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Jon Pike, Ernst Benjamin and David Hirsh debate the Bellagio affair
Added by David Hirsh on September 19, 2006 10:31:22 AM.
Jon Pike, Ernst Benjamin and David Hirsh debate the Bellagio affairThis debate is taking place in the comments box to this post that tells the story of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) abortive conference at Bellagio and its publication of pro-boycott papers in its journal, Academe. David Hirsh and Jon Pike are from Engage, Ernst Benjamin is a co-editor of the new edition of Academe, the AAUP's journal.

Jon Pike: Towards the end of this dispute over the conference, Joan Scott, a left academic and trade unionist fingered me, also a left academic and trade unionist, as a supporter of the Israeli occupation. She said that those who were critical of the Bellagio conference were “supporters of the occupation". This is false. In her latest piece, in Academe she says: ‘And Jon Pike, objecting to comments I had made when the conference was canceled, (sic) stated that he was “not willing to have my work published in a journal which she in part edits."‘

Now, if you are like me, you might have been wondering what those comments were. Because, the way Scott puts it, it sounds like just personal spite and pettiness on my part doesn’t it? It sounds like I’m taking my ball away in a fit of personal pique.

Actually, I admire Joan Scott’s work as a labour historian. I admire her involvement in the trade union representing academics. I model some of my activity as an academic and a trade unionist on people like Joan Scott though I’m very junior to her. Nevertheless, I’m not willing to have my work edited by someone who obviously, clearly, explicitly, falsifies mypublic and private position and record on the Occupation for her own ends — in an attempt to tie opposition to the boycott to support for the occupation of the West Bank. Readers can judge the honesty of Scott’s editing from the coy ‘comments’ sentence I quote above. When Joan Scott denounces me as a supporter of the Occupation and an enemy of academic freedom, I find myself in an interesting phenomenological position — the whole experience of being lied about, misrepresented in this way. I’ve opposed the Occupation of the territories all my political life. (It’s been that long, and I’m that young). I’ve opposed it in print, in the Guardian (UK) and Ha’aretz (Israel) and in interviews on radio and TV in both Europe, the Middle East and the US. I have, for what it’s worth, a history of political and material support for Palestinian academics struggling under difficult conditions. Howeever, I strongly oppose a boycott. Either Scott is incompetently ignorant of those comments in which case, why on earth did she endorse my invite? Or, straightforwardly, she is happy to spread falsehoods about my position. Given that she has had ample time to respond to my request for a retraction, which she has simply ignored, and to look at the written record, then it’s clear that she is just happy with a politically motivated falsehood.

Her claim in Academe that she is sorry that anti-boycott articles were not published is grossly disingenuous. She was not sorry enough to retract an obvious falsehood, or even to reply to courteous emails. In my book, that’s not very sorry.

Ernst Benjamin: I've been a regular reader of the Engage web-site since I (not Joan Scott) invited Jon Pike to participate in our symposium. I also cited two Engage listed essays on Apartheid in my afterword to the essays.

We invited four pro-Israeli essayists (Ben-Artzi, Rhynhold, Pike and Yudkin), each of whom declined to participate. We published at least two other anti-boycott essays (Biletzki and Hyslop). My afterword is absolutely anti academic boycotts. Our regret that critics of the call to boycott Israel (and of our particular position in opposition to academic boycotts) is quite genuine. I for one, would have particularly enjoyed and possibly benefited from an exchange with Jon Pike whose critical support of Israel I generally share and whose more nuanced anti-boycott stance, though different than mine,I thought very much worth consideration.

We did not invite any Nazi papers--someone included, in a large packet of backround reading taken from the web, a paper on the seemingly interesting topic of the Jewish boycott of Germany in 1933. When I received a copy and saw, however, that it not only described such a boycott but attempted to blame the boycott for Hitler's anti-semitism, I immediately objected and it was withdrawn before any of the participants had time to object--as well they might have done. The mistaken inclusion of the paper did not become an issue until it had already been withdrawn. My objection was not based on it's source--a holocaust denying web-site--but it's dishonest and anti-semitic argument. I was not surprised by the furor but I was surprised that only one correspondent questioned whether we should censor rather than rebut even so outrageous an argument.

As I am opposed to academic boycotts--either of Israel or of those who would boycott Israel--I also find it hard to agree with the position that we should refuse to engage those whose arguments we find demonizing or otherwise extreme. Writing for the AAUP, I could only speak to the issue of academic freedom and not to my own views regarding the justice of various positions on the conlict between Israel and Palestine. Nor could I edit the content of the pro-boycott authors anymore than I would have the anti-boycott or pro-Israeli authors. So I would very much have welcomed, and made repeated efforts to secure the high quality response that Jon and others among you could have provided.

Some of the essays on the Engage site provide this sort of effective and valuable response. But simply labeling arguments as demonizing or anti-semitic without specifically explaining why, or refusing to "engage" such arguments, seems to me the sort of tactic some find appropriate in political campaigns but not a very useful contribution from those, like many of your authors, who can clearly do better.

David Hirsh: Ernst this is not a game. There is a movement that is trying to set up a racist exclusion of Israeli Jews from the global academic community. It does so by misrepresenting the Israel/Palestine conflict and relying on a number of discourses that, whether the boycotters know it or not, endanger both Jews and effective Palestine solidarity work. They are discourses that open the door to antisemitism in our unions and on our campuses.

It is not a game where we have to have "fair play" between those who denounce Israel and the Jews that "defend it" as Nazis, racists, supporters of apartheid and pro-imperialist one the one hand - and the rest of the world, on the other.

The boycott campaign has a foothold in the AUT and Natfhe - it is a huge mistake to invite it into the AAUP. It is a huge mistake to set it up as one side of a legitimate debate. And the AAUP does not seem entirely to have acted in good faith, does it? It pretended that it wanted a discussion about the tactic of boycotts in general - and it invited 7 or 9 (however you would like to count it) people who are not interested in "boycotts in general" but who are interested in punishing Israeli colleagues - and only Israeli colleagues - in a particular way.

It was an unfortunate error that the paper from the neo-Nazi website was included in the packet for the conference - but it could not exactly called an accident. The antiracist current of the anti-Zionist movement lives alongside other currents of the anti-Zionist movement - and it shares elements of rhetoric with them - and it is sometimes tempted to make alliances with some of them; the neo-Nazi anti-Zionist movement, the Jihadi anti-Zionist movement, the Arab Nationalist anti-Zionist movement, the conservative anti-Zionist movement (EG Mearsheimer and Walt). So this slip of a paper from one current of the anti-Zionist movement to another was a mistake, certainly, but was not an unpredictable accident.

Not unpredictable because those setting up the conference appear not to have understood what a threat is posed by absolute anti-Zionism - even the by the part of the anti-Zionist movement that thinks of itself as antiracist. AAUP has demonstrated little no understanding of the relationship between this absolute anti-Zionism and antisemitism. It is a complex relationship. Joan Scott, by holding up the absurd canard, that "people who criticize Israel are not antisemitic" demonstrates that she has not gone to any lengths to educate herself on this question.

We have spent the last two years trying to save our union from this garbage - you have just invited it into yours. We are not having fun fighting with these people - we are forced to waste our time combating idiotic, essentialist, careless arguments because we don't want our union to adopt an antisemitic exclusion.

Joan Scott is an editor of this edition of "Academe". She was wrong about Jon Pike - and Engage - saying that we were part of a pro-occupation pro-Likud lobby. When confronted with the untruth of her claim she stuck to it - and refused to retract. I think Jon was absolutely right not to trust her with his paper. And her rhetoric about a Lobby that aims to cut off free speech is a classic of the anti-Zionist gentre. If you have been reading Engage, Ernst, then perhaps you could explain this to her.

I am very happy that you have been reading Engage. You will know, then, that we have never simply labeled arguments as demonizing or anti-semitic without specifically explaining why. We have written hundreds of thousands of words trying to formulate our arguments in a sophisticated way. We do not "label" or denounce. We are trying to fight a political campaign against a dangerous set of "commonsense" ideas. Don't play with fire.

When is the issue of Academe coming out that debates the truth of creationism v evolution? When is the issue on IQ and "race"? When is the issue coming out that carries the arguments for and against the attack on the World Trade Centre on 911? It's not, is it, Ernst. This is hardly an issue of free speech.

One other thing Ernst: please stop referring to us as "pro-Israel". I dont' really know what "pro-Israel" means, but it seems to be a part of the setting up of two sides of a legitimate debate - "pro-Israel" and "anti-Israel".

Engage is neither. We are an antiracist campaign. For more, see here.

Jon Pike: (Note I wrote this before seeing David's response to Ernst, above.)
Ernst Benjamin's reasonable and serious concerns, expressed in this post, deserve a response. However I’m still a little perplexed. I’ve tried to present my reasons for refusing to allow my piece to be published in Academe as clearly as possible - viz:

An editor of the journal – Joan Scott - publicly and grossly misrepresented me, presumably for political reasons, and refused to retract the misrepresentation when asked to do so.

Ernst objects firstly, that he, not Joan Scott originally invited me to contribute to Academe. This is true, although I believe it was Roger Bowen who originally invited me to Bellagio, on the basis of my joint article with David Hirsh in Ha’aretz. I accept this, but I can’t see what difference it makes.

He objects, secondly, that he gave guarantees that my work would not be edited. Again, I’ve always accepted this, but it doesn’t touch the central point. It never crossed my mind that my material would be maliciously edited.

It did cross my mind that it would be introduced in a disingenuous way, if the introduction was written by Scott. I think I’m justified in this judgement. Look again at what Scott says about this matter in the current Academe: ‘Jon Pike objected to comments I made when the conference was abandoned.’ Everyone reasonable will think – what on earth were those comments? Centrally, falsely, that I am a ‘supporter of the Occupation.’ Everyone who knows what the comments were, will, I believe, understand my decision (if perhaps still disagree with it). But Scott doesn’t say what the comments are, consequently suggesting that my refusal may have been a matter of personal pique over some triviality. I call this disingenuous, though the charge is, if anything, too mild.

Perhaps, in the face of politically motivated misrepresentation and falsehood, unacknowledged, uncorrected, I could shrug my shoulders and carry on as usual. But accusations, mischaracterisations and so on, hang around on the web. They get repeated – the mischaracterisation of critics of Bellagio was, for example, used in a petition which was circulated amongst members of my union in the UK. Nevertheless, it was a difficult decision, about which I prevaricated, and there were countervailing pressures – not least the desire to deal decently with people like Ernst Benjamin and to criticise, as clearly as possible, the arguments presented by the boycotters.

So I make no criticism at all of Ernst Benjamin, who has behaved entirely decently throughout this. My beef is with Joan Scott, who lied about me and still allows that lie to stand.

Finally, Ernst makes some general remarks about engaging in argument, not immediately jumping to accusations of anti-semitism or demonisation without a properly argued justification. I agree with him about all of this, and it’s what we try to do. However, there is always room for improvement and his points are well made. There is perhaps a difference of tone between the one we adopt and the one Ernst would advocate. If so, then this is perhaps a product of recent experience. In the UK, academics have sacked Israelis from editorial boards, tried to refuse them postgraduate places and, most importantly, captured our union for five weeks, and committed it to Mcarthyite political tests as a precondition of ordinary academic interchange, all of this accompanied by rhetorical flourishes which clearly draw on anti-semitic discourse. If colleagues in the AAUP had suffered this experience, they might see things a little differently. Ernst says that we could do better. I'm sure that's true. But so could the AAUP.

One way in which the AAUP could perhaps do better, is indicated by the following problem which I've just noticed in the letters column of the current issue of Academe

Roger Bowen: “Why, then, would American and British academics who are opposed to academic boycotts protest a meeting whose central purpose was to denounce academic boycotts?”

Roger Bowen: “the conference was not aimed at denouncing academic boycotts”

Academics tend to spot glaring contradictions (such as this) and manifest falsehoods (such as the claims about me made by Joan Scott). Can it really be badly awry to say that the planning of the conference seems to have been flawed, when the chief organiser just contradicts himself? Can it really be a huge mistake when I asked and still ask, for clarification of the purpose of the conference. What was going on, please? What was the purpose of the conference?

Ernst Benjamin: David and Jon,

I appreciate your efforts toward dialogue. Let me address a few of the issues.

Jon: Joan Scott is my co-editor and, as you note, a very able one. We agreed on most matters related to the conference and subsequent publication. Many of the personal attacks on her elsewhere seem to me a substitute for serious consideration of the issues. Your comment, on the other hand, seems grounded in the view that she attacked you personally.

In reviewing her published comments at the time of the initial controversy I find that she asserted that: “The conference was not called off because of the inadvertent inclusion of an anti-Semitic article in a packet of reading materials. That was the last straw in a carefully orchestrated campaign to abort the conference by a lobby of people (pro-Israel occupation) who believe that any representation of a point of view other than theirs is anathema; indeed they claim that academic freedom is the freedom to listen only to those who agree with them . . . . From the beginning, when several of these people were invited to the AAUP conference they protested the inclusion of others who, for many different reasons, support academic boycotts. They did not protest quietly, but alerted entire list serves of lobbyists who began to campaign for closing down the conference.”

I am not aware that you did oppose the conference or any participants at that time. I know that you were originally invited at the suggestion of Professor Rynhold and it’s my recollection that you, like many others, were not available on short notice. If you were not among those who organized opposition, I don't know why you take Joan Scott’s remarks personally. If she made another more direct statement I am not aware of it. If you believe, rather, that she erred in assuming that conference opponents were pro-occupation, I agree that only some were. If you disagree with her assertion that conference opponents were opposed to the representation of opposing views, I can only say that she and I both feel that there has been an effort to persuade or force us to admit only approved Palestinian or pro-boycott spokespersons.

At the time we were privy to many e-mail attacks (one of which accidently included the instructions for an organized campaign), the direct attacks by several organizations, and read in Haaretz on-line (Feb. 10, 2006) the headline “U.S. Jews block conference set to include anti-Israel professors” followed by the lead: “Pressure exerted by Jewish organization in the United States has succeeded in preventing an American Association of University professors (AAUP) conference in which a number of supporters of an academic boycott on Israel were scheduled to take part.” Joan Scott’s comments regarding an organized lobby were, therefore, not without empirical foundation. She and I, as well as others involved, later agreed to publish papers that contained some arguments with which we disagreed precisely because we did not think it fair to dictate, or allow others to dictate, the terms of the debate. We promised the pro-boycott authors what we promised you—the final word on content.

David: Of course this is not a game. Once again, in Lebanon, Israel and Gaza, hundreds have died in a recurrent and terrible conflict that I, and I think you, seek to resolve through the peaceful co-existence of an Israeli and a Palestinian state. Nor is the free exchange of ideas a game. Indeed your essay in response to Pacbi printed on the Engage website is precisely the sort of serious anti-boycott essay that we would very much have desired to include. But Bush’s United States is not Europe or even Blair’s U. K. As AAUP President Cary Nelson’s statements have made clear, there is no danger that AAUP will be taken over by pro academic boycott forces. Please try to remember also that Joan Scott had chaired the AAUP committee on academic freedom that adopted our original anti-boycott statement and that she approved it’s publication. Had she objected it would not have gone forward, prior even to a formal meeting, as it did.

Although this is not a game, the serious issue that the AAUP intended to address AAUP was academic freedom not Middle East politics. I understand your political objection to legitimating arguments that you find repellent. I, too, would prefer a philosophical debate with Jon or you to a political diatribe. That’s why my essay cautions that accepting even the possibility of an academic boycott invites demonization and why I wish he, and now you, could have participated. But, if we sought an exchange of views on academic boycotts how could we excluded proponents? Well, I guess we could have—as Bar Ilan allegedly did at its academic freedom conference. Professor Steinberg was quoted (in the Chronicle on-line January 22) as justifying exclusion of boycott proponents because “inviting them would have turned the conference into a circus and focused it on whether Israel has a right to exist, rather than on the subject of academic freedom.” We in AAUP believe, on the contrary, that academic freedom includes permitting contrary and even repellent expression. This is the same conception that is the foundation of our anti- academic boycott position.

Why did we end up with a large participation by proponents of a boycott that we ourselves strongly oppose or those you regard as the wrong supporters of the Palestinian cause? Because, as is evident from your concern regarding legitimating boycott proponents, the pro-boycott side has less opportunity to be heard, especially in the U.S., and were readier to find time and take the opportunity. On the other hand, many anti-boycott invitees had other priorities, concerns or objections and some subsequently decided not to legitimate the debate through their participation. Why did the debate focus specifically on the Middle East rather than academic boycotts in the abstract?—because it was the debate on the boycott of Israeli universities that led to our statement and that is currently the heart of the controversy. Why, then, South Africa? Obviously because it was the most important example of a general, and especially, an academic boycott. Why do boycott proponents focus on the Apartheid analogy?--because it would legitimate following the South African precedent. Do I agree with this?--no, that’s why I cited the essays on your web-site. But I do think there is more truth in the analogies to Apartheid, colonialism and American racism than I would wish, which is also why I cited the comprehensive and nuanced essays on your web-site.

To the best of my knowledge the only AAUP leader who would qualify his opposition to academic boycotts, would make an exception not for Israel but for Nazi Germany. But the AAUP statement does not make any exception and there is not the remotest possibility that AAUP, nor a single AAUP leader, would make such an exception for Israel. I personally worked with Canadian colleagues to help persuade AUT to lift the academic boycott of South African so as to permit South African faculty to join our international meetings. So I understand that AUT does support selective boycotts and that the issue for some in the UK is when and whom to boycott or greylist. Jon’s essay sought to provide a basis for making such a choice and, though I disagreed, that is one reason I wanted to publish it. We, however, oppose any and all academic boycotts. We didn't single out Israel. Some of its critics did. That is why there is a debate and why the pro-boycott forces focus on Israel.

For us then, the very same commitment to academic freedom that leads to the unequivocal rejection of academic boycotts, leads to the decision to publish the essays you find outside the bounds of legitimate debate: not because we agree with particular assertions or conclusions, but because we believe that their authors have the same right as you or I to be heard.

On an entirely personal note, I recently, and not for the first time, signed the required pledge and voted in the World Zionist Congress elections. I voted for a slate that declared: “To be a free people in our own land, we must not rule over another people.” That is why I respect your more considered essays and avowed practice not to “’label’” or “denounce.” But it is also why I believe, as a Jew, that giving Palestinians and their advocates their own voice is neither inviting “this garbage” into our Association, nor “antiracist anti-Zionism,” nor a “game,” nor British “fair-play” or even only about academic freedom but rather a fundamental expression of the Judaic obligation to live justly.

David Hirsh: Ernst, I want to thank you for your serious and interesting comments, and also for your kind words about our work.

You are a co-editor of the special edition of Academe. You, therefore, are co-responsible for the edition. And the edition, as it is published, is problematic in two senses. Firstly, it set out to present an absolute anti-Zionist pro-boycott position as a legitimate side to a debate. Secondly, it failed in this problematic aspiration. You might blame Jon Pike or Jonny Rynhold or Gerald Steinberg or Michael Yudkin for this second failure, but they are not responsible for the contents of the journal, you are. You have produced a wholly inadequate issue of Academe.

Obviously, the pro-boycott campaign is already making use of this issue; it is particularly useful for them because it gives them a legitimate and hugely respectable platform from which to argue for an exclusion of Israeli Jewish academics from the global academic community. Sue Blackwell, one of the leaders of the campaign to blacklist Israeli Jews, has already proudly posted this on an email list for UCU activists.

I'm sure Jon Pike will want to answer your points about Joan Scott in detail, but I would like say a few things too. There are some rather interesting slippages going on in this debate. Firstly, a slippage from what you call the "empirical foundation" of "the lobby (pro-occupation)" to the way that the term "the lobby" actually functions. Secondly, the slippage of the principle of academic freedom from one that insists on the right of free speech for academics to one that asserts a duty for academic unions to treat all campaigns and all ideas as though they were equally legitimate and equally worthy of publication.

Another interesting question is that of "place". Perhaps part of the problem here is that the threats to academic freedom in "Bush's United States" are different to the threats to academic freedom in the UK. In the US there is certainly pressure from the right to witch-hunt academics who write and teach things that David Horowitz and others find objectionable. In the UK the primary threat comes from the boycott campaign, which aims to set up its exclusion of Israeli Jews. So our experiences are different and our problems are different. But, as this discussion makes clear, this is also a globalized debate. The boycotters aim to set up a global exclusion of Israeli Jews; AAUP must understand that what it does has global consequences far beyond "Bush's United States".

On "the lobby", or if you prefer Mearsheimer and Walt's capitalization, "The Lobby": Yes, it starts with an empirical foundation. For sure, there are organizations that campaign "for Israel" and there are organizations that "support Israel" and there are organizations that oppose antisemitism and there are organizations that encourage the closing down of Middle East Studies departments and there are individuals that write death threats to anti-Zionists. The "Lobby" discourse starts with these empirical observations of phenomena and it then conflates different existing campaigns into one, "carefully orchestrated campaign" which believes that "any representation of a point of view other than theirs is anathema" and which believes that "that academic freedom is the freedom to listen only to those who agree with them". Of course Engage is not part of a "Lobby" that has these defining characteristics. Yet we are often accused of functioning as a left face of a united, covert, hugely funded, mystically powerful, "Zionist" machine. The conceptual slippage here is important. It begins with an empirical observation and it ends with something that exactly repeats the libels of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Scott's use of the concept is somewhere between the two. Our work in opposing antisemitism is often subject to smears that aim to de-legitimise it using the "Lobby" rhetoric. This, for example, was how Sue Blackwell and Steven Rose responded when they comprehensively lost the vote at the AUT Special Council. For them, a few academics with a website, a few Jewish students with T-shirts and a 5 hour debate constituted a "well-funded campaign by the Zionist lobby". 'Please note: I said "Zionist lobby" not "Jewish lobby"', writes Blackwell, in order to undermine any sneaky accusations from the "Lobby".

Joan Scott outlines her understanding of the concept "the lobby" in The Link, vol 39, issue 1,. She makes it clear that her understanding is derived from being involved in a battle for academic freedom with those organizations, such as Campus Watch and The David Project which seek to attack the norms of academic freedom in the US.

"I also refer to the lobby as pro-occupation, by which I mean it is in favour of current Israeli policy. That seems to me a more precise description, though it is a more awkward locution."

From that political fight she brought with her a ready-made concept and she applied it to us. You may say that since it doesn't describe us then it can't refer to us. Our problem, obviously, is that it doesn't describe us but it is used to refer to us.

If it had been a simple misunderstanding then Joan Scott would have easily and quickly cleared it up. She would have said that she was referring to those who are against the norms of academic freedom and not Jon Pike or Engage; she would have said that she was referring to those who tried to cancel the conference and not to those who wanted it properly organized; she would have said that she was referring to those who support the occupation and not those who oppose it. She would have answered emails from UK critics of the conference.

She didn't do that. I suspect the reason is because it simplifies the debate for her to skew the "empirical foundation" a little. In her world there is "the lobby", a pro-occupation network that threatens academic freedom and that supports the dispossession of Palestine. Then there is the boycott campaign, which (she says) she disagrees with, but which needs to be engaged with seriously, invited to Italy, discussed with, and given a platform in Academe. And then, in the middle, is herself and AAUP, which opposes the boycott campaign, but whose day-to-day business of defending academic freedom in America is also a day-to-day business of defending the absolute anti-Zionists from the overblown and over-stated charges of the right.

So faced with a different argument, a more complex and nuanced argument, and people worried about a different threat to academic freedom, Scott is unable to understand the new situation. More to the point, she is also unwilling to think this new situation through. From the Inside Higher Ed piece:

"I can't begin to tell you how infuriating the behavior of these people was and is." She added that those who refused to participate "are insisting that any criticism of Israel is a 'demonization' of Israel," a view that she said is inaccurate and shuts down conversations.

Again and explicitly, Scott is conflating her notion of "the lobby" - "these people" - and treating it as though it was a unity. And what defines its unity? As already noted, it is defined by support of current Israeli policy and support for the occupation. And its rallying cry? "...any criticism of Israel is a 'demonization' of Israel".

At Engage one of our central projects is to define and defend the boundaries of legitimate criticism of Israel. These boundaries are often denied or disrespected. Some on the Israeli and Jewish right draw the boundary between demonization and criticism much too close to the Israeli government, although it is exceedingly rare for anyone serious in this debate to claim that all criticism of Israeli policy constitutes demonization. There are not many who are stupid enough to claim that. And some anti-Zionists draw the boundary way off in the zone that is close to open antisemitism. Many claim that the following constitute unproblematic criticism of Israeli policy: Israel is the greatest human rights abuser on the planet; Israel is a child-killing state; Israel organizes a "Lobby" that is capable of forcing America to go to war against its own interest; Israel is essentially, uniquely and unchangeably racist; etc.

Of course criticism of Israel is not necessarily demonization and it is not necessarily anti-semitic. But often it is. And the boycott campaign, which inhabits the space in between the anti-racist left and the antisemitic movements, often demonizes Israel. Scott's formulation does not answer the question; it de-legitimizes the question. And the question is legitimate and absolutely pertinent.

Joan Scott has taken on board elements of the rhetoric of the boycott movement; its straw-man argument about "criticism of Israel"; its use of the term "lobby" to de-legitimize those who fight antisemitism; its refusal to take seriously the danger of antisemitic discourse. She has related to us, to what we have to say, and specifically to Jon Pike, in bad faith. And this is one reason why you and her are now responsible for having edited an entirely inadequate and damaging edition of Academe.

I share with you a history of fighting for Palestinian freedom and a commitment to fighting for Palestinian freedom. I agree that we should take seriously what anti-racist Palestinians say. But the "garbage" that we should not invite into our unions and that we should oppose when it appears in left and liberal discourse is that of demonization and of antisemitism, some examples of which I give above. Demonization of Israel and antisemitism do nothing to help Palestine and they disable serious solidarity work with those who fight for peace in Israel and Palestine. But should we legitimate the discourses "of all Palestinians and their advocates?" I don't think so and neither, I suspect do you. You didn't, after all, invite a supporter of the Hamas Covenant to take part in this debate, in spite of the fact that Hamas won the Palestinian election in March. Yet you also failed to secure the attendance of voices for peace and academic freedom from Palestine at the proposed conference, such as that of Sari Nusseibeh, the President of Al Quds University and you failed to secure the attendance of Nabeel Kassis, the President of Birzeit University; neither of these academic leaders in Palestine call for a boycott of their Israeli colleagues. Instead you proposed to sit down with Hillary Rose and Omar Bargouti, amongst others.

Ernst Benjamin:


The computer apparently ate my first effort to respond to your considerate reply to me and which I sent previous to my response to Jon. I feel I owe you a response so I will try to rewrite it.

Last night, after sending off my previous response to you, I received a phone call from the "Jewish Peace Lobby" to say it was a long time since they had heard (received a contribution) from me. They were writing to my address in Toronto from 10 years ago. Two points. Of course we understand that there are a wide range of organizations or lobbys concerned with Israel. I contribute (modestly) to several, none of which would be included in Joan's pro-occupation lobby. Second, lobbying is essential in American politics. What disturbs many American Jews is that the principle Israeli lobby, AIPAC, and the various mainstream Jewish organizations have for some years supported rightwing Israeli governments and policies. Engage, like the various organizations to which I belong, does not.

We agree that the Academe issue would have been better had we had a greater diversity of views. We sought them, perhaps on too short notice, and a number of invitees (including some suggested by Jon) were unable or chose not to participate. I will not, however, disavow those who had the courtesy to accept our invitation. Had I the opportunity to talk with Omar Bargouti I would have carefully considered his arguments but likely found myself arguing that a unified secular state is unacceptable because it plainly entails the destruction of Israel. If we still had the rapport I would have added this his secular democratic Palestinians seem to be going the way of Israel's secular socialist Zionists. And, of course, I would have tried to explain why AAUP opposes academic boycotts.

I would not have invited Hamas because no foundation would fund their travel and if I did my government would arrest me. My government won't even let me converse with Tariq Ramadan, who teaches freely in the UK, and has twice denied him a visa even attend an AAUP meeting. If I could speak with them, I would reject terrorism and the call for the destruction of Israel but argue for a just two state solution. Sooner or later that discussion must occur between responsible leaders but learning how to engage in such a dialogue takes time. If university faculty can't engage in such a dialogue, it's hard to say who can.

We do not disagree about the need to define the boundaries of legitimate debate but I believe that mutual agreement to set the boundaries presupposes a broader ranging dialogue. That's why I think academic boycotts are counterproductive and your proposal to increase academic exchanges is far preferable.

David Hirsh Ernst, of course there is a right to free speech and to academic freedom. Tariq Ramadan is - should be - free to say or teach whatever he likes, even if he is a rather reactionary, anti-feminist, anti-gay, anti-Jewish, anti-liberal, anti-left religious ideologue. There is nothing so unusual about such a person teaching in a university. It is well known, particularly in the Francophone world, that Ramadan says entirely different things to different audiences. He has the right to speak. But a right to speak is not at all the same thing as the right to be taken seriously. Similarly with a supporter of the Hamas covenant - even a person who believes that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are true has the right to speak - on the condition that he or she does not constitute an immanent physical threat to the people around him/her.

But the right to free speech is not a right to be taken seriously. The right to academic freedom is not a right to be given a platform in Academe.

Why do you not invite Holocaust deniers, 911 conspiracy theorists, flat-earthers, creationists, etc? Why not give a right of reply to Donald Rumsfeld in a journal of international law that is conducting a scholarly discussion of the Fourth Geneva Convention? They have the right to free speech, don't they? Yes they do, but that doesn't mean that it is necessary or wise to take what they say seriously.

The truth about Omar Bargouti and Hilary Rose is, of course, that we do take what they say seriously and we engage with it. That is why Engage takes up so much of our time at the moment. But it would be better if we didn't have to. It would be better if they were more widely recognized as the extreme nationalists that they are.

Ernst Benjamin: David,

You are absolutely correct that “the right to free speech is not the right to be taken seriously.” Or, as I used to say in class: “Everyone has a right to their own opinion but not every opinion is equally right.” Indeed some legitimate free speech, especially that which is professionally incompetent or dishonest, does not even merit the protection of academic freedom. But, as you acknowledge, the pro-boycott arguments do have to be taken seriously and we, like you, sought to engage them.

Since I do take your arguments very seriously as well, let me draw a few distinctions among what may have been primarily a series of rhetorical questions--without accepting the implicit implication that pro-boycott arguments are similarly outlandish. I will reserve discussion of Creationism and Rumsfeld which may be more useful and appropriate analogies than you intended. Flat earth theories don’t command much attention and we can perhaps simply ignore them till some one falls over the edge.

I would like to say the same of Holocaust denial. Since the President of Iran apparently disagrees, historians may have to continue to respond--particularly as those of us with direct memory of the horror pass from the scene. Moreover, I should note that while AAUP would support the decision of the faculty of a history department that the espousal of Holocaust denial theories by a colleague demonstrated a lack of professional competence or honesty, we have supported the right of a faculty member to present such views extramurally. And, of course, Holocaust denial—including examination of allegedly supporting arguments—might be a very useful component of a course on anti-Semitism or genocide or conspiracy theories. The same line of reasoning applies to 911 conspiracy theories.

Creationism and Rumsfeld are more complicated. For one thing, it is the President of the United States, not merely the President of Iran, who apparently believes in them. That alone explains why Academe might well take a serious interest.

You may recall that Professor Conrad Russell, in his important contribution to your tenure debate entitled Academic Freedom, observed that the “demand for the teaching of creation science in the United States shows that this issue is not in any way dead.” (P.31) He proceeds to carefully delineate the academic freedom implications. What we have learned further, especially as creation science has been transmuted into “intelligent design,’ is that we are more successful in combating such false science when serious academic scientists study and rebut the arguments of proponents. Since many, even perhaps a majority, of Americans reject the evolutionary perspective, we have a lot of work to do. Yesterday’s Washington Post, for example had a lengthy feature article on how and why Professor Edward O. Wilson at Harvard was engaging in serious and somewhat productive debates with evangelical leaders on the topic in the hope of educating the public to the importance of bio-diversity.

Do I think Rumsfeld could write a competent article on international law? I do not. Do I think he would produce an article worth publishing? You bet. First, because he wouldn’t write it. It would be ghost written by one of the many very able law professors who have rationalized the Bush administration defense of unilateralism to the American public. Second, because it is imperative both to expose and to rebut the arguments that rationalize preemptive military intervention and torture. Note further that it is specifically academic law professors, not Pentagon lawyers, who have justified the Bush initiatives, As others have observed, if we supported academic boycotts of universities some of whose faculty rationalized repressive policies we would have to begin at home. A symposium on the role of faculty in shaping American unilateralism would, I suspect, be of great interest to our readers – and possibly be as controversial as the proposed Bellagio symposium.

But since the discussion with Jon began with Kant, perhaps I can conclude mine with you by reference to Mill’s argument concerning matters we believe certainly true. Even so, he argues we need to consider the alternative in order to fully understand our own opinion: “Even in natural philosophy there is always some other explanation possible . . . But when we turn to subjects infinitely more complicated, to morals, religion, politics, social relations and the business of life, three-fourths of the argument for every disputed opinion consist in dispelling the appearances which favor some opinion different from it” Mill’s argument rests, of course, not on the right to free expression, but on its utility, and not to our opponent’s utility but to ours. We learn from discourse with those who challenge even, or especially, our deepest beliefs.

We regret that some of those who disagreed with us chose not to participate because we understand that we lost the better understanding our views we might have gained. But we will continue to defend academic freedom and oppose academic boycotts because, as Mill has taught us, we benefit from understanding the views of those who disagree with us. In my personal view, the need for listening to and learning from the views of those with whom we disagree, though increasingly difficult, is especially needful for those of us who seek a peaceful resolution of the intractable conflict in the Middle East.