Are critics of Israel persecuted at Harvard?
Anthropology and African-American studies professor J. Lorand Matory '82 thinks so. At a recent Faculty meeting, he proposed that Harvard reaffirm "civil dialogue," arguing that critics of Israel "tremble in fear" on campus.
In fear of what, one wonders—becoming a bestselling author at the Harvard Coop?
Nine months ago, I started a student journal entitled "New Society: Harvard College Student Middle East Journal," with the aim of creating a more constructive dialogue on campus about the future of the region. The journal was inspired by a Harvard Hillel trip to Israel last winter. I was determined to include a variety of perspectives, so before I approached Harvard Students for Israel or any other Jewish groups on campus, I asked several Muslim and Arab students to contribute articles to the journal.
But I was met with little success: Many Muslim and Arab students preferred not to publish their views, fearing the threat of reprisal.
An Iranian student who had privately expressed opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declined to write, saying he preferred to "lay low" for fear of political consequences back home.
Another Iranian-American student backed out after sending me several articles about Iranian academics based in the U.S. who had been arrested on visits to Tehran. One such academic, Haleh Esfandiari, on a visit to her elderly mother, was detained for eight months and charged with crimes against "national security." The student told me he feared the same fate and worried about what would become of his family if he ever expressed his views about Iran's theocratic regime.
Similarly, an Arab student who was approached to speak about the situation in Darfur refused, saying that he was certain some of his compatriots at Harvard would report back home about his activities abroad and that he feared being arrested or harassed by his country's security services.
And one of our writers, Chia N. Mustafa '09, was told by a poster on the journal's website that he belonged to "the rank of traitors" and for writing an article advocating independence for Kurdistan.
So when Matory claims that people at Harvard "tremble in fear" because of their views on the Middle East, he is half-right.
But it is not critics of Israel who live in fear at Harvard. Rather, it is students and faculty from the Arab and Muslim world who feel they must censor their criticisms of autocracy and human rights abuses in their home countries.
As an editor, I have yet to encounter a student—Jewish, Muslim, Christian or otherwise—who is the least bit afraid of criticizing Israel in public or in print.
Criticism of Israel is, in fact, ubiquitous at Harvard.
At Harvard Law School, Professor Duncan Kennedy—who has no expertise in international law or Middle East studies—is teaching a seminar on legal issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The course focuses almost exclusively on Israeli abuses of Palestinian rights. Kennedy is the faculty advisor for the "Justice For Palestine" group at HLS, and has flown in radical critics of Israel, at Harvard's expense, for guest lectures. Nobody has contested his right to criticize Israel in the classroom.
Harvard also hosts programs on the Middle East in which Israeli input is minimized or excluded at the behest of Arab sponsors: yesterday's Harvard Middle East North Africa Conference, for example, invited various Arab student groups to participate but has failed to include any of the Israel groups on campus. The Kennedy School of Government hosts the Dubai Initiative, which is sponsored by a government that denies Israelis—and only Israelis—the right to enter its borders, even as tourists.
Last May, Armenian studies professor James R. Russell was disinvited from a Harvard-sponsored exhibition of Iranian propaganda posters because he had compared them to those of the Soviet Union. Some of the Iranians involved in the conference were apparently worried that comparing their country to an atheist state might provoke Ahmadinejad's thought police.
Even at Harvard, critics of Iran and other undemocratic regimes in the Muslim and Arab world fear for their lives and liberty. In contrast, the worst that an anti-Israel activist like Matory has to worry about is a letter to the editor in The Harvard Crimson expressing an opposing view.
Is that enough to make a critic of Israel "tremble in fear"? Fear of embarrassment, perhaps, if that criticism is ill-informed and demonstrably inaccurate.
The faculty must reject Matory's motion when it comes to a vote next month. The motion is not about protecting free speech, but privileging anti-Israel criticism, justified or not. In most Middle Eastern countries, the only permitted form of protest is criticism of Israel. Harvard must not allow itself to become the Western outpost of this false freedom.
Julia I. Bertelsmann '09 is an economics concentrator in Eliot House. She is editor-in-chief of "New Society: Harvard College Student Middle East Journal."