February 18, 2009
Dust Over Campus Life: UCLA at a Crossroad
Remember Ionesco’s “Rhinoceros”? Written in the late 1950s, the play describes the transformation of a quiet, peaceful town into anarchy when one after another of its residents is transformed into a lumbering, thick-skinned brute. Only Berenger, a stand-in for the playwright, tries to hold out against the collective rush into rhinocerism.
First, the townspeople notice a stray rhinoceros rumbling down the street. No one takes a great deal of notice — “It made a lot of dust.’’ ‘’Stupid quadruped not worth talking about’’ — although it does trample one woman’s cat.
Before long, an ethical debate develops over the rhino way of life vs. the human way of life. ‘’Why not just leave them alone,’’ a friend advises Berenger. ‘’You get used to it.’’ The debate is quickly muted into blind acceptance of the rhino ethic, the entire town is joining the marching herd, and Berenger finds himself alone, partly resisting, partly enjoying the uncontrolled sounds coming out his own throat: “Honk, Honk, Honk”.
These sounds from Ionesco’s play echoed in my ears on Jan. 22, when an e-mail from a colleague at Indiana University asked: “Being at UCLA, you must know about this symposium ... pretty bad.” Attached to it was Roberta Seid’s report on the now famous “Human Rights and Gaza” symposium held a day earlier at UCLA (see “UCLA Symposium on Gaza Ignites Strong Criticism,” Jewish Journal, Feb. 11, 2009).
To refresh readers’ memory, this symposium, organized by UCLA’s Center for Near East Studies (CNES), was billed as a discussion of human rights in Gaza. Instead, the director of the center, Susan Slyomovics, invited four longtime demonizers of Israel for a panel that Seid describes as a reenactment of a “1920 Munich beer hall.” Not only did the panelists portray Hamas as a guiltless, peace-seeking, unjustly provoked organization, they also bashed Israel, her motives, her character, her birth and conception and led the excited audience into chanting “Zionism is Nazism,” “F—-, f—- Israel,” in the best tradition of rhino liturgy.
But the primary impact of the event became evident the morning after, when unsuspecting, partially informed students woke up to read an article in the campus newspaper titled, “Scholars Say Attack on Gaza an Abuse of Human Rights,” to which the good name of the University of California was attached, and from which the word “terror” and the genocidal agenda of Hamas were conspicuously absent. This mock verdict, presented as an outcome of supposedly dispassionate scholarship, is where Hamas culture scored its main triumph — another inch of academic respectability, another inroad into Western minds.
Naturally, when students came complaining to me about how abused and frightened they felt during the symposium and how concerned they are about the direction the Center for Near East Studies is taking, I felt terribly guilty. “We should have anticipated such travesties,” I told myself, “we, the Jewish faculty at UCLA, should have preempted it with a true symposium on human rights, one that honestly tackles the tough moral and legal dilemmas that the Gaza situation presents to civilized society: How does society protect the human rights of a civilian population in which rocket-launching terrorists are hiding? How does one reconcile the right of a country to defend itself with the wrong of killing women and children when the former entails the latter? What is a legitimate military target?”
These are dilemmas that had not surfaced before the days of rockets and missiles, and we, the Jewish faculty, ought to have pioneered their study. Instead, we allowed Hamas’ sympathizers to frame the academic agenda. How can we face our students from the safety of our offices when they deal with anti-Israel abuse on a daily basis — in the cafeteria, the library and the classroom — and as alarming reports of mob violence are arriving from other campuses (San Jose State University, Spartan Daily, Feb. 9, and York University, Globe and Mail, Feb. 13)?
Burdened with guilt, I called some colleagues, but quickly realized that a few have already made the shift to a strange-sounding language, not unlike “Honk, Honk.” Some have entered the debate phase, arguing over the rhino way of life vs. the human way of life, and the majority, while still speaking in a familiar English vocabulary, are frightened beyond anything I have seen at UCLA in the 40 years that I have served on its faculty.
Colleagues told me about lecturers whose appointments were terminated, professors whose promotion committees received “incriminating” letters, and about the impossibility of revealing one’s pro-Israel convictions without losing grants, editorial board membership, or invitation to panels and conferences. And all, literally all, swore me into strict secrecy — we have entered the era of “the new Maranos.”
Exaggeration? Jewish paranoia? Hardly. I invite skeptics to repeat the private experiment that I conducted among Jewish faculty in a reception hosted last year by the Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA. I asked each of them privately: “Tell me, aren’t you a Zionist?” I then counted the number of times my conversant would look to the right, then to the left, before whispering: “Yes, but ...” I am sure that anyone who repeats this experiment will be as alarmed as I was about the level of academic terror on U.S. campuses, especially in the humanities, political and social sciences. Many generations of Jewish students will pay dearly for the failure of our leadership to acknowledge, assess and form a unified front to combat this academic terror.
Are university administrators aware of this suffocating intellectual atmosphere and how it negates any illusion of “academic freedom” — once the hallmark of university life?
UCLA Chancellor Gene D. Block, in a letter to the Daily Bruin ( Feb. 9), reasserted the university’s commitment to “academic freedom” and “scholarly balance,” but did not indicate whether the Gaza symposium as choreographed by CSNE was a positive or negative contributor to these noble objectives. What students and faculty find lacking in the chancellor’s statement is some characterization of “civil discourse,” which he identified as “essential to the intellectual climate at UCLA.” They argue that any panel advocating white supremacy or boycott of Muslim scholars would have invited a totally different reaction from the chancellor, one that would have addressed the appropriateness of the content, not merely its style of delivery. Specifically, what Jewish students and faculty all over America expect to hear is a recognition that the demonization of the Jewish state, along with Islamophobic and racial slurs, are offensive to large segments of the university community and should therefore be discouraged, not censored, from academic discourse.
On the local scene, the issue UCLA administration must now face is the future direction of the Center for Near East Studies. The chancellor’s note in the Daily Bruin states that “the university strives overall for scholarly balance,” and cites three lectures by Israeli diplomats sponsored by the Israel Study Program at UCLA. Clearly, presentations by Israeli diplomats are epistemologically and situationally not equivalent to an anti-Israel presentation by supposedly dispassionate scholars. The question follows whether the university plans to achieve its “scholarly balance” through “apartheid” or through respectful dialogue. In other words, should UCLA students conclude that, from now on, the name, reputation and resources of the CNES will be harnessed to support primarily anti-coexistence voices, while pro-coexistence voices will be diverted to the (much smaller) Israel Study Program and other centers or departments?
Programmatically speaking, such a division would be a mistake. First, voices of coexistence need to be heard by all audiences concerned with regional issues, and the Center for Near East Studies (as its name implies) is the academic body chartered to embrace these issues. Second, given that Israel will be a major player in every peace process, to exclude Israel’s society from the scope of CNES’s interest and activity would be a disservice to Near East education and research. Finally, the insulation of CNES from the coexistence camp would betray community expectations. In the 20 years of its existence, this Center has garnered the reputation and tradition of being a meeting place for ideas of all players in the Near East. To whimsically ostracize one of the players and turn the CNES into a politicized propaganda center for anti-coexistence forces is not what students, parents, faculty, alumni and the community at large would expect of UCLA.
The UCLA community deserves to be told where the Center for Near East Studies is heading.
In retrospect, two positive outcomes are emerging from the Gaza symposium of Jan. 21. First, Jewish students have heard, many for the first time, that someone will pay attention to the agony and bewilderment through which they struggle to maintain their identity on campus. Second, Jewish faculty have seen what silence and indifference can lead to under rhino culture, and have realized (I hope) that a coordinated proactive effort to address campus anti-Israelism, cutting across all the political spectrum, is long overdue.
Our students are tomorrow’s leaders — they deserve our efforts to reclaim their dignity and assertiveness.
Judea Pearl is a professor at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, named after his son. He is a co-editor of “I Am Jewish: Personal Reflections Inspired by the Last Words of Daniel Pearl” (Jewish Lights, 2004).