Abuse of academic freedom enables antisemitism at Rutgers

Abuse of academic freedom enables antisemitism at Rutgers

Academic freedom has best been defined by the American Federation of Teachers as “based on the idea that the free exchange of ideas on campus is essential to good education.”  The principle of academic freedom has always been a foundational belief for me.

Two circumstances established this foundation. The first involved the 1965 Rutgers controversy regarding the Marxist history professor Eugene Genovese. The second concerned a course I took at my undergraduate alma mater, Northwestern University, on the Israeli-Arab conflict in 1969. It was taught by political science professor Ibrahim Abu-Lughod, who was then considered to be, with Edward Said of Columbia, one of the two leading advocates of the Palestinian Arab cause.

The Genovese controversy involved this statement of his: “Those of you who know me know that I am a Marxist and a Socialist. Therefore, unlike most of my distinguished colleagues here this morning, I do not fear or regret the impending Viet Cong victory in Vietnam.”

While I disagreed with Professor Genovese, I thought his statement was well within the bounds of the First Amendment and academic freedom.  He was not encouraging violence, and it encouraged thoughtful intellectual discourse on the Rutgers campus and the greater American political community.  Richard Hughes distinguished himself as a great New Jersey governor by defending Genovese’s civil liberties.  And Rutgers burnished its reputation for academic freedom by standing by the professor and defending his right to teach.

The Northwestern issue was a life-defining matter for me. I have been a lifelong committed right-of-center Zionist. Abu-Lughod, who grew up in an Arab Palestinian family in Jaffa, fought against the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. Said characterized him as “Palestine’s foremost academic intellectual”; he and Said were spokesmen for the Palestinian Liberation Organization in April 1988, when Secretary of State George Shultz opened talks with the group.

Abu-Lughod taught a highly reputed course on the Arab-Israeli conflict. I have always believed that I should study all points of view on an issue, even those on which I held extremely strong intellectual and emotional convictions.

My decision to take the Abu-Lughod course was one of the best decisions I made in my academic career. Abu-Lughod was abundantly fair, including in his course syllabus the works of such pro-Zionist academics as Christopher Sykes, Nadav Safran, and Walter Laqueur. I retained my right-of-center pro-Zionist views. Although the course did not increase my sympathy for the Palestinian Arab cause, it enhanced my understanding of it, and in the process it broadened my knowledge of the Middle East and the Israel-Arab conflict.

Ibrahim Abu-Lughod never in any way encouraged antisemitism. Quite the contrary. And the Abu-Lughod episode in my life constituted academic freedom at its best.

By contrast, at Rutgers today, two Arab professors are engaged in a plethora of falsehoods, with the undeniable impact of encouraging antisemitism. Academic freedom was never intended to immunize a campus voice of hatred from accountability. Furthermore, in the academic world, we must never confuse liberty with license. If you believe these two academics, you will accept the repulsive notion that a position on the academic faculty gives you a license to spread vitriolic hatred.

Jasbir K. Puar is a professor of women’s and gender studies at Rutgers, and the author of “The Right to Maim.” This book contends that Israel has a policy of maiming its Palestinian residents instead of killing them, to maintain the “stranglehold” Israel’s “colonialist” regime has on its Palestinian “subjects.”  Tablet magazine’s editor-in-chief, Liel Leibovitz, has described the book as “rife with contradictions and short on facts …an intellectual and moral hoax.” This book is a classic “blood libel” of Jews.

Sahar Aziz is a distinguished professor of law and chancellor’s social justice scholar at Rutgers Law School.  She has asserted that Israel’s self-defense against Hamas was “disproportionate and brutal” and “genocidal in intent.” Her falsehoods disputing the brutality of Hamas against Israeli women and children were flagrant, despite verification of Hamas’s sexual violence and the beheading of babies.

The falsehoods of Puar and Aziz have had the unmistakable impact of contributing to the legitimization of antisemitism on the Rutgers New Brunswick campus.  Students have complained about death threats against Jews online and harassment of Jewish fraternity members.

This climate of antisemitism at Rutgers has resulted in its president, Jonathan Holloway, being summoned to Washington to appear before the House Education and the Workforce Committee, the committee investigating antisemitism on our college campuses, chaired by Virginia Foxx (R-NC).  Holloway must account for the measures he and his staff took to combat antisemitism at Rutgers. An excellent place to start would be to guarantee that a distorted concept of academic freedom will no longer be accepted as a shield against accountability for antisemitic faculty members.

This essay first appeared on Mr. Steinberg’s
Substack, “The Voice of Dynamic Political Centrism”

Alan J. Steinberg of Highland Park was regional administrator of Region 2 EPA during the administration of former President George W. Bush, and he was executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission. He is a graduate of Northwestern University and the University of Wisconsin Law School.

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