In February this year Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) shut down a speech by the Israeli ambassador organised by the Society for International Affairs (SOFIA). In September, members of SJP who also belong to Trinity People before Profit again demonstrated their attitude to free speech from opponents when they cut down posters belonging to a pro-life group. However, it seems that the inclination to avoid debating contrary views is not limited to the student population.
On 11-12 September 2017 the TCD Department of Sociology’s MPhil programme on Race, Conflict & Ethnicity hosted a conference titled ‘Freedom of Speech and Higher Education: The case of the academic boycott.’ Its principal organisers were Professor David Landy and retired Professor Ronit Lentin, current and past directors respectively of the MPhil programme, along with a professor from NUI Maynooth. The declared aim of the conference was to examine the manner in which “neoliberalism in higher education has affected academic freedom and the expression of dissenting and controversial views with reference to academic boycotts in general, and in particular the controversies surrounding the academic boycott of Israel.”
Of the eighteen speakers scheduled to present papers to the conference only one was expected to argue that the academic boycott is itself antithetical to the notion of free speech. In the event that speaker was unable to attend due to travel difficulties. The organisers were apparently oblivious to several ironies: they would be arguing that academia silences debate on the boycott and punishes activists at a conference planned and run in the heart of Irish academia; the organisers are employed or recently retired academics whose membership of Academics for Palestine appears not to have affected their employment status; and their conference would present no opposing voice.
As part of the opening round table, Professor Mark LeVine (University of California, Irvine) dismissed the idea that there could be balance in the boycott debate, arguing that he wouldn’t invite a racist to a debate on racism. Keynote speaker Steven Salaita was quite blunt that his only interest in free speech was as a tool “for the liberation of Palestine”, and that he has no interest in academic freedom in the context of any other struggles such as those in Western Sahara or Tibet. Other speakers condemned investments by Jewish philanthropists in seats of Israel studies in UK universities as part of Zionist propaganda and made unfavourable comparisons between the negative ‘lawfare’ of organisations that defend Israel and the positive ‘legal mobilisation’ of pro-Palestine organisations.
One British professor defended the ‘uncivil’ speech which allegedly cost Mr. Salaita an appointment at the University of Illinois (UI) before he’d given a single lecture. Salaita became the poster boy for academic freedom when UI rescinded a job offer in the wake of tweets he wrote before and during the 2014 Gaza war, examples of which include:
“You may be too refined to say it, but I’m not: I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing.”
“Zionists: transforming “antisemitism” from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.”
“There’s something profoundly sexual to the Zionist pleasure w/#Israel’s aggression. Sublimation through bloodletting, a common perversion.”
Salaita and others have claimed that his tweet about West Bank settlers did not mean he wished on settlers the same fate – abduction and murder – inflicted on three teenage yeshiva students kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank, but merely that he wished the settlers weren’t there in the first place. It is rather more difficult to defend the third tweet, combining as it does two medieval anti-Jewish tropes that accused Jews of sexual perversity and bleeding Christian children. BDS activists constantly accuse opponents of unfairly confusing anti-Zionist and anti-Israel attitudes with anti-Semitism and yet all three appear here together. It is unlikely that defenders of academic freedom had anti-Semitic blood libels in mind when proclaiming the right of academics to put forward controversial and unpopular opinions without suffering disciplinary action or dismissal. One also wonders if Salaita’s tweets would meet Senator Ivana Bacik’s definition of the sort of free speech that should be protected when she called for respectful disagreement and advocacy without rancour.
This conference was supposed to describe how neo-liberalism and funding requirements are causing universities to restrict academic freedom and curtail discussion of controversial topics, and not to debate the pros and cons of the academic boycott of Israel. However, many of the speakers used the opportunity to claim that Israel and Zionism are white-supremacist, colonial, and genocidal in nature, all contestable characterisations – but there was no-one there to contest them. Zionists were likened to flat-earthers, called liars and blamed for the non-renewal in 2016 of Mr. Salaita’s contract at the American University of Beirut. At this point the conference seemed not far away from endorsing New World Order conspiracy theories that blame Zionists for all the world’s ills.
In the days after the conference, a number of academics have suggested the organisers deliberately excluded speakers who would have argued against them. At least four anti-boycott academics are known to have submitted abstracts that were rejected, two based in England and two based in Israel. The sole anti-boycott speaker invited to the conference made her paper available to participants when she was delayed by traffic and missed her flight. She would have argued that a boycott of Israeli scholars imposes selective political constraints on academic freedom and shuts down the debate and free exchange of ideas which should be protected by academic freedom.
I have obtained copies of two of the rejected abstracts. One would have argued that while academics should have equal freedom to support or oppose a boycott, discussion of the boycott may infringe upon the equality rights of Jewish students and impinge on the duties of UK universities under the Prevent anti-extremism program. The author would also have argued that very premise of the conference – that an academic boycott is justified and therefore not open to question – is a itself a suppression of free speech. The second would have described public belief in the professionalism and truthfulness of academics and the academic duty to truth that follows from this trust. The author proposed to show by example that proponents of the boycott abuse this duty and present misleading information as fact.
Professor Landy declined a request for more information as to the number of pro- and anti-boycott papers received and rejected, merely replying that papers had been refused because of ‘quality or relevance issues’. The report of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights on “The Right to Education” refers to obligations such as the duty to “ensure the fair discussion of contrary views.” With only one contradictory paper accepted, it seems that the conference goal was not so much to ‘facilitate the free exchange of ideas in this arena’ but to marginalise those who oppose academic boycotts. In the end, this was a pro-boycott echo chamber event rather than an academic conference.
Post-script. While this “Freedom of Speech” event was taking place in the Arts Block, Trinity College was demonstrating its genuine commitment to academic freedom. In the Long Room Hub, the Trinity Centre for Biblical Studies was hosting a conference entitled “Reading the New Testament as Second Temple Jewish Literature”. Mere yards away from boycott campaigners who would have excluded them, most of the speakers were scholars from universities in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Beer-Sheva.