In the past week, Brandeis University severed its academic affiliation with Palestine’s Al Quds University due to a campus rally by the Islamist militant group, Islamic Jihad. The controversy began with Israel’s far-right prime minister railing about a “Nazi-like” rally with its alleged anti-Semitic character on the Al Quds campus on November 5th. Within days the story was reported in all the right-wing dailies and had spread to English-language hasbara sites like Israel Matzav. From there the cause was taken up by Breitbart.
A few days ago, Pres. Frederick Lawrence took decisive, some would say hasty action. He released this statement:
I reacted to these events both as Brandeis’s President and as a scholar and attorney – much of my professional and academic career has focused on bias-motivated violence and expressions of bigotry, popularly known as hate crimes and hate speech. Beyond the strict legal issues, there are the moral and social issues: what is the responsibility of an ethical community in the face of hate speech, that which in America is constitutionally protected but that is deeply offensive or that is conducive to violence? This question falls at the intersection of two of our most cherished values – values that appear to be in conflict: a robust respect for free expression and a culture that values civility, decency, and dignity.
I am convinced that as a community, we agree that certain kinds of demonstrations are unacceptable. The demonstration at Al-Quds University last week clearly expressed hatred, and was steeped in vitriolic anti-Semitism. Such a demonstration certainly has no place on the Brandeis campus, and its occurrence on the campus of one of our international partners disturbed me deeply; I was outraged.
While we cannot supervise the speech and activities on the campuses of all our many international partners, where such events fly in the face of our communal values we should, and will, step forward and speak out.
There are many problems with this seemingly balanced, well-articulated statement. First, there is no such category as “hate speech” as Lawrence so sloppily defines it. He’s also accused the rally of expressing “bigotry” without offering any proof of any actual bigoted comments. He hasn’t pointed to any offensive statements made at the rally. He’s pointed to pictures of the events and based his actions on his interpretations (or rather the interpretation of far-right Israel advocates) of them.
In fact, there was nothing “Nazi-like” or anti-Semitic about anything at the rally, nor has Brandeis Pres. Frederick Lawrence offered any proof that there was. About the closest he can come is claiming that a straight-armed salute offered by the protesters was reminiscent of the Nazi salue. The only problem: an Islamic Jihad spokesperson said that all Palestinian militant groups offer this salute, which is an arm raised toward a liberated Jerusalem.
He makes yet another false claim here:
In responding to reports of mock military demonstrations on the Al-Quds campus that included banners depicting images of “martyred” suicide bombers and Nazi-style salutes, we verified the facts of the events…
Once again, he offers no proof whatsoever regarding the “facts of the events” or that he verified them. He may be a university president, but that doesn’t mean standards of proof and evidence can be thrown to the winds because of his august academic position. With an action as serious as the one he’s taken, he should be forced to support it with facts and evidence: elements that are entirely lacking.
Keep in mind that this is a university president, a former Georgetown law school dean, and specialist in free speech law. In other words, this should be a person steeped in the cause of academic freedom, due process, and the First Amendment.
In fact, Lawrence did comment on these issues in the context of Brandeis awarding an honorary degree to Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren, who was also commencement speaker. Some students and faculty criticized the choice. But when asked about this afterward (he hadn’t yet joined Brandeis at the time), Lawrence mounted that hobby horse and took the free speech line:
The campus debate over the propriety of honoring a representative of a country that some critics consider a repressive, occupying power encouraged an open discussion of free speech values — which Lawrence, who specialized in free speech cases while working as an attorney, views as crucial in a university atmosphere.
“If free speech should flourish anywhere, it is within the halls of a university,” he wrote last year in his online blog after a student group at GWU posted flyers containing a profanity. Lawrence titled his blog “Putting the F in Freedom of Speech.”
“Free speech issues are always hard”; one person’s open expression of opinions is likely to upset another person. Lawrence declined to say how he would have handled the Oren controversy were he at Brandeis earlier this year, but said he generally favors unfettered speech unless one party is in physical danger.
You’ll note that in the above passage you see nothing about “hate speech” or “bigotry.” When he’s defending Michael Oren he stands on bedrock American constitutional principles. But when it comes to Palestinians, then he lapses into more pejorative categories that allow him to throw those other principles to the wind. Apparently, only Israel and Michael Oren deserve ‘unfettered’ free speech. Palestinians deserve something less because they’re savages, or at least less than fully civilized.
I’ve got news for Mr. Free Speech University President: speech is not something guaranteed only to the privileged or civilized. It’s guaranteed to all, whether they live in Waltham or Abu Dis. And all should be judged according to a single standard. There may not be two different standards based on political or financial expediency. Lawrence, his thinking, and his actions reek of hypocrisy.
Returning to the rally itself, no one was placed in any danger by the speech and actions at Al Quds. But presumably Lawrence would delve into the minds of those at the rally and claim that they were endorsing terror against Israelis. And on the strength of that tenuous connection with actual physical danger, he would justify his rush to judgment. Doesn’t sound like the choice of either a good lawyer or free speech advocate. Not only that, he would excommunicate Al Quds not based on the speech of the faculty or course curriculum or any academic standard, but based on the actions of a small minority of students in a non-academic setting.
Notice how real constitutional principles like free speech and honored traditions like academic freedom referred to in the above passage are now trumped by amorphous concepts like “communal values” in his more recent rant.
Further, Lawrence followed no formal academic process, didn’t consult any of the world-renowned faculty who specialize in peace studies and conflict resolution. Who did he consult? He read the Jerusalem Post, Israel Matzav–or at least his wealthy, pro-Israel donors did. Those are the ones who made call after call to his office asking him what he planned to do about this intolerable situation and when he was going to do it.
That’s when the he rushed to the barricades to shed any vestige of relationship with the “Hamas terror university,” as pro-Israel hasbara media have called it. Besides severing academic ties, Al Quds President, Sari Nusseibeh, a leading Palestinian academician, Harvard-educated, a peace activist and acclaimed author, has been unceremoniously booted as a board member of the Brandeis International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life. Brandeis’ precedent has caused Syracuse University to join and cut its ties to Al Quds.
Two eminent American university professors published an essay at Electronic Intifada supported a boycott of Israeli universities. This, by the way, is a position that Sari Nusseibeh has strongly opposed. In fact, he signed a letter with the president of Hebrew University denouncing academic boycott. At any rate, the most persuasive arguments by the two professors concern Israel’s systematic assault on Palestinian education. They note the destruction of Gaza educational institutions during Operation Cast Lead and Pillar of Cloud. They note the maiming and murder of Palestinian school children on their way to or from school.
But they don’t note the ongoing suppression of academic freedom in the West Bank. That’s where Al Quds is located. And it has faced decades of fierce and violent assault from the IDF and Border Police. Students are routinely shot (as recently as last week forty were wounded by rubber bullets, most of whom were students). Computers and other university equipment are confiscated by security forces, offices ransacked. The Israeli media publishes incitement and lies against Al Quds calling it a “terror university.”
As the Electronic Intifada report indicates, no Israeli universities have ever come to the aid of any Palestinian educations institutions under attack. No university president has ever condemned these provocations and demanded they end. Certainly Lawrence hasn’t. He’d rather sit back and tell his liberal-minded donors how progressive Brandeis is in the good times when he can boast of the affiliation with Al Quds. Whatever troubles the Palestinian school faces from Israeli authorities isn’t his problem. Nor is it the problem of Israeli university presidents, even ones like Menachem Mogidor of the Hebrew University, who signed that letter opposing academic boycott. I’ll bet you won’t hear Megidor’s voice this week speaking up for Pres. Nusseibeh.
Special thanks to reader, Oui, whose research helped support and shape this post.