An Uneven Exchange

Mark Yudof and I placed a critical response to Katherine Franke’s essay, “The Pro-Israel Push to Purge US Campus Critics,” in the on-line New York Review of Books December 15, 2018, which was published on January 8, 2019 with a response by Franke.  In the original essay, Franke celebrated the increased call on campus by students to divest from companies doing business in Israel (there is no increase in divestment initiatives), the election of new members to Congress critical of American diplomatic and financial support for Israel (yes, a few such House members were indeed elected), and the alleged increased effort to eliminate any rigorous discussion of Israeli-Palestinian politics in university settings.

Franke claimed to see or sense a new censorship or new McCarthyism abroad in the land citing the cases of a Michigan professor who refused to write a recommendation letter for a student seeking to study in Israel and was justly punished for imposing his politics on her study abroad choice, and also the case of Marc Lamont Hill, who showcased his contempt for Israel in a speech in New York by embracing the slogan “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea.” Hill was fired by CNN and came under significant pressure at Temple University but was retained.

We thought the Columbia law professor’s essay marked by selective myopia, failing to note the slowdown in BDS actions on campus, the repeated statements by university leaders that opposed BDS as contrary to academic freedom, and the relatively good record by university heads in withstanding public pressures to purge anti-Israel voices. Hill, for example, was protected at Temple and  actually supports that university authorities are upholding traditions of free speech and academic freedom. UCLA also permitted SJP to hold its national cinference on campus there in November, 2018.  Any real censorship evident on campus has been carried out by those opposed to Israel, including efforts to dsirupt speakers and meetings, manipulate student governments, and isolate and shun Jewish students and groups.

“The primary opponents of democratic engagement and dialogue belong to the BDS movement,” Mark Yudof and I wrote, “whose members have used their prerogatives and power to shut down discussion, demonize Israel and American Jewish supporters of Israel, and politicize university classrooms.”

In Franke’s response to our response, she neglected to acknowledge what is fact, the slowdown of BDS, which has appeared on less and less campuses since the peak years of 2014-15 and 2015-16. Instead she continued talking about “the increasing effectiveness of BDS as a tactic….” Effective how?  Based on what? She also claimed to be able to speak about critical speakers being silenced by pro-Israel protestors, but provided no examples of university-based forms of censorship. Not a single one.  The best she could do was lament how Angela Davis was disinvited from receiving a human rights award from the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute for her  support for human rights everywhere save in Communist countries and for her Alice Walker-like lunatic position on Israel. Franke’s list of deep calamities included the non-awarding of a few honorary degrees, public criticism of positions taken by professors (hardly an assault on their rights), and some criticisms of teaching practices and responsibilities where professors had slid over to embrace tactics aimed at politicizing their classes.

But, above all that she wrote in her response, Franke had the nerve to point to “the tone and partiality” of our letter, which she declared reveals hostility to reasoned debate and learning.  Give me a break, Professor Franke.  It is you who embrace the practice of refusing to write letters of recommendation for students seeking to study abroad in Israel – because you are open to reasoned debate and learning? Because you are fair-minded and believe in letting students have the freedom to make up their own minds about political issues?  Because you contribute to open debate and exchange at Columbia?

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.