Joseph Mintz

Free debate on campus?

I organized a student event a few months ago designed to be a relaxed forum for students to share ideas with other students. Staff were invited as well, to show their support. It went off well and the students got a lot out of it. One colleague however turned up with a ‘Free Palestine’ badge and wearing a keffiyeh round their neck. Well, OK, academic freedom after all. And really somewhat insignificant you might think with all the encampments and protests and indeed violence and intimidation against Jews and ‘Zionists;’ that has been going on campus more widely. But still, it bothered me. Took the shine off the event for me even, I would go as far as to say.

Was I right though to react this way? After all, campus is supposed to be about debates and the free flow of ideas, and has to encompass ideas that some people find uncomfortable and don’t want to hear. At least, that’s what I think academic freedom should encompass.

So what was the problem? Well two things perhaps. Firstly, as Times Higher Education quoted me as saying this last week, the question as to whether universities or academics should position themselves, as academics, as activists is highly debatable. After all, this implies single mindedly promoting one particular idea, ideology or political perspective. But isn’t the role of the academic and the university to expose students to a multiplicity of ideas and perspectives?

Although of course academics have particular positions, often very strong, relating to their subject areas and expertise, should there not be an expectation that they will make their students aware not only of their views, but of the range of ideas and differing perspectives in their field? How else can students become critical thinkers, who can weight up different positions, surely a fundamental skill they should develop as part of a university education? If their teacher just takes one line, and promotes that as gospel, which is the act of the activist, then how can students be expected to easily stand up against that and consider and promote other views?

And that is, I think, the crux of what bothers me. The whole movement around pro-Palestinian activism on campus has been about silencing other opinions. Zionist free zones. Demonisation of Israel. Inflammatory language – ‘genocide’, designed to delegitimize the other. And so many instances of pure antisemitism mixed in. The case of the Columbia deans is fresh in the mind – deploying classic tropes like ‘Amazing what $$$$ can do’ against their own Jewish students. Is this what might be risked, when universities begin to think that their role is activism?

Not that I am suggesting people who support Palestinian self-determination (as I do in principle) or wear keffiyehs in universities agree with such sentiments, although at the same time, I have spent a long time waiting for any of them to come out publicly against them. Although this was not about the motivations or intentions of any individual, what I think concerned me more at that event was that they implicitly had the power. They had the power and the permission to engage in activism. To wear a badge and promote a cause. I, as a Zionist and Jewish academic did not. Did I have the right to challenge their views? After all, if one brings activism into the classroom, promoting one perspective, surely in a university, their should be the possibility of debate. Perhaps it was a lack of courage on my part. Perhaps they would have indeed been open to free debate and open discussion. But it didn’t feel like an equal arena to me. It felt more like my silence and acquiescence was required.

About the Author
Joseph Mintz is Associate Professor in Education at UCL Institute of Education. He engages in research on inclusion, special educational needs, teacher education for inclusion and has led research projects funded by government and national agencies. He has written for the Jewish Chronicle, the Algemeiner and Times Higher Education. He regularly presents on issues of inclusion and special education in a range of national and international forums. Follow him @jmintzuclacuk His views are his own and do not reflect those of his employers.