rough welcome when he visited to discuss his experience as an Israeli Bedouin. Professor Julio Pino, a Kent State historian, asked Khaldi hostile questions before leaving the hall shouting, “Death to Israel!”
Kent State’s president, Lester A. Lefton, responded quite well. Lefton wrote that it “may have been Professor Pino’s right to” shout at Khaldi, “but it is my obligation, as the president of this university, to say that I find his words deplorable, and his behavior deeply troubling.” Lefton did not try to censor Pino. But he announced that Pino’s behavior was out of bounds.
The influential Association of American University Professors, however, was incensed. Treating Pino as the victim, AAUP President Cary Nelson told Inside Higher Ed that it was Lefton who had stepped out of bounds. Nelson insisted that Pino’s behavior “falls well within the speech rights of any member of a university community.” This of course was not at issue, since Lefton had only voiced his own opinion.
Nelson, however, went on.
“More surprising, to be sure,” Nelson said, “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.”
In fact, Lefton had said no such thing. But it is telling that the AAUP’s chief defends a supposed special right to delegitimize Israel. Natan Sharansky had included this supposed right in his famous “3D” test: criticism of Israel crosses the line into anti-Semitism when it uses double standards, demonizes the Jewish state, or attempts to delegitimize it. This test is the basis for anti-Semitism standards adopted by the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
Ironically, it is Khaldi’s speech which some are trying to suppress. This is true not only in that his rude treatment may dissuade him from visiting other U.S. campuses. Four days before his Kent State speech, Khaldi appeared at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. There, approximately 60 students reportedly staged a walkout of Khaldi’s presentation in order to disrupt and embarrass him. Bilal Baydoun, who chairs one of the student protest groups, bragged to Arab American News that their disruption “succeeded in rattling the speaker and making him nervous; we sent the message that this campus doesn’t welcome him.”
The goal of such protests is not merely to disrupt, embarrass, or discomfort Israeli speakers but to silence them. “But ultimately,” as the Arab American News quotes Baydoun, “our goal is to prevent someone like this from even arriving on campus in the first place and we feel confident that we will be able to accomplish this as we continue to spread awareness.”
In this respect, Khaldi’s treatment resembles the so-called Irvine 11’s orchestrated disruption of Ambassador Michael Oren’s speech at UC Irvine last year. In that case too, the protesters admitted that their intent was to shut down the pro-Israel side of the debate. Indeed, it is now fair to say that there have been efforts nationwide to prevent university speakers from delivering presentations that deviate from the anti-Israel orthodoxy that reigns on too many campuses.
It is ironic that academia’s self-appointed guardians of academic freedom and freedom of speech do not recognize this concerted effort to squelch one side of the debate. On the contrary, some are all too eager to recognize academic freedom only when it does not apply and to ignore anti-Semitism where it does. Those who support academic freedom should insist that it not be used as a weapon in support of the silencers and against their victims. If they cannot speak out on the right side of this debate, they should at least not join the wrong side.