When Academic Freedom Is Kicked Out of Class

By Alisa Solomon

Published March 04, 2005, issue of March 04, 2005.
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New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein should pay a visit to the City University of New York Graduate Center this week to see a telling and chillingly timely exhibit called “Activism and Repression: The Struggle for Free Speech at CCNY, 1931-42,” which closes March 6. Contemplating this chronicle of shameful blacklists against City College teachers with dissenting political views might help him recognize the imprudence of his recent decision to summarily exclude a Columbia University professor from participating in teaching-development workshops on the Middle East. Klein announced the ban in the wake of allegations that the professor, Rashid Khalidi, had made statements harshly critical of Israel.

Khalidi is the director of Columbia’s Middle East Institute and a recognized authority on the history of Arab nationalism. He has lectured for the teachers training program before, including just last month on the hardly inflammatory topic of Middle Eastern geography, without any problem. What’s more, what he is alleged to have said — that Israel is a “racist” state and that he supports Palestinian attacks on Israelis — is a mendacious distortion of his views.

Khalidi has spoken of discriminatory laws within Israel that favor Jews ,and of the discriminatory laws that have governed the occupied territories, an observation that no Israeli would contest. He has consistently condemned suicide bombings as “war crimes,” while asserting the right of Palestinians to violent resistance against soldiers within the West Bank and Gaza. But in an atmosphere poisoned by nonstop smear campaigns against professors expressing pro-Palestinian sentiments, it’s hardly surprising that nuance, good judgment and truth get lost in the smog.

The toxic cloud has been gathering over American political discourse for a long while. Fumes have poured forth from the intemperate shock-jocks of talk radio and their belligerent brethren in cable punditry. Next came the specious tactics of the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and their consultants, who just unveiled an ad for the lobbying group USA Next, assailing the American Association of Retired People with the baseless claim that AARP’s “real agenda” is to promote gay marriage — AARP takes no position on the issue — while somehow weakening American troops. (The ad is meant to discredit AARP and thus erode popular support for its negative position on President Bush’s Social Security proposals.)

Meanwhile, the Republican Jewish Coalition published an ad in newspapers around the country two weeks ago that went so far as to associate Howard Dean, the recently elected chair of the Democratic National Committee, with Hamas suicide bombers. Insinuation, innuendo, name calling and disingenuous selective quoting are supplanting facts, logic and reasoned argument in the popular media.

That’s alarming enough. But when public officials take action on the basis of such warped information, they are no better than the zealots who drummed dissenters out of classrooms in the 1940s and 1950s. This is not simply an abstract matter of the principles of academic freedom and the constitutional right to free speech — crucial as those principles are. Teachers’ livelihoods are at stake, and, if the death threats they receive are to be taken literally, so are their lives. (Google your way to some of the pro-Israel blogs denouncing Khalidi to see how shockingly vicious and violent the rhetoric can get.)

In light of the “Activism and Repression” exhibit, it’s particularly disheartening to see mainstream Jewish organizations buying into this game: So many of the teachers persecuted and purged by the Rapp-Coudert Committee of the 1940s, and later by the McCarthy witch hunts, were Jews. What’s more, when it comes to a subject as complex, contentious and emotional as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, debate needs to be especially nuanced and meticulous, not conducted in the style of the blowhards of the TV slugfests.

But for the hawks leading the charge against Khalidi and his colleagues, the point is not to engage in or promote civil debate on a complicated issue, where there might, in fact, be room for competing narratives. It is to silence the other side.

Disgracefully, some New York politicians joined in the calls for Khalidi’s dismissal from the public schools program. Rep. Anthony Weiner, who is running for mayor, praised the chancellor’s decision, though when pressed by a reporter from the Forward, he could not identify any objectionable statements Khalidi had made. Politicians who think they can pander to Jewish voters by violating the free speech of a scholar who expresses rational criticism of Israel may be in for a rude surprise: They might end up alienating those of us who both prize the Constitution and aren’t so naive or myopic to expect Palestinians to be Zionists.

In 1981, 40 years after the Rapp-Coudert dismissals, CUNY’s board of trustees unanimously adopted a historic resolution expressing “profound regret at the injustice done to the faculty and staff who had been dismissed or forced to resign in 1941 and 1942 because of their alleged political associations and beliefs.” Klein, who should not have dismissed Khalidi in the first place, shouldn’t wait even 40 minutes to apologize.

Alisa Solomon, a professor at the City University of New York, is a co-editor of “Wrestling With Zion: Progressive Jewish-American Responses to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict” (Grove Press, 2003).

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