A recent interview conducted by UC Berkeley’s Public Relations office and timed with the appointment of the new university Chancellor, Nicholas Dirks, begins, “Floating around the Internet is a claim that at some point in your past… you signed a petition for Columbia to divest in all things Israel.” The interviewer asks the Chancellor-designate to clarify his role. But let us be clear: this is not a question. It is a demand. We live in political climate in which robust and critical
speech about the policies of the Israeli state is becoming ever more difficult. Its
proponents are subjected to myriad forms of harassment in an effort to shut down such speech. If one wants to be a powerful public figure, the interviewer is effectively saying to Dirks, distance yourself from that petition.
Unfortunately, Dirks responds by doing precisely what is demanded of him. He does not clarify that the Columbia University petition did not call for divestment from “all things Israel,” but instead from companies that manufacture or sell arms or other military hardware utilized by Israel, in violation of US law, against the civilian populations of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. He does not say that he did sign the petition, but, as he might have argued, that once he became an administrator he recognized he had to play a different role, one that protects all political speech on campus, regardless of his own personal convictions, and thus that he chose to withdraw his signature. Instead, he declares that somehow his name appeared on the petition and that he asked for it to be removed.
That is not all: Dirks goes much further. He offers a description of Columbia in 2002 as a time in which broader “controversies” over the question of Israel and Palestine developed. He narrates those controversies in the voice of the off-campus Jewish neo-conservative groups (Campus Watch, the David Project, to name the main provocateurs) who spearheaded a sustained attack against his own colleagues, who were faculty members in the Middle East field. The David Project produced a film, Columbia Unbecoming, that instigated Columbia’s supposedly “internal” investigation. Parroting their perspective in his interview, Dirks notes that it was a climate in which “it seemed very difficult for some [Jewish] students to find safe spaces in which to talk about Israel where they didn’t feel that the basic context in which they found themselves wasn’t hugely not just anti-Israel, but by implication, anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic.” His is a brilliant rhetorical move, an account of how some Jewish students supposedly “felt.” In providing no other perspective on the “controversy,” however, Dirks allows the contention that criticism of Israel’s policies is, “by implication, anti-Jewish and anti-Semitic” to stand as a simple matter of fact.
In purveying this false account, Dirks rewrites the history of the conflict at Columbia. The reality, in contrast, was one in which most members of the faculty and many students argued that baseless accusations of anti-Semitism were being wielded in an effort to curtail academic freedom and free speech. Moreover, Dirks rewrites the “conclusion” to that so-called controversy. No action was taken against any professors precisely because 1) the Committee that he himself appointed, and that he speaks of in the interview, found no evidence that any members of the faculty had ever done or said anything that could be reasonably construed as anti-Semitic, and 2) the Columbia faculty stood overwhelmingly behind the principles of academic freedom that were threatened by these malicious accusations.
Dirks’ response is disturbing not just for how it distorts the past. It is perhaps even more alarming for what it portends for the future. The new Chancellor of UC Berkeley is walking into a situation in which the California State Assembly has passed a bill that equates defense of Palestinian rights and criticism of the policies of the state of Israel with anti-Semitism (Bill HR 35, a nonbinding resolution); he is walking into an institutional context in which his boss, the president of the University of California system, was apparently involved in commenting on and drafting that very same bill (see Center for Constitutional Rights letter to UC President Yudof, PDF); he is walking into a political reality in which several Title VI cases are pending against schools in the UC system, accusing them of fostering a “hostile” learning environment for Jewish students; and he is taking charge of a campus in which Arab, Muslim and other students advocating for Palestinian rights are being targeted by specific Zionist activist groups for creating a “campus climate” that is “anti-Semitic and hostile to Jewish students” (see CCR letter to Yudof).
This was a moment for the incoming Chancellor of UC Berkeley to stand on principle. Criticizing the policies of the state of Israel that violate Palestinian human and political rights, or advocating in favor of a boycott and divestment campaign, he might have said, is political speech, not hate speech. Dirks could have risen to the occasion and said that even if he is personally opposed to the divestment campaign it is nevertheless a matter that we must be able to discuss. For that matter, he could have said that even if he, as the incoming Chancellor of Berkeley, disagrees with critics of Israel’s policies, their speech is nevertheless legitimate, even necessary speech. Dirks should have said that what is at stake are fundamental democratic principles–not just academic freedom but free speech itself.
Nadia Abu El-Haj
The authors are all professors at Columbia University