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On Blocking Comments (Again!)

7 Oct

On Blocking Comments (Again!)

 

Ever since I started this blog I have wrestled with the question of whether unrestricted free expression should be favored over a preferred atmosphere of civility. My inclination is to allow diverse views to be expressed in harsh ways, provided interactions among those submitting comments do not degenerate into a toxic blend of insult and propaganda.

 

What I have experienced is that those most dogmatically insistent on defending Israel regardless of its behavior as viewed from the perspectives of international law and international morality rely on a discourse that is quick to call critics Jew haters or anti-Semites, or to demean the professional competence of their opponents. This puts those who seek serious dialogue and responsible conversation in an awkward position. Either we withdraw to the sidelines and let the hostile comments slip through with out silent disapproval, or we respond and face repetitive cycles of further insult, which includes a questioning of motives.

 

It is fair to acknowledge that these determined apologists for Israel, despite the evidence, contend that they are doing nothing more than turning the tables on the critics. They claim that we are as insulting as they are, or more so, and that they are merely meeting fire with fire, and in the end expressing a more objective and correct view of the situation arising from Israel’s security challenges. They contend, to give just one example, that my refusal to debate with Alan Dershowitz is based on my fear of being exposed or humbled, when in reality it is a lack of respect for his demeanor and unscrupulous behavior in using his status to harm those he believes go over a line drawn by him in exposing Israel’s wrongdoing.

 

I have throughout my teaching and writing career found it useful to listen carefully to those with whom I disagree so long as they do not set forth views that echo the propaganda of governments engaged in unacceptable behavior and mix their espousal of such positions with insulting responses to their opponent. Many years ago I had such an experience in a public debate with a South African apologist for the apartheid regime that was then in control of the country. The gap in morality and civility between us was too great, and I felt degraded by my participation, which seemed to produce a kind of moral equivalence in a situation where I was convinced that there was no justification whatsoever for hiding the cruelty of apartheid as it operated in South Africa, and even less for claiming that it was an enlightened manner of addressing racial diversity. The debate degenerated into vehement denunciations of one another, which some in the audience might have found entertaining, but no one could learned anything or changed their views on iota.. In contrast I had a long debate in Wisconsin with Samuel Huntington of ‘clash of civilizations’ fame in which we deeply disagreed, but spoke with mutual respect and the audience after this event that lasted the whole day seemed grateful for the experience.

 

During the life of this blog, which began in 2010, civility has prevailed except in the context of Israel/Palestine. I would not overstate this assertion. Sometimes, comments are tasteless, irrelevant, foolish, including my own.

And I have no doubt that some subscribers or readers find my posts either too opinionated or not balanced and fair. I welcome feedback that would enable me to do better. My goal is to communicate effectively within a framework of

reasoned discourse that is also respectful of the relevance of emotion and belief. It is in this space of controversy and disagreement that the ethos of civility is most needed if communication is to be fruitful.

 

One of the liabilities of incivility is its contagious effect on those who are normally and naturally civil. Of course, it is part of the polemical atmosphere to allege that it was the other side that first breached the boundaries of civility. I admit that my sympathies are with the Palestinian struggle for their basic rights. I reject both the ultra-nationalism of Israeli apologists and the ideology and tactics of Zionist extremists. At the same time, my abiding wish is for a sustainable and just peace that benefits both peoples and is guided by the spirit and substance of equality, and welcome all those that share in some way these sentiments.

 

I suppose I am at this moment also responding to the dismal outcome of the just concluded Kavanaugh confirmation hearings in the U.S. Senate. I was dismayed that party discipline and white male privilege prevailed over truth and accountability in such circumstance. One result is the further weakening of the highest judicial body in America while inflicting pain on women who have endured sexual abuse or fear it. Such a development confirms the Trumpist poisoning of the democratic process and the subversion of republican principles that depend for their vitality on conscience and trust more than party affiliation and demagogic leadership. I cannot hope to control civility and truthfulness in public space, but I am able to exert some influence in private space.

 

This may be a pompous way of communicating my frustration with the recent wave of comments, some of which I have blocked in recent days. I began re-re-blocking those most illustrative of extreme incivility. For the present, I will again become more vigilant in monitoring comments, blocking those that abandon the ethos of civility. I keep hoping that my task will become easier over time either as a result of futility by those angry propagandists or by a recognition that a civil tone is a more effective way of engaging the other unless the substantive position being defended is so weak.

 

I have noticed for some time that the rise of smear tactics aimed at activists and critics who deplore Israel’s policies and practices is directly proportional

to the weakening of Israel’s explanations as to legality, moreality, and political intention. There was a time defenders of Israel welcomed the give and take of serious discussion but no longer. With Trump in the White House it is a time for a victory dance not for diplomacy, and certainly not for dialogue.

 

As I have in the past, I invite those at odds with my views to devote their attention to some among many websites dedicated to promoting Israel’s priorities. Among these, the most influential these days may be the Middle East Forum, a vehicle for the views of Daniel Pipes, and the Gatestone Institute that was formerly a mouthpiece for John Bolton, and all along a friendly venue for Dershowitz. To avoid voices such as mine, these websites do  not pretend an openness to dialogue. There is no comments section.

 

I suppose that closing down the comments section is an alternative. I resist such an alternative as I welcome interaction and communication with likeminded and with adversaries ready to listen and reluctant to denounce and impugn. As my disposition is toward openness, I will probably become again soon permissive, and so disappoint, and even antagonize, both sides.

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Weaponizing the ‘New Anti-Semitism’

22 Sep

Prefatory Note: This post consists of an opinion piece developed by several members of California Scholars for Academic Freedom (cs4af) titled “Weaponizing the ‘New Antisemitism’”.  In addition to myself, those responsible for this short essay are Vida Samiian, Co-coordinator, California Scholars for Academic Freedom, Professor of Linguistics and Dean Emerita, California State University, Fresno and Lisa Rofel, Co-coordinator, California Scholars for Academic Freedom, Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, Co-Director, Center for Emerging Worlds, University of California, Santa Cruz, and David Lloyd, Professor of Literature, University of California, Riverside. The piece was initially published in The Abolition Journal, September 20, 2018, with this link https://abolitionjournal.org/weaponizing-the-new-antisemitism/

Let me add that I did not contribute to the parts of the response that describe my positive credentials. I do believe that such indirect smears are intimidating for younger more vulnerable members of the academic community, creating a public image of a controversial personality that could be harmful when career decisions are made behind closed doors. The direct effort to discredit Corbyn is also shameful, depriving the public of the opportunity to understand the views of an important political figure rather than to create diversionary attention to such irresponsible charges that cannot be left unanswered without leaving presumptions of doubt, or worse.]

Weaponizing the ‘New Antisemitism’

It was shocking to read on August 31, 2018 the following headline in the British tabloid, The Sun “Jeremy Corbyn paid tribute to a disgraced ex-UN official who ‘blamed Boston bombings on Israel.’”The “disgraced ex-UN official” referenced by The Sunis Professor Richard Falk1, a widely respected scholar of international law and a consistent advocate of human rights for all. The tabloid’s intent was to demonstrate that allegations of antisemitism directed at Corbyn were justified because he was praising a notorious ‘antisemite’.

Revealingly, the article raised, out of context, views Professor Falk had expressed about the blowback dimensions of the Boston Marathon and concerns about how the U.S. Government handled skeptical reactions to the official version of 9/11. It made much of the fact that Falk had commented that Israel’s outsized influence on the conduct of American foreign policy contributed to blowback effects, generating rage and frustration vented in violent extremism. However, a careful reading of Professor Falk’s body of work demonstrates that nowhere in his writings is any animus whatsoever against Jews as a people. His criticisms were directed at the U.S. government for refusing to pursue policies that genuinely promoted mutual respect and understanding. As a public intellectual, it is within Professor Falk’s expertise and right both to academic freedom and Frist Amendment protections to analyze and criticize US policy without fear of intimidation or slander.

This kind of attack tricks the mind by extending the discrediting label of antisemitism to any line of thought or action that is seen as critical of Israel. The old antisemitism was about the hatred of Jews; the new charge of antisemitism is about criticism of Israel, although it seeks to conflate criticism of Israel with hatred of Jews. Ironically, it also identifies all Jews with the state of Israel, an unheard-of and potentially racist denial to Jews of the right to criticize the state that pretends to represent them.

The California Scholars for Academic Freedom2, a group of over 200 California scholars who defend academic freedom of faculty and students in the academy and beyond, join Professor Richard Falk in voicing concern regarding the smear tactic used by ultra-Zionist defenders of Israel in defaming an internationally known academic and human rights leader. Beyond that, we are gravely concerned with the attempt to shut down debate by smearing opposition voices to prevent their message from being heard or heeded. Such tactics are intrinsically shameful as they try to evade substantive argument by recourse to character assassination.

In this instance, it shifts the conversation away from Corbyn’s programs, which are more difficult to discredit because they speak to the many ordinary people in Britain who have suffered for many years from neoliberal regimes of austerity. Blairites in the Labour Party who are allergic to Corbyn because of his supposedly socialist message seem quite content to hide behind this dirty campaign to paint Corbyn as an anti-Semite.  It is a perfect catch-22: he dare not ignore the charge or it will be taken as true, but by responding he is weakening his own message and political credibility as a future national leader.  Labour’s main constituencies in Britain want to determine whether his economic program is workable and likely to make their lives better than they are under a Tory government. They are deprived of this understanding by these demeaning taunts.

The attacks on Corbyn and Falk are all too familiar to any of us who have expressed our criticisms of Israel or on US policy in the Middle East. For those of us in academic life, ideas are as vital as oxygen, and when we are made to pay a price for telling the truth as we see it the outcome is not only chilling, but a direct attack on the freedom of thought and expression. It signals to many members of academic communities to shut up about Israel/Palestine or their careers will be in jeopardy.  Where successful, such censorship also raises the specter of wider efforts to curtail freedom of expression.

The issue is not entirely new. During the Cold War it could prove toxic for faculty members to be perceived as Marxists or even as intellectuals who thought that Marxist traditions of thought were important for their historical relevance to the ideological battles going on around the world. Professors at some leading universities were required to sign loyalty oaths, and if they refused, were expected to resign or were fired. This narrowed the experience of students and closed minds to alternatives to the ideology prevailing in the United States. If a democratic society is afraid of ideas, especially controversial ideas, then it forfeits much of the claim of being democratic and ends up cheering demagogues.

During the long campaign against South African apartheid within universities, churches, unions, and in a variety of other settings, there were criticisms made of demands that investments be divested or that athletes and cultural figures boycott South Africa. There were discussions about the limits of nonviolent activism, and again criticism was made of professors who were seen as encouraging militancy. Yet what was not done was to smear scholars and activists with epithets designed to portray opponents of apartheid as despicable human beings.

Why has this red flag of antisemitism has been waved so vigorously and irresponsibly in the last few years and not earlier? For decades, supporters of Israel would come to discussions where pro-Palestinian positions were being expressed armed with questions prepared in advance, and often delivered in an angry tone of voice. The purpose was to gain the upper hand substantively, or at least to join the issues in ways that would convince most of the audience that the issue was too complicated or controversial. But rarely if ever was the anger directed at the character of the speaker unless, as in the rarest of cases, the background of Israeli critics included membership in organizations or authorship of screeds expressing hatred of Jews, that is, genuine antisemitism.

With the appointment of Kenneth Marcus, a former Israel lobbyist, as the top civil rights enforcer of the US Department of Education, we are already witnessing a new level of aggression against any criticism of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories and denial of human rights to Palestinians in the occupied territories. The request to reopen the Rutgers University case after four years is a case in point. Equally alarming is the British Labour Party’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism which conflates not only criticism of Israel but also anti-Zionism with antisemitism, in defiance of both logic and history, given the long tradition of Jewish anti-Zionism. These efforts are alarming attacks that shake the foundation of our first amendment rights protected under the Constitution.

The shift in tactics also reflects Israel’s awareness that its positions cannot be convincingly defended because they are so clearly at odds with elemental notions of law and morality. Unable to win debates where the facts are so damaging to their political messaging, they seek to silence the messenger by defamation. In consequence, reputable scholars lose academic appointments or are silently blacklisted and university institutions are increasingly reluctant to antagonize trustees or donors by hosting serious inquiries into the Palestinian national movement or events that view critically the evolution of the Zionist project. The resulting media feeding frenzy justifies its complicity by claiming that with so much smoke there must be fire somewhere.

In short, our political and academic freedoms are being hijacked by these defamatory tactics. Worst of all, the charges made under this ‘new antisemitism’ that confuses political criticism with racial hatred is harming the quality of political life in democratic societies and dangerously merging political controversy with ethnic prejudice.

1.  RICHARD FALKis Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and has been a Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he currently co-leads UCSB’s Orfalea Center Project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy.  He taught international law and politics at Princeton University for 40 years. In 2001, he served on a three-person Human Rights Inquiry Commission for the Palestine Territories that was appointed by the United Nations, and previously on the Independent International Commission on Kosovo.  He acted as counsel to Ethiopia and Liberia in the Southwest Africa Case before the International Court of Justice. In 2008 Falk was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to a six-year term as UN Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” He serves asChair of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s Board of Directors and as honorary vice president of the American Society of Internal Law. He is the author of over twenty books and editor of another twenty and numerous journal articles. He received his BS from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania; LLB from Yale Law School; and JSD from Harvard University.

  1. CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM(cs4af) is a group of over 200 scholars who defend academic freedom, the right of shared governance, and the First Amendment rights of faculty and students in the academy and beyond. We recognize that violations of academic freedom anywhere are threats to academic freedom everywhere. California Scholars for Academic Freedom investigates legislative and administrative infringements on freedom of speech and assembly, and it raises the consciousness of politicians, university regents and administrators, faculty, students and the public at large through open letters, press releases, petitions, statements, and articles.