The Amherst campus of the University of Massachusetts is again engulfed in controversy. At issue is an event scheduled for May 4 that is titled “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech, and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights.” Much has been said and written about this event, which has received international attention. It raises several key concerns that need to be addressed honestly and responsibly.
Universities are bastions of freedom of speech. The protection of speech and the airing of views with which some may disagree vehemently is a cardinal principle of academic life. The tenure system is designed to assure faculty who express unpopular views that their political opinions will not adversely affect their standing in the academy. But freedom of speech cannot stand by itself.
Having served as Professor of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at UMass Amherst for thirty-six years, including twelve years as department chair, I learned that the manner in which we approach sensitive political issues – issues that are typically highly contentious – is the central educational lesson that must be conveyed to our students and to the public. In my experience, students and the public look to the university for guidance on this question, and we must not disappoint them. If we dare permit political activism to replace our commitment to critical thinking, we risk undermining everything we stand for and all that we have worked so hard to accomplish.
Alongside freedom of speech, there are four core principles of academic research and teaching that in my view must guide faculty when confronted by difficult questions.
1. Classroom teaching and research must not be sullied by political objectives or ulterior motives.
2. Teaching and research must rest firmly on the commitment to understand the complexity of a subject and to avoid oversimplification. This commitment presupposes that these endeavors will be pursued by aspiring to the highest level of personal and professional integrity.
3. Faculty have a responsibility to themselves, to their students, and to the universities that employ them, to acquire the training, tools, and knowledge that are essential to the fields in which they work.
4. Despite differences of opinion that invariably divide faculty in their understanding of an issue, it is enormously important to model civil behavior and respectful speech, even when disagreement is impassioned. In my view, this is a fundamental requirement of teaching.
All too often, these four principles are honored in the breech. I am deeply distressed by the widespread tendency of faculty at universities across the country to sponsor events that advocate unabashedly for political positions without offering audiences the opportunity to hear other points of view and/or to participate in reasoned debate. Sadly, this has occurred at UMass on a number of occasions. In November 2017, for example, one-sided diatribes against Israel masqueraded as academic consideration of anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel.
The speakers who have been invited to the May 4 event were not selected because of their academic credentials or expertise. They were invited because of the political positions they espouse. It is a matter of record that members of this panel of self-avowed anti-Israel activists have publicly expressed opinions that are widely viewed as anti-Semitic. The sole criterion for the selection of these speakers is his or her denial of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination. The organizers of the event have no interest in furthering our understanding of the complexities surrounding the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. It is a one-sided conflict, in their view, and Israel and its Jewish supporters deserve all the blame. One of their goals is to convince their audience that the boycott of Israeli scholars from the American academy is justified.
The use of inflammatory rhetoric is intended to polarize the issues, distort the reality, and demonize Israel and its supporters. It is meant to produce noise, not light. Regrettably, the May 4 event is part of a disturbing pattern of inviting activist speakers with no academic credentials, or pseudo-scholars who have no standing in the academic world, to advance outrageous claims that do not meet the threshold of fact-based research that we expect in the academy. Not infrequently, they compare Israel with Nazism. This obscene comparison certainly qualifies as hate-mongering.
Regrettably, the UMass faculty members who have organized the May 4th event do not qualify as knowledgeable of the subject under discussion. It is astonishing that the organizer of the event, who is Chair of the Department of Communication at UMass, has no academic expertise in Middle Eastern history or politics. He has no knowledge of the relevant foreign languages, and he has not published any scientific publications in this field. Nevertheless, his lack of training has not stopped him from preaching politics in the classroom. His course lectures, which are available electronically, are notable for their strong anti-Israel bias and ignorance of Middle Eastern history. I have watched these lectures and can report that the methodology employed to gauge public opinion, which is the focus of his film on Israel’s influence on U.S. attitudes, is unprofessional. Neither do other departments that are sponsoring the event, including Philosophy and Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies, list Middle East experts on their faculty. The time has come for faculty and departments to exercise restraint while acknowledging the limits of their academic competence.
One of the main arguments made by the organizers of the May 4th event is that supporters of Israel exploit anti-Semitism in order to silence criticism of Israel. But here the opposite is the case. Those who take exception to unfair claims, untruths, and outrageous language are not “falsely conflating legitimate criticism of Israeli state policy with anti-Semitism,” as the event organizer has argued. Rather, it is a matter of exercising the right to disagree when there is reason to fear that the lowering of academic standards will permit a political agenda to masquerade as a scholarly program.
I call on those with whom we disagree to come together in the spirit of respect and cooperation, to find common ground, to discuss constructively paths to peace and reconciliation – in the Middle East and at home.
Jay R. Berkovitz is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He currently lives in Jerusalem where he is a Fellow at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies.