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An Open Letter to Rabbi Ira Youdovin

11 Sep

(Prefatory Note: Rabbi Youdovin has written a lengthy response in the form of a comment, which I now append here so that readers of the post can judge for themselves the nature of our disagreements, and reach their own conclusions.)

 

 

An Open Letter to Rabbi Ira Youdovin:

 

We have exchanged views frequently in the last few years, most often by way of adversary comments written in reaction to posts published on this website. I write now a post in the form of an ‘open letter’ because I think your most recent comment objecting to my support for Steven Salaita in his campaign to have his tenure faculty appointment reinstated in the American Indian Studies Department at the Urbana-Champaign campus of the University of Illinois. Phyllis Wise, the Chancellor, now with the formal approval of the Board of Trustees, refused to forward the appointment to Board, because of private tweets highly critical of Israel that she relied upon for making a unilateral decision that Salaita would be a disruptive presence on campus and that someone holding such strong views would likely make Jewish students in courses he offered uncomfortable. She later clarified her decision as prompted by the realization that the Board under pressure from university donors would have rejected the appointment in any event and admitted that she should have consulted further before reaching her decision. I indicated my view that not only should Salaita be reinstated, but also he deserved a formal apology from the chancellor and reimbursement for damages sustained, including to his academic reputation.

 

Our most fundamental disagreement is exhibited by the opening sentences of your comment responding to my earlier post suggesting that the dehiring of Salaita amounted to an assault on academic freedom and freedom of expression. You start your comment this way: “The Salaita case is not about free speech. It’s about hate speech. The examples of Salaita’s comments cited by Prof. Falk constitute a carefully collected and unrepresentative sample of the dozens on record.” You go on to choose tweets that you find more offensive than those contained in my post:

 

“More typical of his “body of work” are:

“Fuck you, Israel. And while I’m at it, fuck you, too, PA, Sisi –

“The IDF spokesperson is a lying motherfucker.”

“If you’re defending Israel right now you’re an awful human being.”

“If Netanyahu appeared on TV wearing a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anyone be surprised?”

 

Actually, the last of your examples was among those that I included in my post, but this is a minor quibble. My real disagreement centers on your insistence that the Salaita case “is not about free speech. It’s about hate speech.” There is no doubt that these tweets are instances of extreme invective, making use of profane language, but are they properly construed as ‘hate speech’? I would hope not. These tweets, which were not expressed in the language of the dinner table or polite parlor conversation, are directed at Israel, not Jews as a people or Jews as individuals. Israel is a state. The state is an abstraction. You cannot hate an abstraction except as a language trope. If I shout “I hate the color brown” or “fuck all brown cars” it would be absurd to consider this kind of emotive language as hate speech. The same distinction should hold in speech on matters of political opinion.

 

It is here where the essential controversy between us lies. Israel’s first defenders seek to make everyone feel that Israel as a self-proclaimed Jewish state is, in effect, the personification of the Jewish people, and that using profane language of criticism about the state amounts to hate speech. Such efforts to personify the state are themselves destructive of democratic discourse, and do impact upon academic freedom as well as muddy the waters as to the character of anti-Semitism. To be angry at a state may reveal an intemperate personality, perhaps even extreme alienation, but by itself has not ventured into the forbidden domain of hate. And many of us, including Steven Salaita, draw a sharp line separating our attitudes toward Israel as a state and the Jewish people as a people.

 

Let us choose a clear example to highlight the point. To hate Nazi Germany became not only an accepted attitude, but surely the politically correct position during and after World War II. To extend that hate, however, to the German people crosses the dangerous line, and to treat a particular German as automatically of Nazi persuasion would similarly be hateful. There has been useful debate as to what extent the German people went along with Hitler’s Nazi program, especially occasioned by Daniel Goldhagen’s challenge directed at the claim that ordinary Germans were unawares of the fate befalling the Jewish people. [See his Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (1997)].

 

I recall my own experience in North Vietnam in June 1968, in the midst of the Vietnam War, when person after person, whether a peasant in the countryside or a high official in Hanoi, told me that they hated the American government but had positive feelings toward the American people. They attributed this sentiment to the teaching of Ho Chi Minh, the revered Communist leader of their national movement, but it was said with such heartfelt sincerity by the people I met in Vietnam as to make me aware of the deficiencies of American political culture that routinely conflates an enemy state with the citizenry of the country. Such a lethal confusion may reflect the survival of racialism, and be one of the continuing costs imposed by the terrible heritage of slavery, which was also accentuated by the genocidal treatment of the indigenous population of North America by the early generations of settler colonialists. The Zionist conflation works in the opposite direction, insisting that those who challenge Israel beyond a certain moderate point are racists, a species of anti-Semite, however much they protest against the derogatory label.

 

More to the point, expressing anger toward Israel seems well within the protected boundaries of free speech, and so the only reasonable question is one of tone, including the use of profanity to express such anger, and its relevance to academic performance. As Salaita himself explained, his tweets were mainly written in the context of the recent Israeli massacre of Palestinian civilians, including over 500 children, during a period of acute frustration undoubtedly heightened by the sense that his own government here in the United States was mindlessly supportive of what Israel was doing to a vulnerable and entrapped civilian population.

 

It is also relevant to know whether the tweets should be taken as an ominous indicator of how Salaita would behave in the classroom and within the university community. On the basis of abundant testimony from colleagues and former students, as well as Salaita own very clearly articulated views, there is every reason to be confident that he would welcome and treat fairly diverse viewpoints with respect and sensitivity, including those supportive of Israel’s behavior. It is also is helpful to know that in the course of his six published books on a variety of topics involving the abuses experienced by marginalized peoples, including Palestinians, there is no hint of racism or indulgence in hate speech as an acceptable response. Quite the contrary, there is a rejection of all forms of profiling whether of the oppressor or the oppressed.

 

Of course, an accusation of hate speech in the context of criticizing Israel has as its objecting the implication that the speaker is guilty of genuine anti-Semitism. As I have tried to argue in a recent post [Sept. 1, 2014], Zionist propaganda seeks to merge anti-Israelism, denominated as a form of racial bigotry, with anti-Semitism as hatred of Jews and the Jewish people. The widespread deliberate use of this technique by organized Zionist forces in the United States is convincingly documented in The Battle for Justice in Palestine (Chicago: Haymarket, 2014), 125-225 by Ali Abunimah. It forms part of the wider Israeli effort to defend a rising tide of anti-Israeli student activism on American university campuses, and more broadly what Israeli think tanks call ‘the delegitimation project’ associated with such initiatives as the BDS campaign.

 

I found your gratuitous swipe at the Palestinian quest for national heroes particularly nasty and unjustified. You make this strange assertion: “The Palestinians and their supporters are woefully short on heroes. The five most often mentioned—Arafat, Saladin, Gandhi, Mandela, and Martin Luther King are dead. Moreover, three weren’t Arabs and only one was a Palestinian.”

 

I have been around Palestinians for a long time and I find this statement out of touch. Aside from Arafat, who is controversial even among Palestinians, and Mandela, who is invoked quite often as an inspirational figure, the other three are only rarely, if at all, mentioned. Much more appreciated as heroes by Palestinians is Archbishop Tutu of South Africa, and to a lesser extent, Jimmy Carter, both of whom are very much alive and remain engaged. Most surprisingly your list omits Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwish, both Palestinians and by far the most influential members of the Palestinian pantheon of heroes, and among the most eloquent of anti-colonial resistance voices who have ever set foot on planet earth.

 

Yes, Steven Salaita is a casualty of the long struggle to achieve Palestinian rights, and a victim of what I have called Zionist McCarthyism, but hopefully never a martyr to the cause. When you mock his passion with the demeaning words, “what kind of honest discussion could emerge from his obscene adolescent ranting?” Rabbi Youdovin, Salaita was certainly not seeking ‘honest discussion’ by sending these tweets to friends and followers, but expressing his righteous disgust about what was happening to the people of a shared ethnicity, and what you dismiss as “obscene adolescent ranting” others, including myself, hear as screams of pain and anguish. There are times and places for honest discussion, and there are times and places for screams of pain and anguish.

 

If we yearn for a world more dedicated to peace and justice, and more focused on human survival, we all need to learn to listen with our hearts as well as our heads. I find that both modes of communication have their role, and we harm our civic life as a country if we reject the relevance of screams of discontent and insist that only reasoned discourse has value.

.

 

Sincerely,

 

 

Richard Falk

 

 

*******************************

In his “Open Letter to Rabbi Ira Youdovin”, Prof Falk brands me as being among the viscous Zionists determined to ruin Steven Salaita’s career. As night follows day, the Blog Faithful pile on. One writes, “Rabbi Ira Youdovin’s views and behaviours are identical to some “mullahs” inside Iran, whose “morality” is: “The end justifies the means.” I feel sorry for Judaism.” Kata Fisher, in one of her “Reflections”, denounces me as being tunder the power of Satan and warns that I’ll be Judged, (In this and other matters, Ms. Fisher fancies herself as having a direct line to the mind of the Almighty.) But she also provides an unintentional dose of humor. Noting my frequent exchanges with Prof. Falk, she condemns me for inflicting “psychological abuse toward elderly person like that.” I’m not sure that the professor delights in being characterized as an emotionally fragile old geezer.
This is pretty scary stuff, being accused of trying to destroy a promising young scholar’s career, compared unfavorably to the Iranian mullahs and condemned to eternal damnation. The blogosphere is not always friendly place. But Prof. Falk’s blog is an especially rough neighborhood. So before I’m consumed in the fires of hell, please join me in talking a look (or second look) \at what I actually wrote.

I made a total of two posts regarding Prof. Salaita. They can be found in the two threads preceding this one. For those who don’t want to do the scrolling, here are the relevant
excerpts:
1/
“The Salaita case is not about free speech….This was not a one-time temper tantrum that might be dismissed as a momentary lapse. This is a university professor who repeatedly sounds like a potty-mouthed teenage punk. And unlike the teenager who likely is content to walk down the street muttering to himself until his anger subsides, Salaita wanted to share his animus with anybody within tweeting range.”

“I can’t make a judgment on the Salaita episode because I don’t know the inside story.”

2/
“As I posted yesterday, I won’t get into the controversy over whether Salaita’s firing is justified. I know little about the rules governing academic freedom. And, truth be told, I have more than a little sympathy for the plight of his family with neither income nor health insurance. Were it up to me, a simple apology—one that would focus on his tactics and not demanding that he renounce his underlying convictions—would have sufficed to merit reinstatement. “

“Please note that I take no position on the propriety of the university withdrawing its job offer. But although it has no relevance to the case, I am appalled by Salaita’s language. Standards on social media may not be the same as in the classroom. (Apparently, civility in their public statements is no longer expected from college teachers.) But to my mind, someone capable of an extended and profane rant of this nature directed at anything or anyone is a questionable candidate for any faculty.”

That doesn’t sound all that bad, does it? My focus is on Prof. Salaita’s language, not his ideas. I plead guilty to being committed to linguistic civility. But so was Prof. Falk until he ran into an obscenity tweeting Palestinian and changed the rules governing civility on this blog. Moreover, I clearly state that my has no relevance to his dispute with the U of Illinois. In other words, I’m not advocating anything in regard to Prof. Salaita’s job, other than saying that he merits re-instatement , and expressing my regret over the mutual failure to work things out, which likely could have been done with a little flexibility on both sides. Prof. Falk and his cohorts got their martyr, and Prof. Salaita lost his job. Doesn’t seem like a fair trade, but that’s not my decision to make.

So how do I wind up in Prof. Falk’s doghouse? The answer entails a wild adventure in sophistry and demagoguery.

Prof. Falk begins by disputing my assessment of Prof. Salaita’s tweets as hate speech. Full disclosure: having served for several years on the Illinois Governor’s Commission on Discrimination and Hate Crime, I’m aware that there are a variety of legal definitions of what constitutes hate speech, and that Prof. Salaita’s tweets do not cross the threshold prescribed by some of them. Had this been Prof. Falks objection, I would have acknowledged the error and adjusted my statement accordingly.

But Prof. Falk had something else in mind. His thesis is that Prof. Salaita’s anger not is directed at human beings—Jewish, Israeli or otherwise—but at the State of Israel. States, he argues, are abstractions, like the color brown; and nobody would construe the statement “fuck the color brown” as hate speech. Consequently, Prof. Salaita’s tweeting obscenities like “fuck you” and calling someone a “motherfucker” cannot be hate speech because he’s addressing an abstraction, like the color brown. I suspect this arcane theory comes as a surprise to Prof. Salita who personalized his tweets by specifically calling out the IDF’s spokesman a “motherfucker”, and imaging Israel’s prime minister as appearing on television wearing a necklace of a Palestinian children’s teeth.

Not being a lawyer, I’ll accept Prof. Falk’s word that the state is regarded as an abstraction in the rarefied circles of international law faculties . But in the real world—the world in which Steven Salaita and the rest of us live—the state is not in the same category as the color brown . For one thing, the color brown is not engaged in an often violent conflict with Prof. Salaita’s people. His hatred may be understandable, but it is hatred nevertheless. As a non-lawyer, I base this conclusion on the prosaic, but familiar “Duck Test”: if it quacks like a duck, waddles like a duck and looks like a duck, etc…”

This is another of those inconvenient truths that rise up to bedevil Prof. Falk in his determination to delete, deny or explain away every Palestinian failing. Regrettably, the way he handles this one is pure, unadulterated sophistry.

I won’t deal with Prof. Falk’s allusion to Nazi Germany because, frankly, I don’t understand it. I agree that it was/is wrong to blame all Germans for the Nazi atrocities. But that’s not because Germany is an abstraction. It’s because the German wartime population encompassed a diversity of opinions on, and knowledge of what was happening. This is precisely what Prof. Falk demonstrates in citing Goldhagen’s book (although I don’t understand why he chose to cite a controversial book to prove a self-evident point, particularly at a time when Hannah Arendt’s theory about the ”banality of evil” is again under serious attack.)

But more importantly, at whom is Prof. Falk’s rebuke directed? All I did was criticize Prof. Salaita’s use of profanity. That’s one person, not a population. According to Prof. Falk’s theory, Prof. Salaita would be a more appropriate target. He’s cursing an abstraction called Israel, which includes many Israelis who dissent from the Likud government’s policies. But that can’t be. Hate speech hurled at a state cannot be hate speech, just as hate speech hurled at the color brown cannot be hare speech. So we go round and round. Prof. Falk often accuses me of misrepresenting or misconstruing his positions. So I’ll leave this one with a big question mark.

Now we come to a great leap of illogic which takes us from the realm of sophistry to the realm of demagoguery. Having (erroneously!) concluded that Prof. Salaita’s remarks could not constitute hate speech, Prof. Falk proceeds to roll out his theory of why I think it does: “Israel’s first defenders [that’s me!] seek to make everyone feel that Israel as a self-proclaimed Jewish state is, in effect, the personification of the Jewish people, and that using profane language of criticism about the state amounts to hate speech…Of course, an accusation of hate speech in the context of criticizing Israel has as its objecting the implication that the speaker is guilty of genuine anti-Semitism.”

Where does this come from? I make no mention of anti-Semitism. Nor do I imply that any is a factor. To the contrary, I’ve repeatedly stated on this blog and elsewhere that criticism of Israel, even harsh criticism, does not necessarily reflect anti-Semitism. I have no idea of Prof. Salaita’s attitudes toward Jews And I did say that he merits reinstatement. But Prof. Falk deliberately ignores these not incidental realities. In his view, all criticism of Israel’s critics implies an accusation of anti-Semitism. This is outrageous stereotyping. Indeed, it’s demagogic. Faced with a set of problematic tweets, Prof. Falk asserts an elaborate and totally inaccurate rendition of my beliefs as a ploy to deflect attention from the evidence at hand. As they say in (American) football: a good offense is the best defense.

But to those of us smeared by Prof. Falk’s evasive tactics, his offense is offensive.
The saddest part of this episode is that when the dust clears, it will become apparent that the melee was not over free speech, but over the propriety of a professor’s use of obscenity which added nothing to his message but cost him his job, while his cheerleaders returned to their secure jobs and comfortable homes. Yes, Prof. Falk, those undeleted expletive were screams of pain and anguish. But aren’t there better, indeed more effective ways of expressing these same emotions, ways that do not draw attention away from the thoughts and emotions being expressed by making the words, themselves, the main attraction…ways that do not drive people apart by demonizing one side or the other? And shouldn’t we look to our intellectuals, young and old, to lead the way in developing this more civilized language?

Rabbi Ira Youdovin

 

  

                       

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