When it comes to Israel, there can be no academic freedom or dissent? The case of William I. Robinson and UC-Santa Barbara

Posted on April 29, 2009 by

  • Another allegation of “anti-Semitism”?
  • Another tale of a “racist” professor?
  • Another professor who “violates students’ rights”?
  • Another university administration “investigates” a professor?

One would have thought that, in a post-Churchill context, university administrations would have been more circumspect, less willing to rush in and stifle free speech, as if only certain opinions were authorized and lawful.

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Some Details of the Latest Case

The case of William I. Robinson, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara is covered to a considerable extent on a blog devoted exclusively to the subject, the Committee to Defend Academic Freedom at UCSB, and in a very illuminating article by Scott Jaschik, “Crossing A Line” (Inside Higher Ed, 23 April 2009). Professor Robinson circulated an e-mail message in January among students of his Sociology of Globalization (SOC130SG) course that contained an article critical of Israeli military actions in Gaza, likening Gaza to the Warsaw ghetto, and presenting a parallel series of images that likened Nazi persecution of Jews to the oppression of Palestinians. I know of a video that has done that, and I featured it on this blog. Someone contacted the Anti-Defamation League, likely the two students in the course of 80 who dropped out after this was made into a public controversy by the ADL. The ADL stated in a letter to Robinson that his message had “crossed the line beyond illegitimate criticism of Israel” and that his e-mail was “intimidating” to students and presented “material that appears unrelated” to his course. Clearly, the ADL thinks of itself as a syllabus vetting board that has a say in what is relevant course content, and that decides that it alone can stipulate what is tolerable and legitimate criticism of Israel (not that it makes reference to any legitimate criticisms it would tolerate).

One of the students who dropped the course wrote a letter of complaint to the university, repeating that s/he found the letter to be “intimidating,” “disgusting,” “horrific,” and then raised the “Anti-Semitism” charge. In addition, the complaint specified that Robinson was somehow representing the University by using his university e-mail account, and that he was essentially not entitled to free speech if this might “intimidate” students. A second student’s letter of complaint (from a student who not even get the name of the course right, and who absurdly accuses Robinson of self-violating his own right to academic freedom) also targeted Robinson for his “anti-Semitism.” As support for the charge of anti-Semitism, a student resorted to the website of the U.S. State Department for its definition of the concept, which is only candid enough to begin its sentence with “For the purposes of this report.” To take the State Department as the ultimate and most credible authority on the subject of anti-Semitism, concerning its client state and beach head in the Middle East, is to show either willful ignorance or irreparable naivete. It also suggests that all the thinking that needs to be done has already been done for us, by the state itself. At that point, one can simply fold up the university, pave its grounds, and create a new parking lot — its job is done.

Let’s hear one of these students complain, not that she has won many favourable comments from viewers of the YouTube video:

Someone, please enlighten that dear little darling that in the world outside of what mummy and daddy lied to her about, people can have very different views. Moreover, in a university, what intelligent and adult people do when they disagree, is to engage in dialogue, in discussion and debate — what they do not do is to try to prevent different opinions from being voiced or to launch formal complaints trying to silence someone engaging in free speech, or to slander someone with the conveniently chosen loaded label of the day. To adopt this approach is to in fact endorse the principles of both bigotry and totalitarianism. The implication of the student complaint is that Robinson must be a self-hating Jew, which also happens to be another racist concept.

Did the University do what a serious and respectable institution in a democracy would do? No, the University decided to form a panel to investigate Robinson and possibly impose sanctions on him. No action has yet been taken against Robinson. Robinson, in the meantime, took the very smart step of consulting with lawyers and may sue to block the coming proceedings.

For its part, the ADL acknowledged to Jaschik that it has no evidence that Professor Robinson had punished students for expressing pro-Israel views, or that he would not let them express such views. Instead, the ADL stepped out of its domain and complained that the material was not relevant to Robinson’s course — which, surely, is a matter for Robinson to decide.

Nonetheless, ADL National Director Abraham Foxman “held a confidential meeting in early March with University of California officials on campus to pressure them to investigate charges of ‘anti-Semitism’ against sociology professor William I. Robinson” (source).

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Zionism, Racism, Anti-Semitism

In a context where the U.S. has seen right wing fundamentalists like David Horowitz chase after and blacklist any academics and courses whose points of view differ from his own, alleging that teachers are actually great indoctrinators with magical powers to impose their opinions on students, it turns out of course that reality is substantially different, as it usually is when compared to fantasy and conspiracy theory. The case of William I. Robinson, a professor of sociology at the University of California at Santa Barbara (previously it may have been known as a reputable institution), instead displays something quite different from the tattered tale told by the lunatic right: that students can be quite intolerant, as can university administrations, who along with (or under) special interests outside the university work to prevent the expression of any view that does not conform with the orthodox, authorized view of the pure innocence and moral supremacy of the Israeli state. In a mendacious and spurious defense of academic freedom and tolerance, what such anti-critics do is kill both.

After all, to criticize the state or a political leader in Israel is “anti-Semitic,” right? The U.S. State Department says so: it involves the “demonization of Israel, or vilification of Israeli leaders.” By the same token, then most American media coverage of Robert Mugabe is racist and anti-African. Most media coverage of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is also, by the same token, racist. Americans who criticize Obama should beware: they might be racist if they vilify Obama.

What is happening at UCSB does not happen there alone. At my own university, in my own department, those who signed a petition condemning Israel’s brutality in Gaza have been publicly labeled by opponents outside the university as “racist professors.” The stench of a red herring should have overpowered anyone but the most senseless: none of these professors — and I know them — have ever said anything about “the Jewish race,” about any supposed ethnic attributes of Jews, or about linking the policy of the Israeli right wing with something innate to all Jews. That would be racism and anti-Semitism, and that is not what they are endorsing.

Instead, they are opposing the kind of racism pushed by extreme Zionists who would have public opinion believe that the Israeli state structure is the most perfect expression of all Jews everywhere, and that all Jews are alike, think alike, and do alike.  So is it then an expression of primordial Jewishness to unleash white phosphorous on civilian populations in Gaza, or to have snipers execute mothers and children in Gaza? Now that is racism. And how does such racist fantasy hold up to the reality of widely contrasting opinion among Jews? By creating the vulgar idiocy known as the concept of the “self-hating Jew.” How vulgar and idiotic? Simple to answer, just look at the self-described SHIT LIST. Virtually every prominent Jewish intellectual one has ever heard about is now a “self-hater.” This reminds me of white southern racists in the U.S. who labelled white civil rights activists as “race traitors” and “nigger lovers.”

If this is the intended defense against anti-Semitism, it is not only the wrong one, it is the most dangerously self-defeating one. When one charges even Jews like Prof. Robinson of being anti-Semitic, then it starts to make anti-Semitism look credible and respectable. It also appears to be libel, and as Robert Fisk told us at Concordia recently, British newspaper editors have a practice of automatically slapping anyone who alleges “anti-semitism” with a lawsuit on the grounds of libel — you simply cannot get away with or be forgiven for saying outright, outrageous lies. The anti-Semitism charge is in Robinson’s case, as it is in the case of my colleagues, a deliberate lie, and a racist one to boot.

As is explained by Noam Chomsky on the same website for academic freedom at UCSB, the Anti-Defamation League consists of people who “try to label any criticism as anti-Semitic, but they never respond to the criticism itself, because they can’t. Decades ago, the ADL was an authentic and serious organization that defended civic rights, but in the last 40 years it’s become a Stalinist-style organization dedicated to supporting anything Israel does and to destroying all opposition to Israeli policies.”

The mistake of some is to believe that the university should serve solely as an arm of the state, engage in policing free speech, and strangling any expressions of unauthorized, heterodox views that do not quite jibe with the geopolitical ambitions of the state and some of the special interests that are invested in the state’s agenda.

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How You Can Help

You can add your signature to the more than 1,440 that have been added to date on the petition to support academic freedom at UCSB.

You can also send an e-mail to the Chancellor of UCSB and its administrators..

I am happy to have done both and I encourage readers to take a few moments to do the same.


Read this interview with William Robinson in the 29 April 2009 issue of CounterPunch.

See also Dana L. Cloud’s “The McCarthyism That Horowitz Built — The Cases of Margo Ramlal Nankoe, William Robinson, Nagesh Rao and Loretta Capeheart,” CounterPunch (30 April 2009).