Controversy has erupted at UC Santa Barbara over a professor's decision to send his students an e-mail in which he compared graphic images of Jews in the Holocaust to pictures of Palestinians caught up in Israel's recent Gaza offensive.
The e-mail by tenured sociology professor William I. Robinson has triggered a campus investigation and drawn accusations of anti-Semitism from two national Jewish groups, even as many students and faculty members have voiced support for him.
The uproar began in January when Robinson sent his message — titled "parallel images of Nazis and Israelis" — to the 80 students in his sociology of globalization class.
The e-mail contained more than two dozen photographs of Jewish victims of the Nazis, including those of dead children, juxtaposed with nearly identical images from the Gaza Strip. It also included an article critical of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and a note from Robinson.
"Gaza is Israel's Warsaw — a vast concentration camp that confined and blockaded Palestinians," the professor wrote. "We are witness to a slow-motion process of genocide."
Two Jewish students dropped the class, saying they felt intimidated by the professor's message. They contacted the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which advised them to file formal complaints with the university.
In their letters, senior Rebecca Joseph and junior Tova Hausman accused Robinson of violating the campus' faculty code of conduct by disseminating personal, political material unrelated to his course.
Various national Jewish groups have gotten involved to condemn Robinson's alleged anti-Semitism.
Here's my take.
First, in the absence of further context, this is not an anti-Semitic incident. As I've written before, it is inherently ignorant and appalling to claim that Israel is Nazi-like in its treatment of Palestinians, but while anti-Semites can be condemned as appalling ignoramuses, not all appalling ignoramuses are anti-Semites. It's clear from his website and writings that Robinson is prone to similarly puerile views on other issues.
Second, the Jewish organizations that suggested that Joseph and Hausman file a complaint against Robinson are teaching Jewish students to be victims. ["I just want to bring awareness," said Hausman, 20. "I want people to know that educators shouldn't be sending out something that is so disturbing." Bleh!]
What the students should have done is stay in the class and challenge Robinson. It would not be very difficult to send a return email showing how appallingly ignorant it is to compare Gaza to the Warsaw Ghetto, or to provide their classmates with some context to explain Israel's position on the war in Gaza. Even if the students were afraid this would affect their grade, surely they could have done this before dropping the class. If, as Robinson claims, "the whole nature of academic freedom is to introduce students to controversial material, to provoke students to think and make students uncomfortable," surely he would have welcomed a scholarly response from his students. If he didn't, then the students would have a much better case that he was engaging in indoctrination. (And it's not at all clear that he would, given that his website states that he is a "scholar-activist" who attempts "to link my academic work to struggles in the United States, in the Americas, and around the world for social justice, popular empowerment, participatory democracy, and people-centered development." Sure sounds like he is more interested in promoting his political views that in promoting critical thinking.)
Third, and contrary to Robinson's protestations, this is not an issue of academic freedom. The email that Robinson sent seems to have nothing to do with the class at issue, the Sociology of Globalization, the syllabus for which can be found here. Thus, the underlying legal/ethical issue is not one of academic freedom, but of whether a professor has the right to regale a captive audience of students with his political views on issues that are at best remotely related to class. There is obviously no such right. Nevertheless, in general, I don't think this should be punished by a university, in part because it would create all sorts of complex line-drawing problems. But if there indeed is a code of conduct at the university prohibiting the professor from disseminating unrelated political material to his students, and Robinson is being investigated, or even gets punished for doing so, I don't see why this would be a violation of academic freedom. Academic freedom does not mean that a professor gets to say whatever he wants, in whatever context he wants!
Fourth, there is a clear double standard at universities regarding material that makes Jewish students uncomfortable and that makes other minority students uncomfortable. Imagine, for example, that Prof. Robinson had sent out (a) a link to the Geert Wilders film criticizing Islam, along with a personal note stating that he thinks that Islam is the greatest threat to world peace and stability; (b) an article about homosexual sexual practices, criticizing them for spreading disease globally, along with a note that he personally finds such practices abhorrent; or (c) and perhaps most analogous, an article about crime in South Africa, juxtaposing images of white crime victims in South Africa with images of lynching victims in the American South, with a personal note that he thinks that the apartheid regime was better than the current South African regime. And let's assumed that Muslim, gay, or black students similarly complained about Robinson's abuse of his authority. How many of Robinson' current defenders of his "academic freedom" would publicly defend him in those circumstances? I'd venture to say, virtually none. And it's more than a little ironic that many of those who are the first to defend any professor accused of anti-Semitism with regard to Israel are among those who, along with their ideological compatriots, created and supported the culture of political correctness and "sensitivity" that pro-Israel activists are taking advantage of.
UPDATE: "California Scholars for Academic Freedom", a leftist group defending Prof. Robinson, claims that Prof. Robinson's email was protected by academic freedom because "the information that Prof. Robinson sent was certainly relevant for a course on global issues." This is quite dishonest. The course was not one on "global issues," which implies that it was about current international controversies. It was a course on the Sociology of Globalization. The email was neither about sociology, nor globalization, nor any topic covered in the syllabus, but a completely extraneous political commentary by the professor on a topic he felt strongly about, but had nothing to do with his class. I'd be happy to post a better defense, if one exists, of the idea that this is an academic freedom issue, if someone from CSAF would like to send one.
FURTHER UPDATE: As for the rather hasty charge of anti-Semitism, while it's unfortunate, it's hard to feel that much sympathy for the kind of person who in 2006 in effect accused everyone who opposes illegal immigration of racism. Given that Robinson is so quick to level such exaggerated charges about racism, his being accused of anti-Semitism may be both unjust and poetic justice at the same time.