Preserving academic freedom at the University of Chicago

Vociferous activists cannot decide what can be taught and who can teach it.

The University of Chicago. Credit: EQRoy/Shutterstock.
The University of Chicago. Credit: EQRoy/Shutterstock.
Richard L. Cravatts
Richard L. Cravatts

Perhaps when literary critic C.S. Lewis despaired of “omnipotent moral busybodies … who torment us for our own good,” he was anticipating the tendentious rants of members of the University of Chicago’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a toxic campus group of anti-Israel activists who have helped lead a campaign of libel and delegitimization against the Jewish state, and, at times, have inspired ugly anti-Semitism disguised as being merely criticism of Israeli government policies.

SJP has a long history since its founding in 1993 of bringing vitriolic anti-Israel speakers to their respective 200 or so campuses, and for sponsoring Israeli Apartheid Weeks, building mock “apartheid walls” and sending fake eviction notices to students in their dorms to help them empathize with Palestinians.

Now, SJP’s U Chicago chapter has mounted a targeted campaign to deplatform a course, “Security, Counter-Terrorism and Resilience: The Israeli Case,” being taught by visiting professor and Israel Institute Fellow Meir Elran, former deputy director of Israeli Military Intelligence and retired Israeli brigadier general who also directs the domestic research programs of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

SJP’s attempt to boycott and dissuade their peers from enrolling in this class is not the first attempt this year to interfere with teaching at the university. In January, for instance, SJP posted on its Instagram page the shocking admonition, “DON’T TAKE SH*TTY ZIONIST CLASSES.” Students were asked to “Support the Palestinian movement for liberation by boycotting classes on Israel or those taught by Israeli fellows.”

According to the SJP post, any students who enrolled in two classes—“Gender Relations in Israel” taught by Meital Pinto and “Narrating Israel and Palestine Through Literature and Film” taught by Stephanie Kraver—would be “participating in a propaganda campaign that creates complicity in the continuation of Israel’s occupation of Palestine” and that, in its view, “Israeli-centered classes are designed to obscure Palestinian perspectives.”

The arrival of Elran, a veteran of the Israel Defense Forces, was particularly offensive to the SJP scolds, inspiring them to issue a statement in which they based their critique of the course on their own ahistorical, factually flawed narrative about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, opposing any pro-Israel views to be expressed and claiming, as they always do, that Israel is an illegitimate entity that exists on stolen Palestinian lands it illegally and brutally occupies with its tactical and strategic military force.

Anticipating that defenders of the course would point to the university’s own commitment to academic freedom, and the right of faculty and students to enjoy free and open debate even concerning controversial topics, SJP said that Elran’s course should not be insulated by those precepts. Why? Because, as their statement put it, again reversing fact and narrative to suit their own advantage, “No principle of ‘academic freedom’ or ‘intellectual diversity’ justifies hosting classes taught by complicit Israeli military personnel—particularly not classes that misrepresent Palestinian history, treat Palestinian deaths as fodder for ‘strategic’ military theorizing, and inundate students with the Orientalist worldview of Israeli colonists.”

SJP’s opposition to Elran has not been limited to published statements denouncing the professor and the course content. On Feb. 2, SJP members mounted an in-person protest at Cobb Hall, the building where the general’s course is being taught—something the activists have been doing since the class began, and a tactic meant to physically and morally intimidate enrolled students as they enter and leave the building. The protest was particularly grotesque since it had as its secondary purpose, according to an SJP Instagram post, “to commemorate the 10 martyrs of the Jenin Refugee Camp.”

The so-called martyrs that SJP commemorated in their protest died in the Jenin refugee camp—a location notorious for being a terrorist stronghold and, as i24News has noted, is “a central base for terror groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades … , Hamas,” Lion’s Den, Fatah and others. Nowhere acknowledged by SJP, of course, is the fact that Jenin is proudly referred to by Palestinians “as the ‘Martyrs’ Capital,’ [and] at least 23 of the 60 suicide bombers that attacked Israel came from Jenin, according to Israel—more than any other Palestinian city.”

Consider how a university community would respond to a similar protest that glorified the murder of 10 black people in Buffalo, N.Y., by a white supremacist in May of 2022 or the 2016 murder of 49 gay people at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando by a deranged homophobe. The response and criticism of such a demonstration for such psychopaths would be thunderous, immediate and severe, but at the University of Chicago, the event passed without comment.

And typical of SJP’s virulent anti-Israel narrative, Israel and the IDF are depicted as a brutal, nearly sadistic force that regularly and randomly murders innocent Palestinian civilians. But the inverse of that is actually true; the IDF is methodical and fastidiously careful in its incursions to suppress terror against its citizens, as it was in the latest Jenin operation.

Aside from the evident moral indifference SJP demonstrated in honoring those who murder Jews, other important academic considerations are being compromised by the group’s disruption of Elran’s class.

When a visiting faculty member is asked to teach a course, as is the case here, he or she is thoroughly vetted in advance by departmental faculty and others with an academic interest in or knowledge of the proposed course and professor. To teach at an elite institution such as the University of Chicago, a visiting professor must possess both professional experience and academic credentials to satisfy the hiring committee and insure that the course will be taught to the standards of the host university.

So the troublesome issue here is that SJP—a small group of activist students with a poisonous enmity towards Israel, Zionism and Judaism—has assumed the right to overrule the decision of the university’s faculty and call for the boycott and cancellation of a course. The course in question is not, importantly, a mandatory one, so any student can avoid it by simply not enrolling.

SJP’s latest repellent tactic of physically disrupting the operations of the school is more than simply annoying; it violates the school’s own rules of student life and conduct. “The right of freedom of expression at the university,” the code reads, “includes peaceful protests and orderly demonstrations. At the same time, the university has long recognized that the right to protest and demonstrate does not include the right to engage in conduct that disrupts its operations or endangers the safety of others,” precisely what SJP’s protest outside the classroom and building entailed. The code also has a warning to offenders that “any member of the university who engages in disruptive conduct will be subject to disciplinary action,” although it seems SJP has yet to be punished for their aggressive activism.

Coincidentally, it was the University of Chicago that published a seminal set of guidelines for university free speech, the 2014 “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression,” often referred to as the “Chicago Principles.”

SJP must recognize that, while they have the right to express their views publicly and forcefully, they cannot expect or attempt to suppress those same rights of expression enjoyed by others.

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 Jew-Hatred Rising: The Perversities of 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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