A Jewish professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara has been accused of anti-Semitism for material that he shared with his students in a course on sociology and globalization. The material critical of Israel led to two students dropping the course and charges filed against Professor William I. Robinson.
Robinson triggered the backlash by ending e-mail to all of the 80 students in the course suggesting that they consider the “parallel” images of Nazi and Israeli attacks, specifically addressing Israeli actions in Gaza. He suggested that Gaza could be reviewed as “Israel’s Warsaw.” The materials in the course are available on a website organized by his students supporting him. He is facing a possible faculty disciplinary board.
On his university page, Robinson describes his work:
Welcome to my website. I am a professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. I am also affiliated with the Latin American and Iberian Studies Program, and with the Global and International Studies Program at UCSB. My scholarly research focuses on: macro and comparative sociology, globalization and transnationalism, political economy, political sociology, development and social change, Latin America and the Third World, and Latina/o studies.
As a scholar-activist I attempt to link my academic work to struggles in the United States, in the Americas, and around the world for social justice, popular empowerment, participatory democracy, and people-centered development.
I fail to see why this material is not protected by academic freedom principles. While some have argued that it was not relevant to his course work, Robinson makes a plausible case that it was and that he routinely deals with such international questions in his globalization course. Notably, in a February letter, the Anti-Defamation League acknowledged that his “writings are protected by the First Amendment and academic freedom” and simply called for him to repudiate the views. Various groups and students are free to call for such a change in views, but the submission of this matter to a faculty board would create an obvious chill on academic freedom, particularly for any academic considering criticism of Israel.
The charging officer sent the following allegations and said that the investigation would go forward: “[H]ere is a summary of the allegations: You, as professor of an academic course, sent to each student enrolled in that course a highly partisan email accompanied by lurid photographs. The e-mail was unexpected and without educational context. You offered no explanation of how the material related to the content of the course. You offered no avenue to discuss, nor encouraged any response, to the opinions and photographs included in the e-mail. You directly told a student who inquired that the e-mail was not connected to the course. As a result, two enrolled students were too distraught to continue with the course. The constellation of allegations listed above, if substantially true, may violate the Faculty Code of Conduct.” The officer noted that professors cannot “use of the position or powers of a faculty member to coerce the judgment or conscience of a student or to cause harm to a student for arbitrary or personal reasons.”
The fact that this is a course on international problems would seem to undermine such charges. While the university is highly protected over consciences of its students, it needs to be equally protective over the academic freedom of its faculty and aware of the negative impact that this image leaves with untenured faculty: you can be called to account if you include provocative or unpopular material. The American Association of University Professors has long opposed this type of discipline and rejects the common attack on education as indoctrination and protects electronic communications as it does written communications in course work.
In the meantime, critics, including students, have made YouTube segments like this one to campaign against Robinson.
I must say that I was uncomfortable with the email below when I first read it and thought that is was framed as a bit too much of an advocacy statement. Nevertheless, I still find it within the protected scope of academic freedom. Many professors will assume advocacy positions to get students to debate and challenge ideas. I will often assume positions that I do not support in class to trigger such debate, often assuming unpopular or extreme positions to see how my students will respond. It seems to me that an appropriate subject for exchange. Frankly, I do not mind the controversial analogy which can trigger rigorous debate, but Professor Robinson could have framed this more in an academic rather than an advocacy fashion. Ultimately, that message could have been given to him by an administrators rather than allow this academic investigation to go forward. I am also concerned about whether, given the tenor of the email, students would feel free to disagree — though this is hard to judge when you have not seen the class or past debates. I think that the Anti-Defamation League got it right. It is perfectly correct to challenge his portrayals and comparisons while recognizing his right distribute such material.
Here is the email:
If Martin Luther King were alive on this day of January 19, 2009, there is no doubt that he would be condemning the Israeli aggression against Gaza along with U.S. military and political support for Israeli war crimes, or that he would be standing shoulder to shoulder with the Palestinians. I am forwarding some horrific, parallel images of Nazi atrocities against the Jews and Israeli atrocities against the Palestinians. Perhaps the most frightening are not those providing a graphic depiction of the carnage but that which shows Israeli children writing “with love” on a bomb that will tear apart Palestinian children.
Gaza is Israel’s Warsaw – a vast concentration camp that confined and blockaded Palestinians, subjecting them to the slow death of malnutrition, disease and despair, nearly two years before their subjection to the quick death of Israeli bombs. We are witness to a slow-motion process of genocide (Websters: “the systematic killing of, or a program of action intended to destroy, a whole national or ethnic group”), a process whose objective is not so much to physically eliminate each and every Palestinian than to eliminate the Palestinians as a people in any meaningful sense of the notion of people-hood.
The Israeli army is the fifth most potent military machine in the world and one that is backed by a propaganda machine that rivals and may well surpass that of the U.S., a machine that dares to make the ludicrous and obnoxious claim that opposition to the policies and practices of the Israeli state is anti-Semitism. It should be no surprise that a state founded on the negation of a people was one of the principal backers of the apartheid South African state not to mention of the Latin American military dictatorships until those regimes collapsed under mass protest, and today arms, trains, and advises military and paramilitary forces in Colombia, one of the world’s worst human rights violators.
Below is an article written by a U.S. Jew and sent to a Jewish newspaper. The editor of the paper was fired for publishing it.
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