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News and views on Israel, Zionism and the war on terrorism.

October 31, 2002

Harsh Lessons in Incivility

A magnificent article that addresses the charges and counter-charges of those who yell out Anti-Semitism and those who scream out about Palestinian rights and abuses. Dignified, well reasoned, Prof.AMITAI ETZIONI puts the harsh debates on American campuses into perspective and calms the troubled seas. Problem? Yes. He seems to ignore the simple fact that those in charge of Arab affairs do not seek the rational approach which he advocates.
This semester, the hottest class on campuses coast to coast is a course in incivility. Teaching it are thousands of professors involved in a vicious debate about Israel, the Palestinians, and anti-Semitism.

Any lessons one might hope to learn about rhetoric, logic, history, humility, or dignity won't intrude into this brawl, in which the sides demonize and attribute the worst possible motives to each other, and strike calculatedly provocative positions instead of making even halfhearted attempts to understand another point of view.

One camp charges Israel with apartheidlike oppression of Palestinians. The other says that such allegations are anti-Semitic. The first, exemplified by Elizabeth Spelke, a Harvard psychology professor, then claims that the anti-Semitism label is an attempt to suppress free speech.

Along those lines, critics of Israel, such as Michael Lerner, the editor of the left-liberal Tikkun, see themselves as subject to a new, Jewish McCarthyism. And, in turn, defenders of Israel, such as Ruth Wisse, a professor of comparative literature at Harvard, suggest that to acquiesce to anti-Israeli rhetoric is to prepare the ground for a new Hitler. And so it goes.

Stances in this debate are often so bereft of basic facts, and so grossly oversimplify the issues at hand, that scholars -- whatever their persuasion -- should be embarrassed to participate. Some of the confrontations take place in classrooms or op-ed pages, but many occur at campuswide meetings. The involvement at these meetings of faculty members, and not just student leaders, furthers the mis-educational impact.

Worst of all, death threats and other forms of intimidation have been directed against quite a few of the professors and student leaders involved. During Passover last year, a cinder block was thrown through the front door of the Hillel building at the University of California at Berkeley. Also last spring, pro-Israel demonstrators at San Francisco State University were surrounded by people who harassed them with chants like "Hitler didn't finish the job." When more than 300 college presidents signed a letter calling for intimidation-free campuses, rather than jumping to endorse the letter, both sides criticized it, saying it overplayed the intimidation suffered by one side and minimized that suffered by the other.

The situation could be studied by some group of neutral social scientists, except where would you find them? Surely not in Europe, where the venom on this issue is even more poisonous than in the United States, and where one hears references to the "Zionist SS" and calls for "Death to Jews," or stereotyping of all Muslims as followers of Osama bin Laden.

Frankly, it is my impression that to the extent that Muslim students in the United States are intimidated, it usually is not by Jews and not related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but rather by a variety of Americans hostile to a religion they don't understand and with which they associate Islamist terrorism.