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Israel, Palestine, and the need for principled free speech
Pointing out hypocrisy isn't good enough
People can be extremely annoying. And one of the most annoying initial reactions to the recent crackdowns on pro-Palestinian speech was a preemptive accusation of hypocrisy directed at the people who signed a letter about free speech three years ago:
The bit about anchors being demoted seems like it may not have happened (here’s Mehdi Hasan hosting his show and trying to elevate anti-war Israeli voices, and here he is as a guest on Chris Hayes’ show criticizing Biden’s construction of Israel as similar to Ukraine).
But beyond that, the day before Shatz’s complaint about silence from the Harper’s Letter crowd, the letter’s primary author Thomas Chatterton Williams wrote about why the demonstration bans are bad. More broadly, if you look at who signed the letter, you’ll find people like Hussein Ibish, Zaid Jilani, and Noam Chomsky who’ve been actively critical of Israel throughout their careers.
I can’t read their minds, but I worked with Jilani long before George Floyd or Michael Brown or “cancel culture,” and I know that back then he was very concerned about the profligate use of allegations of antisemitism to silence pro-Palestinian student activists. And I think that for many people, it was their experience in those battles that made them leery of the progressive enthusiasm for cancellation that emerged a few years ago.
Another take I’ve seen recently, this one from a lot of moderate and right-of-center people, is that the campus left is just getting a taste of its own medicine.
I get where that comes from. But any time you find yourself prosecuting a hypocrisy case, you ought to take some time to consider what you think is actually correct. And in my view, it’s the arguments in favor of free speech. The Israel-Palestine dispute is an excellent illustration of the general principle that it’s challenging to draw a bright line between passionate arguments about public policy and bigotry, especially when you incentivize people to make claims about the latter in order to shut down the former. And we’re also already seeing swathes of American society being ripped apart by a war happening thousands of miles away because of a culture that encourages people to cultivate their own sense of subjective fragility in order to silence enemies.
That is bad when it happens on the left, and it’s bad when happens on the right. There’s no need for people on the center or center-right to practice unilateral disarmament on this topic, but it is essential to keep a clear view of the importance of free speech and to push cultural institutions to resolve their hypocrisies in a productive way.
Some necessary throat-clearing
It’s important to note here that we are almost never, in any of these free speech arguments, discussing the constitutional concept of free speech as absolute content-neutrality.
Nobody has a right to be a featured speaker at the 92nd Street Y (I’ve never been one), and if they want to cancel a Viet Thanh Nguyen event over something he said about Israel, that is their right. Indeed, freedom of speech means that institutions like the 92nd Street Y have the freedom to determine who they do and do not invite, and if that means defining themselves as a place where someone who signs a letter condemning Israel’s “indiscriminate violence” in Gaza isn’t allowed to speak, they can do so.
By the same token, if a particular college or university wants to avowedly self-identity itself as a leftist institution, there’s nothing procedurally wrong with that. Indeed, in some respects, I think it would be healthier if different American universities were just more different from each other.
But free speech is not only a question of constitutional law, it’s a question of norms and standards of conduct and good sense.
Obviously some people are, in fact, saying hateful and bigoted antisemitic things. Nguyen pretty clearly was not. He was articulating a standard left-wing foreign policy view that’s consistent with his overall leftist political commitments. Muddying the waters between these two things is, I think, an objectionable tactic, whether pursued by the left or the right. The reason it works, though, is that the hatred and bigotry are real. It’s not the case that everyone who is vocally critical of Israel has a problem with Jewish people, but for obvious reasons, anti-Israel politics is kind of a flytrap for antisemites. In much the same way, it’s not racist to worry about street crime or to think that proactive policing is useful, but it’s definitely true that racists are attracted to this set of issues — often in ways that are unproductive in actually making the streets safer.
But you can’t, like, x-ray a person’s brain and know the precise motives for their words or deeds. You can try to foster a culture that values debate and the exchange of ideas, or you can try to foster a culture that assumes the worst and tries to shut down or bully people. The former is a better path.
Israel is very controversial
I was very involved in Israel Discourse back in Bush’s second term and Obama’s first, because that was a moment in time when I thought there was a real shot at a two-state solution. Specifically, during Salam Fayyad’s term as Prime Minister, the Palestinians had a high caliber of leadership and the main thing needed to get a deal was more flexibility from Israel, which could have been obtained with more pressure from the United States. Since that time, the whole situation has taken a turn and I feel more despair than a sense of “if only we did X, then Y would happen,” so I’ve been much less active.
But everything I just said is very controversial, and lots of people would dispute every piece of it.
And it’s not just that the topic is controversial, it’s also a topic where there is a long tradition of trying to shut down debate with accusations of bigotry. The view that “Zionism is racism” strikes some people as so self-evidently absurd that anyone holding it must be antisemitic. And indeed, there is a push from the ADL and the AJC to argue that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.
To me, both “Zionism is racism” and “anti-Zionism is antisemitism” are absurd viewpoints, but their embrace underscores the power of this kind of overreach.
The basic reality is that there is no neutral point outside the parameters of the conflict itself from which one can judge the exact meaning or reasonableness of the specific things that people say. I’ve recently heard American rally-goers and even high school students chanting “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” I think it would be good for the people organizing rallies to understand that most Jewish people, both in Israel and in the diaspora, understand this slogan to entail calling for the elimination of Israel’s Jewish population. But I also think it’s important for Jews (and our friends) to understand that to the people chanting, in this context, this is not what it means. Their understanding of themselves is that they are calling for a unitary secular democratic state encompassing both Jews and Arabs.
I think there are a lot of fair rejoinders to this centered on the fact that the people organizing chants and rallies seem to have expended approximately zero effort thinking through how exactly this is supposed to work.
That said, in the vast majority of cases here, I think the sins being committed are the commonplace ones of intellectual laziness and performative allyship rather than hatred or antisemitism. Of course, I’m just guessing. But the only way to get to what people actually mean is to talk it through. Palestinian activists do have a fair point, I think, that if you rule one-state as out of bounds for discussion and Israel is steadily expanding settlements in the West Bank, then it does seem like you are calling for expulsion or permanent apartheid. It’s a difficult issue because I absolutely believe that if it were up to American Jews, we would have had a two-state solution years ago. But it’s not up to us! And these are the hard problems that are worth talking through instead of trying to shout people down.
Good epistemics requires openness
And I think it’s true that talking things through is better than shouting people down even for really out there stuff like people endorsing Hamas’ terrorism.
I remember learning about Just War Theory and the doctrine of double-effect in college and why it’s supposedly okay to kill a bunch of civilians as part of a good-faith effort to destroy a military target but not okay to deliberately target civilians. It’s an interesting body of work and worth trying to understand. But is it really correct? Does it really make sense to categorically condemn terrorism?
To be clear, I am 100 percent against terrorism and think what Hamas did this October — and what it’s done over the years — is wrong.
But I come by that conviction honestly, from classes where “extreme” and even abhorrent behavior was on the table for discussion. It’s incredibly difficult for people to learn about anything — including why their presuppositions are wrong — if they are living in terror of being labeled a bigot for saying the “wrong” thing.
This is one of many good points that were made against left-wing cancellers, but it absolutely applies to the Israel situation.
As do many other points. Paddy Cosgrave had to step down from running Web Summit after saying Israel was committing war crimes in Gaza. People were mad, presumably, because they don’t think anything Israel did deserves that label. But suppose you’re not an Israel-hater and don’t spend your time plugged into anti-Israel content and your general inclination is to have confidence in the IDF’s ethics. Well, how would know if you ever turned out to be wrong about this and Israel did commit war crimes? Presumably someone who is not you would notice the war crimes and point them out, and you’d hear about it second-hand and be skeptical at first and then hear about it from someone else and look into it in more detail and find out that the person you heard about it from was right. This doesn’t work very well if everyone’s understanding is that talking about Israeli war crimes is a career-ender.
Of course, it’s also true that in an open dialogue, people will say stuff that’s wrong and you’re within your rights — to an extent — to be mad about that. But an open dialogue really does require some room for disagreement, for error, for non-consensus, and for contentiousness.
Restoring the right principles
Living through hypocrisy is extremely annoying and I think that annoyance at hypocrisy on the part of university administrators has driven a lot of action over the past couple of weeks.
But I really do think it’s important to elevate beyond annoyance and try to articulate clear positions.
Most university campuses did not greet the initial Hamas attack on Israeli civilians with the kind of ponderous “statement” that schools have been issuing more and more of in response to noteworthy world events. That prompted backlash from many Jewish alumni who felt a pogrom in southern Israel deserved the full George Floyd treatment. Of course, the reason universities didn’t want to do that is there is a lot of political disagreement about the larger context of the conflict. But — and here’s the point — there’s actually lots of political disagreement about police misconduct and racism and all this other stuff, too.
The actual difference is that universities were comfortable taking the progressive side of contested political issues and that was inappropriate.
Or to Petrzela’s point, many university offices have been somewhat careless in tossing around the concept of harm or metaphorical violence and that was inappropriate.
But the part where the prior conduct was inappropriate is very important. Successfully browbeating universities into issuing statements about how Hamas is bad is a Pyrrhic victory, as is getting them to clamp down on pro-Palestinian demonstrations. Each new inappropriate politicization of the university sets a new baseline and creates a new bad precedent that can be used to further politicize things and further narrow the range of debate. It’s not good enough to say “well, they did it first.”1 That rapidly becomes a situation where an eye for an eye leaves us all blind.
The right thing to do is to use this moment when people are mad and university administrators are vulnerable to pressure institutions to adopt the Chicago Principles on free speech and academic freedom or something very similar. And progressives worried about the silencing of pro-Palestinian speech should spend less time hunting for hypocrites and more time recognizing the value of principled defenses of free speech and academic freedom — something that’s been widely mocked over the past five years but turns out to be worth a lot.
Among other things, it’s not really clear to me that this is true.