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On The New Republic website today, the distinguished sociologist Alan Wolfe pens a defense of a left-wing academic, William I. Robinson.The Anti-Defamation League and others are attacking Robinson for recent actions he took in conjunction with a course he teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara, on the "Sociology of Globalization."
Robinson did the following. Last January, he sent an e-mail to students in his course accusing Israel of war crimes in Gaza, said that the occupation of Gaza by Israel was the equivalent of the Nazi occupation of the Warsaw Ghetto, and sent photographs which he argued showed that what Israel was doing to the Palestinians was the same as what the Nazis had done to the Jews. In protest, the Anti-Defamation League has called for an investigation of Professor Robinson.
Wolfe comes to Robinson's defense by making the following argument. He does not agree with his beliefs as expressed in the e-mail. Indeed, Wolfe acknowledges that "neither Robinson's leftist kind of sociology nor his activist kind of politics are mine." Yet he finds the idea of investigating Robinson "appalling" and writes that "the ADL should be ashamed of itself." As Wolfe sees it, censoring Robinson would set harmful precedents that could have ramifications for anyone teaching at public universities.
Robinson's defenders say his academic freedom is in danger of being abridged, especially since the University has said it will investigate his actions. Wolfe does not buy Robinson's critics contention that propagandistic e-mails have nothing to do with the subject he is teaching. Wolfe maintains that professors at our universities who teach controversial subjects should "provoke, and even outrage, their students." This certainly is what Robinson has done, especially to the school's Jewish students. Wolfe worries about "academic apathy;' he thinks it is a good thing when a professor cares so much about issues of the day that he e-mails students about them. Even if his actions caused damage or hurt to some, Wolfe says, the "arguments and discussion" they provoke outweigh the damage he might have done.
Moreover, those opposing Robinson, like the ADL, are condemned by Wolfe as "thought police," who are "monitoring campuses for any sign of what it considers offensive speech and putting pressure to bear on university administrators to stop it." So Wolfe has joined a new committee "to Defend Academic Freedom at UCSB," which includes Noam Chomsky, a man who has never found an extremist critic of Israel he has not rushed to defend. Noting that his own college cancelled a speech by Bill Ayers and that Clark University considered cancelling a speech by the self-hating Jew Norman Finkelstein, Wolfe is concerned that "this whole business is threatening to spin out of control"...