405. “Harsh Lessons in Incivility.” The Chronicle of Higher Education; The Chronicle Review. (November 1, 2002) p.B14-15


This semester, the hottest class on campuses coast to coast is a course in incivility. Teaching it are thousands of professors involved in a vicious debate about Israel, the Palestinians, and anti-Semitism. Any lessons one might hope to learn about rhetoric, logic, history, humility, or dignity won’t intrude into this brawl, in which the sides demonize and attribute the worst possible motives to each other, and strike calculatedly provocative positions instead of making even halfhearted attempts to understand another point of view.

One camp charges Israel with apartheidlike oppression of Palestinians. The other says that such allegations are anti-Semitic. The first, exemplified by Elizabeth Spelke, a Harvard psychology professor, then claims that the anti-Semitism label is an attempt to suppress free speech.

Along those lines, critics of Israel, such as Michael Lerner, the editor of the left-liberal Tikkun, see themselves as subject to a new, Jewish McCarthyism. And, in turn, defenders of Israel, such as Ruth Wisse, a professor of comparative literature at Harvard, suggest that to acquiesce to anti-Israeli rhetoric is to prepare the ground for a new Hitler. And so it goes.

Stances in this debate are often so bereft of basic facts, and so grossly oversimplify the issues at hand, that scholars– whatever their persuasion– should be embarrassed to participate. Some of the confrontations take place in classrooms or op-ed pages, but many occur at campuswide meetings. The involvement at these meetings of faculty members, and not just student leaders, furthers the mis-educational impact.

Worst of all, death threats and other forms of intimidation have been directed against quite a few of the professors and student leaders involved. During Passover last year, a cinder block was thrown through the front door of the Hillel building at the University of California at Berkeley. Also last spring, pro-Israel demonstrators at San Francisco State University were surrounded by people who harassed them with chants like "Hitler didn’t finish the job." When more than 300 college presidents signed a letter calling for intimidation-free campuses, rather than jumping to endorse the letter, both sides criticized it, saying it overplayed the intimidation suffered by one side and minimized that suffered by the other.

The situation could be studied by some group of neutral social scientists, except where would you find them? Surely not in Europe, where the venom on this issue is even more poisonous than in the United States, and where one hears references to the "Zionist SS" and calls for "Death to Jews," or stereotyping of all Muslims as followers of Osama bin Laden.

Frankly, it is my impression that to the extent that Muslim students in the United States are intimidated, it usually is not by Jews and not related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather by a variety of Americans hostile to a religion they don’t understand and with which they associate Islamist terrorism.

But let’s assume that both sides are equally aggrieved. Why not an intimidation-free debate? Why not condemn, in no uncertain terms, those advocating and threatening violence? Contrary to the arguments of those who have criticized it, the letter on intimidation-free campuses denounces threats "directed against any persons, group or cause."

So much for the inexcusable tone of the debate. What of its substance? It is completely uncalled for to label as anti-Semitic the criticisms of the Sharon government, and of current Israeli policy regarding the West Bank and Gaza Strip. If the label were apt, every Israeli newspaper, the vast majority of Israel’s public intellectuals, and the leaders of its major parties would all be anti-Semitic, for they have all, at one time or another, strongly condemned the Sharon government.

Surely, to the extent that such condemnation has concerned specific policies and been informed by fact, these statements would not qualify as what Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers has called "anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent." Even calls to destroy Israel, or to throw it into the Mediterranean sea– suggestions all too common in the Arab world– are not anti-Semitic per se, even if they fail to recognize the importance of a homeland for all Jews.

Such statements, though deeply worrisome, reflect a quarrel with the state of Israel, not with the Jewish people. We have perhaps lost sight of the fact that even in countries as extremely hostile to Israel as Iran, there is a thriving Jewish life and– with the troubling exception of Iran’s trial in 2000 of 13 Jews who supposedly spied for Israel– religious freedom for Jews not significantly different from that for Muslims.

At the same time, to argue, as does Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, that Jews are merely panicking, that they view every expression of hostility as paving the way for a new Hitler, is at least as far off the mark. Over recent years practically all the major anti-Semitic tracts (such as the infamous Protocols of the Elders of Zion) have been translated into Arabic and given wide circulation on the Internet.

Some of these tracts claim that the Holocaust is a myth; others repeat allegations that Israelis or Jews orchestrated the attack on the World Trade Center. Oft-repeated claims that Jewish money controls the media and Washington are anti-Semitic on the face of it. No, such statements are not a cause for panic; and I don’t see any evidence that Jews are panicking. But surely Jews (and all other people) should speak out against such blatant bigotry.

Vastly oversimplifying the Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes not only for dangerous rhetoric, but also for pitiful logic. Only someone with paltry and tunnel-visioned knowledge of the world, and looking to wrap themselves in a quick cloak of self-righteousness, can call for divestment from Israel. Condemning Israeli violence while treating suicide bombers, and those who spur them on, as courageous champions reflects a peculiar view not only of history, but of human rights. At the same time, it is far-fetched to argue, as Jeffrey Hamburger of Harvard did on NPR’s Weekend Edition, that the mere advocacy of a boycott of Israel is anti-Semitic because it reminds Jews of Hitler’s calling for a boycott of Jewish shops.

Urging the United States to put pressure only on Israel disregards the fact that when the Ehud Barak government offered the Palestinians at least 95 percent of what all but the most extreme were hoping for, it was rejected out of hand. The Palestinians, too, need to be encouraged to reconsider their commitment to fighting Israel, come what may, until it is destroyed.

On the other hand– and there’s always another hand in these matters, much to the chagrin of self-certain ideologues– to argue that the Palestinians need to stop all violence before a settlement can be negotiated is equally one-sided and ill-reasoned, given that the Palestinian Authority has, at best, incomplete control of its own territory.

As I have recently suggested with my colleague, the American-Palestinian scholar Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland at College Park, for now, we need to content ourselves with seeking peace rather than historical judgment. Trying to sort out who has been most abusive, and most abused, who has stronger claims, will only extend the bloodshed. For now the focus should be on finding a formula that allows both sides to live together. And a good start would be finding a way for their advocates to speak together. Sure, we have freedom to shout; but great reason not to.

Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and director of the Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies at George Washington University. His recent books include The Monochrome Society (Princeton University Press, 2001).

 

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