UC Santa Barbara professor not disciplined—anti-Israel free speech upheld
ZOA in the news
June 30, 2009





Officials at the University of California, Santa Barbara have closed the books on an investigation against sociology professor William Robinson. Robinson was accused of academic misconduct when he sent an email to students in his “Sociology of Globalization” class, comparing Israel to Nazi Germany. (Details here.) Two students complained, and pro-Israel organizations such as ADL and StandWithUs took up their cause. The university launched an investigation to see if any academic rules were violated.


On June 24, Vice Chancellor Gene Lucas wrote to Robinson as follows: “I have received the report of the Charges Committee regarding charges brought against you. The Committee did not find probable cause to undertake disciplinary action in this matter. I have accepted the findings of the Charges Committee. Accordingly, this matter is now terminated.” However, Robinson is demanding an apology and an investigation of the investigation, so the affair may drag on for a while.


There are allegation of irregularities in the original investigation that may indeed warrant further inquiry. There is a claim that the Academic Senate’s ad hoc committee cleared Robinson on May 15; the six-week delay in communicating this fact to Robinson is unexplained. More seriously, it is claimed that a member of the Academic Senate Charges Committee violated rules of confidentiality by discussing the case with UCSB Hillel’s rabbi.


Such questions may keep the affair alive for a bit longer, but at the risk of losing sight of the important lessons to be drawn.


First, academic freedom, as a subset of freedom of speech, is a primary, fundamental value in a properly functioning liberal democracy. The investigation of Robinson can be seen in one of two ways: a) an attempt to shut down speech we (whoever “we” is) don’t like, or b) an attempt to protect Robinson’s students’ right to be free from intimidation. If it was a), the investigation was improper. If it was b), the university apparently determined that there was no improper intimidation. Given the fact that there’s no evidence of intimidation beyond the email itself, the university probably got it right.


Second, while Robinson has the right to his opinion, comparing Israel with the Nazis remains absurb and obscene. The Nazis were engaged in genocide; the Israelis are engaged in self-defense. The Israel-Nazi comparison is intended to delegitimize Israel, to more easily destroy the Jewish state. Thus, those who make the comparison are most like Nazis. Nevertheless, the comparison-makers should not be silenced. As has been noted, one of the values of free speech is that it makes it easier to “spot the idiots.”


Third, some friends of Israel should rethink their approach to campus conflicts relating to the Israel-Palestinian issue. They are, consciously or unconsciously, adopting the Palestinian model.


The Palestinians have been amazingly successful propagandists, for two reasons.


*       They aggressively portray themselves as victims of the Jews, rather than suffering the natural consequences of the choices their leaders have made, notwithstanding the abundant evidence to the contrary. After all, Israel did not force the Arabs to reject the 1947 United Nations partition plan, which would have created a Palestinian Arab state over 60 years ago. Israel did not force the Arabs to keep Palestinian refugees and their descendents in wretched camps. Israel did not force the Arabs to create the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1964 with a mandate to destroy Israel years before the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank/Judea and Samaria. Israel did not force the Arabs to prepare a genocidal war in 1967, then refuse Israel’s offer to return the territories in exchange for peace. Israel did not force the Palestinians to engage in terrorism, intifadas, suicide murders, incitement, corruption and all the other techniques the Palestinians have employed to convince many that they are unready for, or even unworthy of, statehood. Nevertheless, through relentless messaging the Palestinians have embraced victimhood and persuaded many that Israel is the cause of their troubles.


*       They play to the tendency of the illiberal Left to defend self-proclaimed “victims,” as though oppression could itself confer virtue on one side of a dispute. It’s as if a child in a market were shrieking, biting and kicking his mother because he wanted some candy—and bystanders took his side just because he was the smaller person.


Some friends of Israel, seeing the success of the Palestinian method, are being seduced by the prestige of victimhood—they too want to be seen as victims, and they appeal to outsiders for support. For example, the Zionist Organization of America filed a complaint with the Civil Rights Office of the U.S. Department of Education, alleging an anti-Semitic atmosphere at UC Irvine. This can lead to unfortunate results, as in this very Robinson case, in which the ADL improbably came out looking like an opponent of free speech.


It would be better if pro-Israel youth were taught that universities are places of robust, unbuttoned free speech, and their job is to step up to the plate and supply the missing side of the debate. In a free society, no adult has a right to have his feeling unruffled or his convictions unchallenged. Friends of Israel must understand that they live in a world of ferocious hostility to the Jewish state, and it needs fearless, articulate defenders, not shrinking violets. There’s no better place to practice such advocacy than in the universities.


As an ethical and practical proposition, people like Robinson can’t be silenced; they must be answered. Fortitude is required, because the task of defending Israel against its defamers will not soon end.

Center for Law & Justice
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