Review of Jonathan Marks, Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Defense of Liberal Education. Princeton University Press, February 2021, 232 pages, $27.95.
Jonathan Marks, Professor of Politics at Ursinus College, has written an important and timely book that should interest anyone, left, right, or center, concerned about higher education in general and the campus anti-Israel movement in particular. Let’s Be Reasonable (LBR) is indeed a calming voice of reason amidst the frenetic shouting occurring both on and about campuses. Blending anecdote and theory in a superb and accessible style that almost masks its serious substance, Marks comes across as the professor we all wish we had (and in some cases, wish we were): the one who gets students excited about Plato or Rousseau, who challenges them to think more deeply, and who often gets them to meet that challenge. Here I’ll sketch some of the main ideas in the book, but focus on his treatment of campus anti-Israelism.
LBR offers a “conservative defense of liberal education.” By “conservative” Marks means one who believes that governments, instituted to secure rights and limited in scope, derive their legitimacy from the consent of the governed (xi). “Liberal education” is harder to summarize, but then again maybe not: it aims toward “the shaping of reasonable people” (26). But this simple formula entails many important details. One who aims to be “reasonable” must yield to and act on “reasonable arguments, rather than impulses, tribal loyalties, or superstitions” (5), and stop “trying to win, or serving your party, or selling your wares, and consider [instead] what valid conclusions we can draw from what we know” (64) These in turn entail that one must follow arguments wherever they may lead, and thus seek both evidence and counter-evidence as well as alternative opinions; that one must attempt to correct for one’s own cognitive biases; that one stop trying to win the argument and instead pursue the truth (which may lie with the opposing argument), and so on. The idea, as I interpret it, is that one should care less about being right than about getting it right.
This may sound like a truism but in today’s campus context it is actually radical. For Marks’ conception of a liberal education is a foundation for the argument that universities, “if they are to be homes of reason, should be leery of politics” (30), and it is no secret that many campuses and the education they provide are deeply politicized in ways inconsistent with “being reasonable” as just described. It’s also no secret that the dominant campus politics is left-leaning, which typically includes explicit support for the politicization of the campus. While Marks makes a good case that the “problem” of leftist campus politicization is not as severe as many believe — one goal of the book is to convince conservatives that the battle for liberal education is not yet lost — it is a serious question whether his arguments, which truly deserve to be heard by all parts of the political spectrum, will get any fair hearing on the campuses where they are needed most.
In any case, after laying out and defending the claim that campuses should aim to produce reasonable people, Marks turns to the campus anti-Israel movement with an eye to demonstrating its inconsistency with that aim.
Marks first provides a brief history of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and rehearses many troubling anecdotes of campus BDS activities. This material makes explicit what campus BDSers often do not: that BDS is indeed a political movement that follows the “norms of warfare” rather than the “norms of reason” (149). That starts with its basic goal: “BDS supporters try to get people who have almost no knowledge of or stake in learning about the Middle East to adopt controversial propositions about it” (151-52), and thus try to get institutions and their organs to change their behaviors. Since reasonable people can (and generally do) disagree about complex matters, the BDS goal is best served by non-reasonable propagandistic methods such as oversimplification and simplifying distortion, strategic exaggeration, and the concealment both of alternative perspectives and of inconvenient facts that support those perspectives. Being reasonable also requires clarity and transparency about one’s premises, conclusions, and aims. BDS presents itself as a “non-violent” movement to “support Palestinian rights,” and no doubt convinces many well-meaning individuals to sign on under that banner. But the easily documented reality, Marks shows, is that the movement as a whole is perfectly fine with violence and its goal brazenly includes the destruction of the world’s only Jewish state.
Though Marks focuses on the movement’s violations of the norms of reason, the preceding sentence suggests a willingness to violate ethical norms as well. In a particularly explicit illustration of the connections between the two, consider these remarks by Trent University philosophy professor Michael Neumann. They date back to 2002, that is, to the aftermath of the notorious Non-Governmental Organization Forum held in Durban, South Africa, in September, 2001, alongside the United Nations World Conference Against Racism, to which Marks rightly traces the origin of the contemporary BDS movement (143):
My sole concern is indeed to help the Palestinians, and I try to play for keeps. I am not interested in the truth, or justice, or understanding, or anything else, except so far as it serves that purpose … I have always considered politics a crude, simple business in which there is little place for theory. It is very valuable to know the history behind the conflict, even far behind it, but it is not always politically effective to discuss it … I try to simplify problems as much as possible, strip away as many debatable points as I can, and see what I can do with the rest ….
[Or] I should perhaps have said: I am very interested in truth, justice and understanding, but right now I have far more interest in helping the Palestinians. I would use anything, including lies, injustice and obfuscation, to do so. If an effective strategy means that some truths about the Jews don’t come to light, I don’t care. If an effective strategy means encouraging reasonable antisemitism, or reasonable hostility to Jews, I also don’t care. If it means encouraging vicious racist antisemitism, or the destruction of the state of Israel, I still don’t care.[i]
For the record, Neumann specializes in the philosophical discipline of ethics.
Insofar as these remarks are representative of the campus BDS movement that developed subsequent to them, that movement is indeed a political movement that employs tactics more appropriate for political endeavors than for a liberal education that pursues reason above all. Similarly referencing the 1962 Port Huron Statement, a founding document of American student activism, Marks writes: “The case of BDS helps us see in the flesh one attempt to turn colleges and universities into a base… for an ‘assault on the loci of power’” (149).[ii]
So how should a defender of liberal education — in particular the defender of Israel who respects such an education — respond to this campaign?
Not, Marks insists, by political propagandizing in the other direction. “Merely leading one’s students into the presence of opposing zealots,” he observes, “isn’t teaching” (148). Nor is the proper response that of the not uncommon efforts of Israel advocates, particularly from outside the campus, to cancel campus BDS speakers and events. To be reasonable is to seek truth, and that requires hearing all sides — a norm that applies to both sides here — so silencing one’s opponents is not the answer. Nor (for the same reason) is the right response to engage in “viewpoint discrimination” (162), for example by refusing the establishment of a student group such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a tactic much in the news of late due to the court case resulting from Fordham University’s effort to do just that.[iii] Nor is the right response, Marks argues, to personally attack the students (and faculty) that lead the movement, in the way, he alleges, the anonymous website Canary Mission does.[iv]
One must respond by remaining reasonable oneself.
In support of the reasonable (i.e. academically responsible) response to BDS, Marks offers two case studies. The first is the 2016 American Historical Association (AHA) debate over adopting a BDS resolution. There an academic critique of the BDS materials managed to win the day, convincing enough historians, including some who were deeply critical of Israel, to reject the proposal. In the second, Marks endorses a strategy laid out by political scientist Jeffrey Kopstein, then at the University of Toronto, to respond to the anti-Israel activity there not with pro-Israel activity — since that “often resulted less in ‘countering speech with speech’ than in ‘screaming against screaming’” (167)[v]—but with the “slow, quiet, thoughtful and unglamorous work of teaching thousands of students…[about] the true complexity of the situation” (168).
If BDS often violates the norms of reason and of the liberal campus, in other words, then the responders in these two case studies, by contrast, highlighted them.
On the theoretical level I found very little to disagree with in this book. Marks’ vision of a liberal education is appealing. I personally embrace the idea of depoliticizing the classroom and the campus. This is not to dispute the value, and often necessity, of political activism. It is, rather, to prefer that the campus provide the foundation, but not the venue, for that activism. Recall the famous line by Marks’ homonymed antithesis, Karl Marx: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”[vi] While the ultimate goal may well be to change the world, you can only hope to do that correctly and with legitimate ends if you have first learned properly how to interpret the world. Let campuses be about interpreting. Let them be about getting it right. The rest of your life can be about changing the world. If we can’t devote some short years of youth to learning how to get it right, then, I don’t know; maybe we’re doomed.
Much follows from this. On most contentious matters there’s no rush, no emergency: take the time to get it right. The idea that a 19-year old already knows enough about some complex issue to be confident she has gotten it right and knows how to radically change it is very implausible; let her take the time to learn more, to hear the alternative perspectives, figure out how to weigh them. The idea that a 39-year-old or 59-year-old professor knows enough either is also implausible, frankly, so the professor shouldn’t simply tell the student what’s right but instead help her figure out how to reach her own reasonable determinations, eventually. That too means, minimally, that the professor should lead her to explore alternative perspectives. One encouraging anecdote Marks relays is that of a professor who assigns students to read the book he most disagrees with (161). Sure, the professor should express his critique of that book, but what he shouldn’t do is compel his students to accept that critique, and he surely shouldn’t conceal that book from his students.
That is what a non-politicized classroom and campus might look like.
And if they were depoliticized, that alone would significantly alter the character of campus anti-Israelism.
First of all, the BDS movement as currently constituted couldn’t exist in such an environment, for that movement is inconsistent with Marks’ liberal campus both in theory and in practice. In theory, in at least two ways. First, the BDS call for an academic boycott is directly antagonistic to the aim for truth, a mission that requires hearing all relevant perspectives. Second, in order to foster a community that quests for truth, the liberal campus, both the institution as a whole and its major organs must themselves remain politically neutral. The institution provides the fair and neutral forum in which the “combatants,” the proponents of diverse perspectives, argue it out; it cannot adopt a political position without becoming itself a combatant and thus skewing the playing field. This point is beautifully articulated in the famous 1967 Kalven Report concerning academic freedom at the University of Chicago,[vii] as well as, more recently, in an essential 2016 ruling against BDS by the Judicial Board at McGill University.[viii] When BDS activists demand that universities, or graduate student unions, or student governments, adopt a BDS resolution, they are directly attacking the very mission of the liberal campus.
As for in practice: The campus BDS movement so regularly “breaks the rules” that govern the norms of reason that one must conclude that doing so is a feature, not a bug, reminiscent of Professor Neumann’s remarks above. The most recent example is from November, 2020, at Tufts University, where a student referendum calling for the “demilitarization” of the Tufts University Police Department due to its alleged connections with Israel — essentially blaming Israel for American and Tufts police violence against people of color — passed despite violating at least two significant election rules, including one requiring the complete text of the resolution to be made available with enough time for people to actually study and discuss it before voting.[ix] As I have documented elsewhere, this and similar tactics by BDSers are not uncommon: BDS resolutions are sprung with minimal advance notice, panels and materials are arranged that tell only the anti-Israel side of the story, they make efforts to get their people into positions of power and remove opponents in order to sway the votes, they call important meetings or votes on or just before the Jewish Sabbath to disenfranchise some or many Jews, etc.[x]
As for campus anti-Israelism more generally, that which doesn’t aim toward BDS specifically, that too would be transformed on a depoliticized campus. It would no longer seek to ostracize and shut down opposing perspectives and those who support them, but actively seek them out. One imagines a lecture series where speakers from competing perspectives lay out their cases and then stand for honest, open questions, criticism and dialogue. One imagines campus advocates on opposing sides scheduling events where they meet and talk and debate, never raising their voices, both sides motivated by the desire to understand the other side’s perspective, even if they disagree with it. When there is no BDS resolution on the table, when there is no immediate action required, then there is no rush, one can take the time to learn more, get to know one’s opponents, even, maybe even work together on issues of common concern while trying to resolve points of disagreement, overall simply try to get it right …
We can dream, can’t we?
In fact when campus pro-Israel groups do seek such dialogue and event co-sponsorship with the anti-Israel groups, their overtures are typically rebuffed, sometimes vehemently, under the policy of “anti-normalization.” To make matters worse, the anti-Israel groups often build large coalitions with other student groups not merely in support of boycotting Israel but in support of boycotting — ostracizing, excluding — the students themselves who support Israel; and not just with respect to Middle East matters but with respect to everything, including the progressive causes that many Jewish students hold dear. Witness the 2018 case at New York University, where some 53 student groups endorsed an anti-normalization campus boycott of the two student groups that support Israel.[xi] Or the November, 2020, case at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where the SJP chapter led a 15-group coalition to sign a pledge stating that “Zionists . . . actively advocate for white supremacy and racism … Every single organization that has signed onto this statement attests to the fact that Zionism, as a racist ideology, has no place in anti-racist student organizing.”[xii] These groups included the Student Advocacy Coalition, a student group that lobbies state legislatures on issues such as financial aid and university funding, and the Graduate Employees Organization, an AFL-CIO affiliated union of graduate workers. Jewish students have to disavow their Zionism, in other words, if they want to fully participate in campus activism and student life in general.
So what is a “reasonable” person to do, particularly one who supports Israel?
One may perhaps be comforted by Marks’ theoretical perspective, from which, it seems, Israel supporters can cast themselves as the academically honorable voice of reason, with the facts and arguments largely on their side, as the AHA case illustrated above; of course, campus anti-Israelists would reject the characterization of their efforts as unreasonable and non-academic, but that’s a battle to be fought in the details of the many distinct incidents.
The devil is indeed in the details, the practical details. Exactly how effective is the “reasonable” approach in situations where campus anti-Israelism, pursued with a sometimes fanatic zeal, produces discrimination against Israel and the many Jewish students in particular who support it? Consider the two case studies supporting the reasonable response. The AHA did vote down the BDS proposal, but 51 of the 162 votes were in favor, and cast by professional historians with equally good academic credentials as those on the other side. Absent the small cohort of historians having the courage (and the time and energy) to lead the opposition, the vote could easily have gone the other way — and just might when the next BDS resolution rolls around, as it almost inevitably will. As for the Kopstein case, he soon after left the University of Toronto for another university, with campus anti-Israelism continuing at his former campus as unabated as ever. Moreover in the very same essay Marks cites, Kopstein describes regretfully how, at his new campus, he succumbed to the anti-Israel atmosphere there by concealing a campus visit by a prominent Israeli speaker.
The fact remains that campuses are deeply politicized, and are so in ways deeply inimical to those supportive of Israel. In such a context, taking the reasonable approach — or at least taking only the reasonable approach — can appear not merely hopeless but misguided, foolish, even undignified. In Ze’ev Maghen’s 1990 essay, “How to Fight Anti-Semitism,” he writes,
A man calls you a pig. Do you walk around with a sign explaining that, in fact, you are not a pig? Do you hand out leaflets expostulating in detail upon the manifold differences between you and a pig (“A pig has a snout, I have a nose; a pig wallows in mud, I only occasionally step in a puddle, and then, of course, inadvertently…”)? Do you stand on a soap box and discourse eruditely on why, in general, it is extremely not nice to call people pigs, and appeal to the populace to please have no truck with an individual rude and nasty enough to say such things about an upstanding citizen like yourself?
Fellow Jews, where in hell is your dignity?[xiii]
No, one never wants to “stoop to the level” of one’s enemies, particularly not to the Neumann level above, but if one feels (as many do) that this is something akin to a war, that it is truly antisemitic in nature, and that it has serious long-term consequences for the well-being not merely of Israel but even of Jews in America — as entire generations of students, i.e. future thought and policy leaders, are exposed to the propaganda of the anti-Israel campus war — then one might perhaps think that more is necessary than merely producing a long scholarly document arguing that one is not a pig. Do produce that document; the reasonable approach is surely laudable and ultimately correct in a liberal campus environment. But maybe do more as well.
Apropos of this point, there is one curious, because potentially significant, omission in Marks’ discussion of BDS. He does not address the currently raging debate over whether BDS or anti-Zionism are by their nature antisemitic. Nor does he address the closely related debate over the Working Definition of Antisemitism advanced by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).[xiv] That definition includes as examples of antisemitism certain kinds of anti-Israel rhetoric and behavior, including, notably, the “Three D’s” of antisemitic anti-Israelism: the demonization, delegitimization, and application of double standards to the Jewish state.[xv] There is currently an informal global campaign to persuade universities and their organs to adopt it, as well as opposition to that campaign, hence its relevance to our topic. Nor does Marks address (aside from a valuable footnote) the equally relevant debate over President Trump’s 2019 “Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism,” which both applies to campuses and invokes the IHRA Working Definition as its guide.[xvi]
Perhaps omitting these debates is a wise decision by Marks; the issues here are complex, nuanced, vexed. And perhaps the omission is justified since the focus of the chapter is to show how BDS violates the norms of the liberal campus, which can be done without determining whether it is antisemitic. And perhaps it’s also justified by recognizing that adopting the IHRA Working Definition would be at least partly, or maybe largely, a political move, hence out of place for one committed to being purely reasonable. Still, since it is “trending” right now in the campus war over Israel, a reader naturally wants to hear more about Marks’ perspective on it.
Suppose there is a political element in play here. But might it be the right sort of political element, one that does not stoop to the unreasonable level of propaganda but that might provide some fire with which to fight the fire of campus anti-Israelism? The goal, presumably compatible with the norms of reason, is that Jewish students should enjoy the same protections and freedoms as all other minority groups on campus, which include the ability to explore and embrace their identities and to fully participate in all aspects of campus life. Campuses already have honor codes and conduct codes that proscribe racism and discrimination, yet somehow these are rarely applied when it comes to anti-Israel rhetoric and behaviors including attacks on Jewish students supportive of Israel. We saw above the SJP coalition’s shamefully ludicrous (and arguably antisemitic) claim that “Zionists . . . actively advocate for white supremacy and racism.” That is hardly an isolated incident; it reflects a trope increasingly popular among campus anti-racist activists that Jews in general, and pro-Israel Jews in particular, are racist white supremacists. For a campus to adopt the IHRA Working Definition, and thus to acknowledge that certain expressions of anti-Israelism cross the line into antisemitism, may therefore be a useful tool by showing that the anti-racist tools already in place should apply in these cases. To supplement the essay explaining why I am not pig, in other words, let us also make it clear that you are antisemitic for treating me like a pig.
A political tool, yes; but not one that obviously violates the norms of reason.
In fact, it may actually further those norms.
A major concern about adopting the IHRA Working Definition is that doing so would allegedly suppress or chill the freedom of speech of campus anti-Israelists. That Marks is deeply (and rightly) concerned to maximize freedom of speech is apparent from his defense of the norms of reason in general and, in particular, in his treatment of the Fordham University court case mentioned above. He concludes his critique of Fordham’s decision to deny recognition to a chapter of SJP by quoting approvingly a court ruling in a different case affirming the importance of campus free speech, and notes that it “implies that colleges … should have more, not fewer, safeguards for freedom of inquiry than other institutions have” (163).
But missing in his book is the most recent development in that case, which occurred only in December 2020, after the book was in press. The Appellate Court, in granting Fordham’s motion to dismiss the SJP suit, noted that, “[Fordham’s] conclusion that the proposed club [SJP], which would have been affiliated with [the] national [SJP] organization reported to have engaged in disruptive and coercive actions on other campuses, would work against, rather than enhance, [Fordham’s] commitment [to] open dialogue and mutual learning and understanding, was not ‘without sound basis in reason’ or ‘taken without regard to the facts.’”[xvii] There’s a lot here to unpack, but I submit that to grasp that certain expressions of anti-Israelism are antisemitic is ultimately to grasp that the campus anti-Israel movement, in many of its manifestations, is indeed antagonistic to the norms of reason. BDS specifically, and straightforwardly, as we saw above; anti-Israelism more generally, when it crosses the line into antisemitism, for example per the IHRA Working Definition. It is always wonderful to advocate for the positions you believe in; that is the essential telos of the liberal campus. But when that advocacy becomes racist or discriminatory toward opposing advocates, when it bullies, deceives, and smears, when it silences and oppresses, then it is the anti-telos.
The point of a campus adopting the IHRA Working Definition is not for it to “protect Israel,” as critics claim, but to protect primarily Jewish students’ right to identify as Jews and, if they wish, to advocate for Israel free not from legitimate rational criticism but from harassment and discrimination, and even violence. That is to promote the freedom of speech on a liberal campus. Marks defends the rights of anti-Israel students from what he considers the inappropriate and unreasonable methods of Canary Mission, but it seems to me equally important, in the current climate, to defend the rights of pro-Israel students as well. That’s why the IHRA Working Definition is so important, and why discussion of it would have been welcome.
Overall, then, Let’s Be Reasonable is an important and terrific book: smart, thorough, engaging, superbly written. Its vision of the liberal education is well articulated and appealing, its argument that campus politicization is not as severe as many think is comforting, and its critique of the campus BDS movement strikes me as correct, if perhaps not as complete as I would have liked. It deserves a wide readership, among those concerned about higher education in general and among those concerned about the campus Israel wars in particular.
A highly abridged version of this review appeared originally in Commentary.
[i] See https://mail.islam-radio.net/thetruth/neumann2.htm?fbclid=IwAR1QKoeWKusQ8WvDot-vsbfseTKSzfyVi1AP_kJh8B-yU8xXJx_FJJJQB2A. Thanks to Jarrod Tanny for the reference.
[iii] Melissa Weiss, “New York court rules against Students for Justice in Palestine in Fordham case,” Jewish Insider, December 23, 2020 (https://jewishinsider.com/2020/12/students-for-justice-in-palestine-fordham/).
[iv] Canary Mission (https://canarymission.org/) bills itself as documenting “individuals and organizations that promote hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on North American college campuses…We pursue our mission by presenting the words and deeds of individuals and organizations that engage in anti-Semitism, racism and bigotry on the far right, far left and among the array of organizations that comprise the anti-Semitic Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement … Canary Mission believes that we all have the right to know if an individual has been affiliated with movements that routinely engage in anti-Semitic rhetoric and actions, promote hatred of Jews and seek the destruction of Israel.”
[v] For Kopstein’s case, see Jeffrey Kopstein, “Loud and Fast versus Slow and Quiet: Responses to Anti-Israel Activism on Campus,” in Andrew Pessin and Doron S. Ben-Atar, Anti-Zionism on Campus: The University, Free Speech, and BDS (Indiana University Press, 2018), 142-50.
[vi] Also inscribed on Marx’s North London tombstone, this is the 11th of his “Theses on Feuerbach” (https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/theses/theses.htm).
[viii] See Andrew Pessin, “Inconclusive, Unscientific Postscript: On the Purpose of the University, and a Ray of Hope,” in Andrew Pessin and Doron S. Ben-Atar, Anti-Zionism on Campus: The University, Free Speech, and BDS (Indiana University Press, 2018), 401-7. See also Andrew Pessin, “McGill University and How Western Civilization May Have Just Saved Itself—From Itself,” The Algemeiner, June 6, 2016 (https://www.algemeiner.com/2016/06/06/mcgill-university-and-how-western-civilization-may-have-just-saved-itself-from-itself/).
[ix] Benjamin Kerstein, “Tufts University Group Condemns Passage of Modern Day Antisemitic Blood Libel By Student Government,” The Algemeiner, December 20, 2020 (https://www.algemeiner.com/2020/12/20/tufts-university-group-condemns-passage-of-modern-day-antisemitic-blood-libel-by-student-government/).
[x] See Andrew Pessin and Doron S. Ben-Atar, “Introduction and Overview: The Silencing,” in Andrew Pessin and Doron S. Ben-Atar, Anti-Zionism on Campus: The University, Free Speech, and BDS (Indiana University Press, 2018), 22.
[xi] Shiri Moshe, “Advocates Urge NYU to Take Action Against Student Clubs That Pledged to Boycott Pro-Israel Peers,” The Algemeiner, April 26, 2018 (https://www.algemeiner.com/2018/04/26/advocates-urge-nyu-to-take-action-against-student-clubs-that-pledged-to-boycott-pro-israel-peers/).
[xii] Ian Katsnelson, “A Retrospective Look at This Past Hanukkah,” The Times of Israel, December 27. 2020 (https://blogs.timesofisrael.com/a-retrospective-look-of-this-past-hanukkah/).
[xv] Natan Sharansky, “3D Test of Anti-Semitism: Demonization, Double Standards, Delegitimization,” Jewish Political Studies Review 16:3-4, Fall 2004 (https://www.jcpa.org/phas/phas-sharansky-f04.htm).
[xvii] Melissa Weiss, “New York court rules against Students for Justice in Palestine in Fordham case,” Jewish Insider, December 23, 2020 (https://jewishinsider.com/2020/12/students-for-justice-in-palestine-fordham/).