If you haven’t been following the recent story surrounding accusations of anti-Semitism against a Jewish professor at UC Santa Barbara, here’s a quick recap:
William I. Robinson, a sociology professor, sent an email to students at the height of Israel’s war in Gaza; it’s subject was “Parallel Images of Nazis and Israelis.” Pushed by the ADL, Simon Wiesenthal Center and StandWithUs, the university launched an academic investigation into Robinson, who backed away from directly comparing Nazis and Israelis but also defended his actions as protected by academic freedom.
Robinson’s email has generated quite the uproar, and it demonstrates the difficulty of balancing a free and open university with strong sensitivities. Case in point: Blogging for The New Republic, which has never accused of being a anti-Israel rag, Alan Wolfe comes to Robinson’s defense with a post titled “Enough With the Campus Inquisitions!”
For me, this is an open and shut case. Neither Robinson’s leftist kind of sociology nor his activist kind of politics are mine. Yet the idea of investigating him is appalling and the ADL should be ashamed of itself. Precedents are being set in this case that could have serious ramifications for everyone teaching in public universities—and perhaps even private ones.
We ought to want professors in our universities who teach about controversial subjects to provoke, and even outrage, their students. We should be pleased that they care enough about the issues of the day and about what students believe to send emails to them when things happen in the world that bear on the major issues of the day. Academic apathy is a serious problem. No one could ever accuse William Robinson of that.
At the same time, we should be wary of anyone who views the university not as a place for the exchange of ideas, but as an environment for therapeutic self-affirmation. “This professor should be stopped immediately from continuing to disseminate this information and be punished because his damage is irreversible,” one unnamed UCSB student argued. Nonsense. Whatever damage words and pictures can do is out-weighed by the arguments and discussion they provoke. This student was angry. That was the point. The idea that Robinson caused some kind of irreversible damage here is preposterous. Seeking to punish him is even worse.
The ADL operates at the same level of this confused student. The director of its Santa Barbara office described Robinson’s comparisons as “offensive” and claimed that writing to students is “intimidating.” But there can be little doubt who is trying to intimidate here. The ADL’s mission is to protect us against the hatred of anti-Semitism. Once upon it time it believed that the best way to do so was to call for open discussion on the grounds that minorities subject to majority stereotyping benefit most when the intellectual air is free. Now it has become part and parcel of the thought police, monitoring campuses for any sign of what it considers offensive speech and putting pressure to bear on university administrators to stop it. We now have a world in which Catholics try to prevent Barack Obama from receiving an honorary degree at Notre Dame while the ADL leads similar campaigns against Desmond Tutu speaking at North Carolina. This is the kind of ecumenicalism we do not need.
A Committee to Defend Academic Freedom at UCSB has been formed and it includes a protest against Robinson’s treatment from Noam Chomsky. I almost never find myself in agreement with my fellow alum of Philadelphia’s Central High School. But I would be dismayed if only those protesting the ADL’s actions in the Robinson case were those who shared his political views.
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