(April 15, 2015 / JNS)
Every time I learn about the latest antics of the anti-Israel thought police on university campuses, I find myself offering silent thanks that they are, for the moment, just thought police. Because if these kids and their faculty supporters ran a real police force, the pro-Israel students and academics they didn’t manage to arrest would be driven underground.
In case you think I’m being hyperbolic, consider the case of Andrew Pessin, a philosophy professor at Connecticut College and a pro-Israel voice on that campus. The target of a persecution campaign spearheaded by one of his own students, who just happens to be a leader of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Pessin stands accused of having “directly condoned the extermination of a people.”
Did Pessin urge the annihilation of the Palestinians—the “people” in question? The answer is a “no” that is so resounding, you have to wonder whether the authors of the libel against Pessin have been studying how China’s ruling Communists enforced the party line during the Cultural Revolution.
Pessin’s actual words—the source of his tribulations on campus—took the form of a Facebook post he wrote on Aug. 11 last year, at the height of Israel’s war with the Hamas regime in Gaza. It was a poor post, lacking clarity as well as being clumsy in its use of an animal metaphor. “One image which essentializes the current situation in Gaza might be this,” he wrote. “You’ve got a rabid pit bull chained in a cage, regularly making mass efforts to escape.”
But where in that statement is there a call for “annihilation,” or anything that could be remotely read as one? As one commenter on the article in which this accusation was made stated, “It is a massive stretch from Pessin’s actual beliefs and actions and only goes to show the authors didn’t even consider engaging Pessin about this or giving him a chance to speak for himself—which he is entitled to.”
The “annihilation” accusation is connected to what Pessin said only in the way that secretly reading “Animal Farm” by candlelight is connected to membership of the CIA. The accusation against him, in other words, was preordained: by challenging left-wing orthodoxies on the Palestinian issue, Pessin was inevitably going to be accused of fantastically outrageous offenses that he never committed.
The main offense, leveled by Pessin’s one-time student Lamiya Khandaker, is that of “racism.” After reading his Facebook post a full eight months after it appeared online, Khandaker, who began her career as an SJP activist at Brooklyn Technical High School, emailed him to say that she deemed what she’d read as “racist.”
Pessin apologized and removed the post, but also clarified that his reference to a “pit bull” was directed at Hamas, and not Palestinians in general—and as the indefatigable David Bernstein pointed out on the Washington Post’s “Volokh Conspiracy” blog, “I have seen his previous Facebook posts on the Gaza war last Summer, and they are full of criticism of Hamas, and don’t say anything nasty about Palestinians more generally, suggesting that he was, in fact, referring to Hamas.”
But Khandaker’s political agenda was always going to be more important than giving Pessin a fair hearing. She is, after all, a leader of the openly bigoted SJP, and she has posted her own share of offensive material; for example, after Turkish President Reccep Tayyip Erdogan compared Israel with Adolf Hitler, she derided his critics by declaring on her Facebook page, “Everything is anti-semitic to people wtf. It’s pissing me off.” Clearly, she’s a tolerant soul.
What’s truly disgraceful is how Connecticut College has enabled the SJP-led inquisition campaign against Pessin. The History Department issued a statement condemning “speech filled with bigotry and hate particularly when that speech uses dehumanizing language and incites or celebrates violence and brutality.” The Center for the Comparative Study of Race and Ethnicity also chided Pessin in a similarly worded statement. Then, at the beginning of April, the college canceled all classes so that students could attend a mandatory session on racism, during which Pessin’s post was bracketed with racist graffiti against African-Americans daubed on a bathroom wall.
At each turn, the accusations and insinuations against Pessin have grown louder and more outlandish, to the point where his principle antagonist, Khandaker, is now accusing the college of “institutional racism” by continuing to employ him. Plainly, these fanatics won’t rest until the college hands Pessin his notice, leaving him to fend for himself, with his reputation in tatters through no fault of his own.
Remember, all this hysteria was generated by an old Facebook post that was, at worst, injudiciously worded, like so much of the material that gets passed around on social media. For that reason, one has to conclude that Pessin’s post was mere cover for the real reason that he’s being treated so shamefully: that he’s a Jewish academic who supports Israel and isn’t afraid to say so.
Pessin’s experience conforms to a wider pattern observable on American campuses. We’ve seen prospective student council members who are Jewish being grilled about their views on Israel. (Imagine the outcry if a Muslim student was similarly grilled about terrorism.) At the same time, we’ve seen anti-Zionist academics inciting against the Jewish state with abandon; when someone dares to criticize them, they are then elevated to free speech martyr status.
What all this tells us is that it is no longer controversial on campus to portray an affiliation with Zionism and Israel as a thought crime. With this disturbing groupthink in place, pretty much anything that is ideologically unsound can be deemed offensive or hateful.
Khandaker herself illustrates this last point rather nicely. In her article denouncing Pessin, she complained that he offended her by also arguing, “Muslim terrorists were at the top of the totem pole as perpetrators of violence.” Ask any Arab Christian or Kurd or Yazidi what they think of that statement, and they would likely underline its truth. Indeed, many Muslims will tell you the same thing, since it is Muslims who constitute the largest proportion of the victims of Islamist violence.
But the time for a political debate is past us. Pessin, it has been reported, is now on medical leave as a result of the stresses of the past few months. The Jewish community and its leaders must now come to his aid, by urging Connecticut College to treat him with the collegial respect he deserves. Additionally, we have to be on the lookout for similar travesties at other campuses. And we need to be educating students, administrators, and those faculty members who will listen about the toxic nature of groups like SJP, emphasizing that we will no longer tolerate their manipulation of the language of liberalism and human rights to promote their rigid, anti-Semitic doctrines.
Because, just like the Ku Klux Klan, this here is a hate group.
Ben Cohen, senior editor of The Tower, writes a weekly column for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, The Wall Street Journal, and many other publications. He is the author of “Some of My Best Friends: A Journey Through Twenty-First Century Antisemitism” (Edition Critic, 2014).