Academic departments need to steer clear of activism against Israel

Why academic departments in an American university would be taking a moral stand on a political situation in the Middle East in the first place—and not only that, but on behalf of a terror-led genocidal group like Hamas—is another question.

Students on campus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Credit: Leigh Trail/Shutterstock.
Students on campus at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Credit: Leigh Trail/Shutterstock.
Richard L. Cravatts
Richard L. Cravatts

The obsessive loathing of Israel by large swathes of academia was evident this past spring as Hamas showered Israeli population centers with more than 4,000 rockets and mortars. Instead of denouncing genocidal aggression on the part of Hamas, these woke, virtue-signaling moral narcissists took it upon themselves to condemn—in the loudest and most condemnatory terms—the Jewish state, not the homicidal psychopaths intent on murdering Jews.

Students, faculty, programs and entire departments on campuses around the world stumbled over each other in the rush to issue “solidarity statements” to express support for the ever-aggrieved Palestinians and to denounce only the military and political response of Israel, assigning complete blame for the present conflict to the Jewish state.

Individual faculty and students have been condemning Israel every time a new flare-up occurs on the Gaza border or the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria. Academic freedom and free speech certainly recognize an individual’s right to express their displeasure with the actions of any nation, regardless of how biased and unreasonable that criticism may be. But in the latest instance, where hundreds of harsh statements published about Israel’s 11-day conflict with Hamas and other terror factions in May were issued by academic departments—and not individuals—a more troubling aspect of expression showed itself.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Cary Nelson, former president of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and professor emeritus of English, challenged the propriety of departments authoring statements of support for the Palestinian cause while vilifying and denouncing Israel in the process. Four academic units at Illinois had issued anti-Israel statements in the spring—the Department of Gender and Women’s Studies, Department of Urban and Regional Planning, Department of Asian American Studies and the Department of History—prompting Nelson and 43 of his fellow faculty to write a letter to Chancellor Robert Jones and Provost Andreas Cangellaris.

In that letter, the faculty noted that “the statements in question were not issued by individual faculty or groups of faculty. They were subscribed to by departments … [and] have been placed on websites and disseminated through social media and email, which created the impression that the unit was speaking for all or most of the faculty within it. This represents a worrisome development. And it is worrisome irrespective of one’s views on the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.”

It is one thing if vicious ideological brats such as the group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) publish an expected denunciation of Israel’s behavior after a clash with Hamas and use the tired, one-sided and historically inaccurate language that characterizes the Jewish state as a colonial, militaristic usurper of an indigenous people’s land and a brutal occupier of “Palestine” to which Jews have no present or past connection, and over which they should never have been granted sovereignty. But when whole academic departments—essentially speaking with one voice for an entire academic unit—issue statements of solidarity with the Palestinians, the intellectual carelessness that is apparent in students’ (and, in fact, in much of faculty thinking as well) is completely unacceptable.

Why academic departments in an American university would be taking a moral stand on a political situation in the Middle East in the first place—and not only that, but on behalf of a terror-led genocidal group like Hamas—is another question. And the language here is strident and vicious while being simultaneously inaccurate. The nearly hysterical statement from university’s Department of Urban and Regional Planning accused Israel of the “illegal occupation of Palestinian land”; a “siege, indiscriminate destruction and massacres in Gaza”; “state-sanctioned execution of Palestinian people”; and, echoing the venomous blood libel promoted by Rutgers professor Jasbir Puar, among others, the “deliberate maiming of Palestinian bodies.”

The Executive Committee of the Department of History issued a briefer statement by email that condemned “the state violence that the Israeli government and its security forces have been carrying out in Gaza” and “standing in solidarity with Palestine and support for the struggle for Palestinian liberation”—“liberation” being a euphemism for the Middle East without Israel and free of Jewish sovereignty on Muslim land.

Immersed in the ideology of multiculturalism and the intersectionality of oppression, the Department of Asian American Studies condemned “the ongoing 73 years of settler-colonial violence against Palestine and the Palestinian people” and “the exploitation, theft and colonization of land and labor everywhere, including in Palestine. To this, we say no more.”

The Department of Gender and Women’s Studies signed a statement, “Gender Studies Departments in Solidarity with Palestinian Feminist Collective,” along with some 100 other gender-studies departments. With the characteristic pseudo-intellectual babble that currently dilutes the scholarly relevance of the social sciences and humanities, the “solidarity statement” pretentiously announced that “as gender-studies departments in the United States, we are the proud benefactors of decades of feminist anti-racist, and anti-colonial activism that informs the foundation of our interdiscipline” [sic] and that “‘Palestine is a Feminist Issue.’ ”

It should be obvious that there are inherent problems when departments issue statements on controversial topics. In the case of the four statements examined above (and this was the case in the majority of statements issued from all other universities as well), the recitation of facts and history lacked context, nuance and accuracy.

It certainly is not an issue that is so morally and ideologically clear that an academic department should commit itself completely to one side of the argument, as these departments have done. In their letter to the provost and chancellor, in fact, the 44 faculty members warned against this very behavior, suggesting that “an academic unit that engages in political advocacy chills robust debate and potentially intimidates scholars who think differently. Can a student expect open inquiry in an environment of mutual respect if his or her department publicly commits to one side in the complicated Israeli-Palestinian dispute? Can a department that calls for the boycott and sanction of Israel (in violation of University policy) study Israeli perspectives as well as Palestinian ones? If a unit denounces Israel in inflammatory prose and promises ‘solidarity with Palestine,’ only a brave untenured faculty member would dare voice a contrary position.”

The larger and more fundamental question, of course, is what are departments doing in the first place taking a stand on a geopolitical issue, especially when the department is of an academic discipline with no relation to the Middle East? “How does it advance the educational mission of a unit to adopt a foreign policy?” the letter asked. “The University and the departmental websites it maintains are not bullhorns for the amplification of faculty members’ personal politics.”

If individual academics wish to take a political stand about Israel or any other topic, that is, of course, his or her right. But academic units should avoid speaking on behalf of all of their faculty and students for precisely the reasons outlined above—particularly when it involves the very contentious and divisive debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and president emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of “Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.”

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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