Student Groups' Disinviting Israeli Ex-Soldier from Panel:

There's been a good deal of buzz about this recently, and the incident seemed to me both (1) worth condemning, and (2) worth clarifying.

Here are what seem to be the facts (from the Philadelphia Bulletin):

Asaf Romirowsky, a fellow at the Middle East Forum and an Israeli Defense Force (IDF) veteran ... was invited to speak at a university forum sponsored by the College Republicans and College Democrats on the topic of anti-Americanism in the Middle East. Others scheduled to appear on the panel included Clinton-era National Security Council official Stuart Kaufman, University of Delaware political science professor Muqtedar Khan and a graduate student.

But upon learning that the university had invited Mr. Romirowsky, who is also manager of Israel and Middle East affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, to appear at the forum, Mr. Khan wrote a letter to one of the panel's organizers, identified only as "Laura," expressing displeasure at having to appear publicly with a former IDF soldier.

[E-mail text, from a National Review Online Corner post:

—— Original message ——
Date: Tue, 23 Oct 2007 20:02:29 -0400
From: "Muqtedar Khan"
Subject: Re: Understanding Anti-Americanism Panel
To: [Names redacted]

Laura, I have to speak at the Pentagon tomorrow. My workshop is from 12-4. I hope to catch the 5 pm Acela from DC and will be back in town by 7 pm. I will come directly, but may be late. I am also not sure how I feel about being on the same panel with an Israeli soldier who was stationed in West Bank. Some people see IDF as an occupying force in the West Bank. I am not sure that I will be comfortable occupying the same space with him. It is not fair to spring this surprise on me at the last moment.

Panel organizers subsequently told the IDF veteran, a citizen of both the United States and Israel, that he ought not attend the panel but that he would find himself welcome speaking to university students at a later date. Mr. Romirowsky said he would rather not do so....

Mr. Romirowsky, currently working toward his Ph.D. in Mediterranean Studies at Kings College in London, has called attention to the ties Mr. Khan has forged over the years to groups allegedly affiliated with Islamic terrorists. [Details omitted. -EV]

Inside Higher Ed reports:

Khan said he was only expressing his discomfort and that he would not have suggested anyone be excluded. He said that when he arrived at the event, he assumed Romirowsky would be there. He added that people who received his e-mail had missed the humorous tone, in which he said he was trying to be “cute” with references to “occupying the same space” intended as an ironic reference to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

A few thoughts:

1. From what I know, it seems to me a mistake to say, as The Bulletin and Michael Rubin said at the start of their items, that "the University of Delaware" disinvited Romirowsky. As best I can tell, the student groups decided to put on the event, they decided whom to invite (though I imagine they might have gotten some advice from faculty members), and they decided how to react to the Khan e-mail. I'm unaware of any decision that the University of Delaware or its departments or leaders made here; perhaps the University administrators should have counseled the students not to withdraw the invitation (not required them, which would itself have interfered with the students' right to select their speakers, but counseled them), but it's not clear that the administrators were even given an opportunity to do so.

2. The decision to disinvite strikes me as wrong. First, it's rude; it pretty clearly conveys a message to the disinvited person that he's less important than the person who doesn't want to share the stage with him, and while that's often said implicitly simply by the decision about whom to invite in the first place, good manners generally precludes doing this expressly, once the invitation has been given. Second, it shows a willingness to give in to someone's desire to exclude a wide range of important contrary speakers (more on this shortly).

3. At the same time, remember that these are college students in mainstream college organizations, who are trying to put on a successful event but are facing the prospect of losing one speaker. They're likely not very experienced in such matters, and easily spooked, especially by professors at their own institution. It's thus pretty easy for them to get buffaloed into doing whatever it takes to keep the more illustrious speaker, even when such an action is wrong for the reasons I mentioned above. They were put in a difficult position by Prof. Khan's message, and while they reacted the wrong way to it, I wouldn't condemn them as harshly as I would an academic department that did the same.

4. The main fault here, I think, is Prof. Khan's, but the matter is a bit complex. It's not inherently wrong for a person (including an academic) to refuse to share the stage with some other person, even when the refusal is based on the other person's speech. Sometimes this happens, and properly so, when one person thinks another has been intolerably rude, or academically dishonest. Sometimes it happens when one person thinks another has views that are just beyond the pale.

But if one draws the pale in a way that excludes a vast range of people who have important things to say about one's field, that suggests an unwillingness to engage in serious debate about the field. And if one draws the pale based on the excluded people's supposed moral failings, then outsiders will have to judge if your moral sense is right, and can rightly condemn you for academic narrow-mindedness if your moral sense is mistaken.

It seems to me that Khan's message strongly suggested — despite his later characterization of it — that he would not willingly share the stage with any former Israeli soldier, which basically means pretty much any Israeli (since pretty much all Israelis had to participate in the military). That's a huge chunk of the people who have important things to say about the very topic in which he specializes. The position strongly suggested by his message thus undermines the possibility of serious and helpful debate on the subject. And his moral judgment, which seems to be that mere past membership in the Israeli army makes someone unworthy of debating, strikes me as quite repugnant, for all the familiar reasons. True, others may disagree with me for all their familiar reasons; but I think they are mistaken, and mistaken in a way that undermines serious academic debate.

Relatedly, Khan should have realized — and perhaps did realize — that there was a good chance that his message would be read as more or less a demand that students disinvite Romirowsky. I think it would have been unduly narrow-minded, in a way that's especially unsuitable for an academic, for Khan to say, "I'm sorry to hear Mr. Romirowsky was invited; given this, you of course have to keep Mr. Romirowsky on the panel, but I have to withdraw." But it's worse when one sends a message to students that complains about the "unfairness" of the invitation to Romirowsky, that strongly suggests one will be uncomfortable sharing the panel with him, and that, in my view, implicitly suggests that the author will quit the panel if the other invitation continues to stand.

An academic sending such a message should, I think, realize that students may well panic and improperly withdraw the invitation. If that was Khan's intention, that's especially bad; but even if it wasn't his intention, any academic who deals with student groups should have recognized that this would be the likely result of such a message.

Asaf Romirowsky and Academic Freedom on This Blog:

A reader mentioned to me that Asaf Romirowsky, whose disinvitation I condemned earlier this week, is also the author of a column that I condemned on academic freedom grounds earlier this year. I don't see much of a logical connection between the two, but the reader suggested that I note this, and I thought others might be interested in the link as well.

Refusal to Be on Panels, Israeli Soldiers, and Obstetricians:

The post about the University of Delaware professor who seemingly refused to be on the same panel as an Israeli ex-soldier led some commenters to defend the professor. In the professor's view, the commenters reasoned, Israeli soldiers do (and not just advocate) very bad things; if the professor thinks that those things are so bad that they put the soldiers beyond the pale, then we shouldn't condemn the professor for refusing to share a panel with the soldiers, even if we disagree with his view.

I don't think this is quite right; I agree that professors are entitled to decide which panels they'll be on and which they won't be on, and to refuse to be on panels with people they see as especially evil. But I think that it's proper for us to judge their decisions, and condemn them for narrow-mindedness if we disagree with their judgment about this evil.

Here is an analogy that came to my mind; I realize it's not perfect, but it seems to me helpful. (Note that the analogy focuses only on evaluating a professor's refusal to be on the panel; I am not claiming that the students' reaction to this refusal would be the same in this hypothetical as it was in the real Delaware case.)

Say Professor X writes about medical ethics, including matters related to abortion, and say he believes that abortion is murder (or something morally close to it). He therefore believes that anyone who has performed an abortion, or who has participated in performing it, even indirectly, is a murderer. Assume that in Professor X's country, a medical education as an obstetrician and gynecologist requires people to learn how to perform abortions, including by participating in actual abortions.

Professor X therefore refuses to be on any panels with anyone who has been educated as an obstetrician, or who is involved in an organization that performs abortions (such as Planned Parenthood, or for that matter virtually any hospital in this country). He also suggests to people that they disinvite such other panelists if they want to keep him (X) on the panel. And this is so even though many of the people who have interesting and useful things to say about abortion ethics, abortion law, and reproductive law, ethics, and policy more broadly are obstetricians or are associated with organizations that perform abortions.

What would we say about Professor X's decision, especially if we disagree with his views about abortion? Well, we surely wouldn't try to legally force him to participate on the panels, or threaten him with losing his job as a professor (which in any case doesn't require participation on panels at all). He should be free to choose whom to share a table with.

But I think we would condemn him in some measure, because his decision undermines useful academic debate, and because it reflects an improper narrow-mindedness. I take it we'd say that he should engage with people whose views and actions he disagrees with, and try to persuade them (and, more likely, their listeners) that his views are better.

Nor would we be much moved by his argument that "I think people who perform or assist in abortions are like Nazi concentration camp guards; you wouldn't fault me for refusing to be on a panel with an unrepentant Nazi -- likewise, don't fault me for refusing to be on a panel with someone I see as morally tantamount to a Nazi." I think we'd acknowledge that some views and actions are beyond the pale morally, and it's not improperly narrow-minded for an academic to refuse to engage them. But I think we'd say that this is so only as to those views and actions that really are beyond the pale; and if someone has what we see as the wrong view about where the pale is to be drawn, then we can properly condemn that person's judgment.

The same, I think, applies here to Khan. If he thought that Israeli ex-soldiers are morally beyond the pale, and he were right on his moral judgment of Israeli ex-soldiers, then I would accept (perhaps even praise) his decision not to share a conference panel with them. But he has to be right on that moral judgment. If he's wrong, and I think he is, then his position is as narrow-minded and as improperly undermining of scholarly debate, as an abortion ethics scholar's decision not to share a panel with anyone who was educated as an obstetrician and therefore performed or assisted in abortions.