What are the limits to academic discourse? Are lies and calumnies from academics protected speech outside the classroom, as well as inside? Does "protected" mean immune from criticism or from direct consequences? Are there distinctions between statements made within one's "field of expertise" and those made outside? When do such distinctions become hairsplitting rationalizations or mere defensiveness, as opposed to valuable exercises in reasoning and in defense of a noble enterprise?
Consider the case of Kaukab Siddique, professor of literature and communications at Lincoln University near Philadelphia. In a now widely broadcast video he stated to an approving crowd protesting near the White House:
For the Jews, I would say, see what could happen to you if the Muslims wake up. And I say to the Muslims, dear brothers and sisters, unite and rise up against this hydra-headed monster which calls itself Zionism. ... It is obvious to us that Zionism is racism. ... It is obvious to us that Zionism is genocide. It is obvious to us that Zionism is terrorism. But somehow the man living in the White House does not seem to know that. His silence is grim and dismal.
This is hardly new. What makes Siddique different are a series of discovered emails in which Siddique called the Holocaust a "hoax" and "invented," and states that Jews have "taken over America" by "devious and immoral means." Pennsylvania lawmakers registered their protest, and Lincoln University itself called Siddique's views "offensive." In an interview with InsideHighered.com Siddique was questioned about his statements. He fell back on academic freedom, saying:
I'm not an expert on the Holocaust. If I deny or support it, it doesn't mean anything.
He added with respect to Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the firebombing of Dresden:
We can't just sit back in judgment and say those guys were bad and we were the good guys. ... I always try to look at both sides. ... That's part of being a professor.
The moral certainty that drives his criticism of Israel and Jews deserted him at a critical, if predictable, juncture.
More interesting than Siddique's remarks were reactions from other academics. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, Cary Nelson — professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and president of the American Association of University Professors — suggests:
Siddique is walking a finer line. He is broaching Holocaust denial off-campus, while teaching in a discipline in which the Holocaust has definite relevance. His university has appropriately said he cannot be fired simply for his extramural statements. He could even repeat those statements in a public forum on campus and be protected. It is less clear, however, that he could declare the Holocaust a fiction in class. A key question is whether, in a field like Siddique's, Holocaust denial merits a hearing before a committee of his peers. Is his professional fitness at issue?
For Nelson, if Siddique were an engineer, like the infamous Arthur Butz of Northwestern University, this would not be an issue.
Nelson phrases the matter as a question. Perhaps he is as repulsed as the rest of us. Indeed, he calls Siddique, rather delicately, a "deluded ideologue." His problem is that he wishes to defend his profession and its workplace habits, including self-policing and privileged place above criticism in the face of something indefensible.
Nelson considers extramural Holocaust denial by a faculty member serious enough that it "may at least merit a university warning that he has put himself at risk." Bravely he states: "The controversy over Siddique's extracurricular remarks reminds us there is a bright line that must not be crossed." On the other hand, the "Working Definition of Anti-Semitism," issued by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, goes too far. Among other things, that document deems calling Israel a "Nazi state" is anti-Semitic, but Nelson dutifully defended sociologist William I. Robinson of the University of California, Santa Barbara, when he did so. Individuals demanding Israel be boycotted must also be defended, although Nelson adds that his organization opposes any such boycott.
But Nelson has his limits:
Faculty members cannot stand before a class and announce that the Nazis did not kill six million Jews, along with numerous homosexuals, Gypsies, disabled citizens, and political opponents. I would not knowingly hire a Holocaust denier or grant one tenure in a discipline to which the Holocaust is relevant. A college does not benefit from institutionalizing ignorance and hatred. ... [Holocaust denial raises the question of a faculty member's] overall professional competence — the capacity to weigh evidence, to undertake rational analysis, to perform academic responsibilities reliably.
Only toward the end of Nelson's discussion does he state forthrightly:
[Holocaust denial is] also effectively hate speech, whatever the intent of the speaker. It denies people their history and obliterates the fate of their relatives on the basis of their religion and ethnicity.
Nelson's distress is palpable and honest. The prominent appearance of neo-Nazis and known Holocaust deniers in the comments sections below his piece must have also caused him considerable unhappiness. But as Nelson defends the "bright line," he fails to trace it sideways from the Holocaust to other controversies. He may find calling Israel a "Nazi state" distasteful or false, but despite the demonstrable abuse of history and deliberately pernicious analogy, it will be permitted to stand. Of Siddique's comments regarding Jews having "taken over America," Nelson says nothing.
He also has yet to comment on the recent remarks by Francis Boyle, professor of international law at the University of Illinois, who opined on al-Jazeera:
As you well know, all the major U.S. news media sources are Zionist. ... The British, the Americans, and the French created Israel as a Jewish Bantustan and stuck it there in the heart of Palestine and the Arab world to control and dominate that region of the world.
Why not question Boyle's "overall professional competence"? Would that, like wondering whether calling Israel a Nazi state is unacceptable, be going too far?
Siddique, Boyle, and countless others point to moral and intellectual failings in American academia that are not easily addressed by academic tradition, university regulation, or outside law. They are insiders and will likely remain so. And while Nelson's forthrightness regarding Holocaust denial is commendable, his diffidence regarding Israel and anti-Semitism is lamentable, and indicates that academia is in fact unwilling to drawn meaningful "bright lines" regarding knowledge or propriety.
Israel and Jews are demonized in crude ways, and critics of this are accused of being infringers of academic freedom and Zionist propagandists. But the pairing of official diffidence and the disinhibition of anti-Semites in academia is ultimately opportune. The "higher education bubble" is already under scrutiny for grotesquely inflated costs and empty promises of useful skills. Closer examination of its localized cultures of hate, and attitudes of both entitlement and impunity, will not help its case. Such examinations are precisely required. What comes after that, however, is unknown.
Alex Joffe is a Research Scholar with the Institute for Jewish & Community Research of San Francisco.