The Organization of American Historians has established an ad hoc Committee on Academic Freedom to "investigate reports of repressive measures" affecting historians. Yet the committee identified only violations from the government or the right. Sounding more like a moveon.org blogger than a nonpartisan scholarly society, the committee fulminated about the Patriot Act, "ominous" government surveillance, mean "government agents" and harassed "antiwar" teachers.
While no intimidation is acceptable, the committee mandate descended into caricature because the indignation was selective. Many examples of academic intimidation from the left abound, too. Sidestepping quaint notions of morality, integrity and credibility, good strategy would entail noting at least one example of leftist intolerance to create the pretense of balance.
Alas, such myopia typifies the modern academy. Fundamental academic principles such as free speech, civility and academic freedom have been politicized, relativized and thus delegitimized. Traditionally, liberals understood that free speech for the thought we hate protects us all. These days civility, like indignation, appears selective. Rights are contingent — academics only defend their allies' liberties.
This degeneration in the academy from consistently defending nonpartisan principles to a post-modernist, relativistic, by-any-means-necessary approach to freedom provides the backdrop to the controversy surrounding some Columbia University Middle East studies professors. Students shout "academic freedom," chiding teachers for abusing the power of their podiums to squelch pro-Israel views. "Academic freedom," the beleaguered profs shout in return, claiming the students seek to squelch their pro-Palestinian views.
In a recent column on these pages, Professor Arthur Hertzberg mischaracterized the students' grievances as complaints "that professors have been saying hateful and provocative things about Israel's policies toward Palestinians." He focused on an old incident involving one of his colleagues rather than the recent outrages. Hertzberg's approach reduced serious charges about classroom practice to political quibbles.
If pro-Israel students complained every time a professor said "hateful things" about Israel, they would have no credibility — or time to study. The Columbia controversy has commanded attention because the David Project, through a documentary film it commissioned, uncovered a pattern of behavior and a shift from the usual anti-Israel cant to professorial bullying. One Jewish woman testified a professor said she "was not a Semite" and had no tie to Israel because she had "green eyes"; one Israeli student was asked how many Palestinians he killed as a soldier. These charges strike at the core of the university's mission to create a positive learning environment. The question is not what the professors believe or say about Israel but how they treat students.
Had a white professor questioned an African-American's credentials to opine on civil rights because he was light-skinned, or a fundamentalist Christian asked a pro-choice activist how many abortions she had undergone, the outrage would be universal. Who would dare demean academic freedom by wrapping the offenders in that mantle? Somehow, anything goes when attacking "the occupation," and only pro-Israel types seem outraged.
All of us, whether pro-Israel or anti-Israel, left or right, need to agree on behavioral boundaries ensuring mutual respect while encouraging freedom for professors and students to endorse competing ideas. Diversity is a false and frankly racist idea if it only guarantees a rainbow of colors in any given classroom. True education demands that students confront a dizzying spectrum of positions, learning to evaluate them systematically. That is why scandal looms at Columbia and the administration wisely decided to investigate.
Without that freedom for students to sample a conceptual cornucopia, universities are useless. During these last disillusioning four years, so many colleagues have jettisoned core values in their zeal to condemn Israel and, increasingly, America as well.
Watching feminists ignore Palestinian sexism, gay activists overlook Islamic homophobia, pacifists rationalize suicide bombing, humanists excuse anti-Semitism, professors abandon academic freedom and scholarly rigor, and teachers violate basic norms of classroom decency has exposed a moral rot at the core of the campus.
The Balkanization of the academy, wherein we only mobilize to defend our own, however defined, must end. Arthur Hertzberg is right: Jews must defend Palestinians' free speech. Altruism and selfishness converge here; doing the right thing is also the savvy move. We need to start crossing wires, to return to the days when Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched for blacks and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. defended Israel on principle.
A student told my class recently about World AIDS Day. Later, during office hours, when he casually mentioned that he was gay, the predictability of his identity and agenda saddened me. Wouldn't it be great, I thought, if he were straight but still mobilized against AIDS? And wouldn't it be great if Israel's critics would champion academic freedom by criticizing their pro-Palestinian colleagues once convinced of the charges' veracity?
Only by transcending tribalisms and recommitting to core principles can we restore the grandeur and credibility that too many academics of this generation have frittered away. That is what's at stake at Columbia and why those students who brought this topic to light deserve professorial support, and thanks. n
Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University and the author of "Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s," to be published next month.