Friday, November 30, 2007

Another Fearless Critic Of Israel

In an opinion piece in the Harvard Crimson, Julia Bertelsmann writes about the fear that has overcome critics of Israel on the Harvard campus, as expressed by Anthropology and African-American studies professor J. Lorand Matory who argues that critics of Israel "tremble in fear" on campus. This of course is not news, as many have decried how difficult it is to come out and talk about the taboo subject of criticism of Israel.

Except, of course, that the claim of fear of speaking out on campus is not true. Well, actually she found it is, but it is not Israel that people are afraid of. When she started a student journal, "New Society: Harvard College Student Middle East Journal," she asked Muslim and Arab students for contributions--but found that many of them feared reprisals--a problem she found singularly lacking for those who want to criticize Israel:
At Harvard Law School, Professor Duncan Kennedy—who has no expertise in international law or Middle East studies—is teaching a seminar on legal issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The course focuses almost exclusively on Israeli abuses of Palestinian rights. Kennedy is the faculty advisor for the "Justice For Palestine" group at HLS, and has flown in radical critics of Israel, at Harvard's expense, for guest lectures. Nobody has contested his right to criticize Israel in the classroom.

Harvard also hosts programs on the Middle East in which Israeli input is minimized or excluded at the behest of Arab sponsors: yesterday's Harvard Middle East North Africa Conference, for example, invited various Arab student groups to participate but has failed to include any of the Israel groups on campus. The Kennedy School of Government hosts the Dubai Initiative, which is sponsored by a government that denies Israelis—and only Israelis—the right to enter its borders, even as tourists.

Last May, Armenian studies professor James R. Russell was disinvited from a Harvard-sponsored exhibition of Iranian propaganda posters because he had compared them to those of the Soviet Union. Some of the Iranians involved in the conference were apparently worried that comparing their country to an atheist state might provoke Ahmadinejad's thought police.

Even at Harvard, critics of Iran and other undemocratic regimes in the Muslim and Arab world fear for their lives and liberty. In contrast, the worst that an anti-Israel activist like Matory has to worry about is a letter to the editor in The Harvard Crimson expressing an opposing view. [emphasis added]
No wonder serious scholars like Matory are shaking in their boots.

There are those that claim that the very people who are most vociferous about freedom of speech tend to be those who are trying to avoid have their ideas challenged openly in public. If that is the case, Matory's fear may indeed be justified. Eric Traeger spoke to Professor Matory and found that
his admissions during a lengthy phone interview I conducted with him were stunning. After he presented his essential thesis that Israel is a racist, apartheid state, I asked Matory what books had inspired his views. Matory was unable to name a single book or author, saying that he was “largely informed by the international press.” When asked why he hadn’t traveled to the region to examine the conflict’s complexities firsthand, Matory said that he wouldn’t go to Israel on principle, but that such a trip was hardly necessary: he has plenty of Israeli friends and neighbors, stateside. But had he ever spoken with these Israeli friends and neighbors, or Israeli colleagues and students—he claimed to have had many—regarding the conflict? “Not that I recall,” he conceded.

The most bizarre moment in our conversation, however, involved a biographical detail. Matory recalled that the Sabra and Shatilla massacre had catalyzed his disillusionment with Israel, saying that he read about the massacre in the Boston Globe while eating lunch as an undergraduate at Harvard’s old Union dining hall, and had vomited at the table in disgust. Yet this story is impossible: Matory graduated in June 1982, while the massacre took place in September 1982—when he would have been studying in Nigeria on a Rotary Scholarship. “I hadn’t realized that,” Matory said.
There are critics of Israel who seem to be using the topic of the Israel Lobby and Israeli injustice as a way to achieve recognition--Mearsheimer & Walt and Jimmy Carter come to mind, both of whom have deflected criticism of their books as an attack on free speech, even while much of that criticism has focused on inaccuracies and poor methodology.

They are the latest who have prided themselves on their apparent courage in breaking new ground in openly criticizing Israel. In reality, all they have done is paved the way for people like Professor Matory.

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