Wrongfully Treating Academic Debate as Anti-Semitism

According to the State Department definition, a Palestinian student claiming the right to return to her homeland could be considered to be “denying Israel’s right to exist,” given the demographic implications of the Palestinian right of return for the Jewish state. A professor daring to suggest that Israel should be, like the U.S., the state of all its citizens — liberal, secular and multicultural — rather than that of just one ethnicity could be similarly censured. And anyone calling for a boycott of Israel could be accused of “demonizing” it by singling it out (as though all the world’s problems have to be addressed before we can focus on Israel). Rather than constituting positions with which one might agree or disagree, these ideas could be marked for censorship and punishment.

In fact, the defenders of Israel on campus are in deep trouble, not because student well-being is at risk but because the rickety assemblage of distortions and myths used to justify support for Israeli policies can’t withstand scholarly scrutiny. Having lost the actual arguments, Israel’s defenders have now declared war on argument itself.

What we witness in campus debates over Israel and the Palestinians is an increasingly lopsided affair. While one side draws on historical evidence, international law and United Nations documentation, the other complains that all this makes them feel “threatened” and “uncomfortable.”

Scholarship is not validated by how it makes us feel, however, but by the extent to which it stands up to reason and evidence. To prioritize feelings over arguments — and to police arguments to safeguard feelings — constitutes a dire threat to academic and intellectual freedom, not least because of the mobilization of outside political forces to intervene in on-campus discussions.

– Read more: Wrongfully Treating Academic Debate as Anti-Semitism – Saree Makdisi, LA Times

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