Academic freedom and freedom of speech guarantee people the right to profess views that we find offensive. Arabs and Palestinians who are opposed to Israeli policies in the West Bank and Middle East have a right to their views, at least as much right as those pro-Israel hard-liners who feel free to preach the doctrine of Israel's right to occupy the West Bank and Gaza and refuse to cede an inch.
A specific limitation applies within the academic community: Students, and above all, professors must make a distinction between facts and political opinions. Provided the facts are not fake, the right to opinion must be protected, even by those who are outraged by the contrary belief and infuriated by those who express it.
Some years ago Rashid Khalidi, who had been an assistant professor in the Middle East Institute at Columbia University, was nominated as a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Chicago. One or two Jewish faculty members tried to create a furor: How could this Palestinian nationalist be allowed to set some of the tone in a Middle Eastern Institute at Chicago? I was soon involved because Khalidi and I together had taught a course comparing Zionist and Palestinian nationalism, with the understanding that each of us would be free to express his opinions on the other's views.
I wrote the president of the University of Chicago that I found Khalidi to be a solid and serious academic, and that his personal politics were no more offensive than mine — and I had been teaching the history of Zionism at Columbia for some 20 years while everyone knew that I was an active leader in the Zionist cause. That was the end of the furor and Khalidi's appointment went through.
In the years that he was at Chicago, Khalidi did exactly what I expected. His monographs were factually correct. He faked no evidence. But his opinions were as clear as mine, but of course on opposite sides.
The issue of academic freedom has been raised again at Columbia University. Several students have charged that professors have been saying hateful and provocative things about Israel's policies toward Palestinians, but one student essentially has withdrawn the most serious rhetoric of the charge.
Certainly some blood does boil within the veins of concerned people, but I am very much afraid that those who would like to win arguments by charging that adversaries have limited their academic freedom may soon discover that those who would win by this sword can also lose in the same melee.
Jews have been the victims of comparable rhetoric and we only recently won the battle. For a long time, "Zionism is racism" was a favorite slogan of debates at the United Nations, and it took hard trench fighting to have it removed from the discussion — and the battle is not quite over. Are we Jews now going to be quick to say "ouch, our academic freedom is injured" when someone with a Ph.D. pronounces our Zionist views to be unacceptable?
I am concerned that "academic freedom" is going to be twisted by friends and enemies into a formula that finds the opponents of Zionism to be unworthy tricksters. May I remind at least some of our own people that there are cousins of mine, and I daresay of all of us, who are anti-Zionists because they are still waiting for the messiah to come and cannot accept the notion that human action might help his arrival. Is there anyone who is quick to yell academic freedom, who is prepared to call the heads of some of the most famous yeshivot to order because they are using what they would call, in modern terms, their academic freedom to disagree with Theodor Herzl and Ahad Ha'am?
We Jews have enough enemies in the world without handing the Arabs who disagree with us the support of the defenders of academic freedom. Is it not enough to debate them on the merits of the case for Zionism and the Zionist state?
In the Talmud, in the Pirkei Avot, we are commanded that the "wise" should be "careful of their words." n
Arthur Hertzberg, a rabbi and scholar, is the Bronfman Visiting Professor of Humanities at New York University and the author of numerous books on Zionism and Jewish life.