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The Death Of Academic Discourse


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Of the many intellectual perversions currently taking root on college campuses, perhaps none is more contradictory to what should be one of higher education’s core values than the suppression of free speech.

With alarming regularity, speakers are shouted down, booed, jeered, and barraged with vitriol, all at the hands of groups who give lip service the notion of academic free speech – and who demand it when their speech is at issue but have no interest in listening to, or letting others listen to, ideas that contradict their own world view.

Earlier this year, two Israeli officials, Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon and Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren had the unpleasant experience of confronting virulent anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian Muslim students whose ideology on academic debate seems to be “free speech for me, but not for thee.”

Ayalon, who spoke at Oxford University, had his speech interrupted by several audience members, including one who yelled incessantly and called Ayalon a “racist” and “a war criminal” while waving a Palestinian flag, another student who loudly read passages of the incendiary Goldstone report, and a third student who remained standing for the entire balance of the lecture while she hurled anti-Israel invective.

The genteel, soft-spoken Ambassador Oren did not fare much better during his visit to the University of California at Irvine, a notorious hotbed of radical anti-Israel sentiment. During the aborted speech to some 500 people about U.S.-Israel relations, which was loudly interrupted ten times, boorish hecklers screamed over Oren’s talk such profound observations as “Michael Oren, propagating murder is not an expression of free speech,” “I accuse you of murder,” “How many Palestinians have you killed?” and “Israel is a murderer.”

Oren is hardly what even his staunchest critics could consider an Islamophobe eager to trample Palestinian aspirations. A Columbia and Princeton graduate, he is the author of two seminal books on the Middle East – Six Days of War and Power, Faith and Fantasy. He is at least as qualified to speak about the Israeli/Palestinian situation as the raucous, boorish students who had decided, in advance of his UC-I appearance, that he was morally unfit to even appear on their campus.

Even after he took a 20-minute recess to let the crowd cool off and regain its collective composure, his return to the podium was greeted with more volleys of invective, shouting, and speech-stopping bombast from the Muslim students, eleven of whom – eight from UC-Irvine (including the Muslim Student Union president) and three from UC Riverside – were eventually escorted out of the hall and arrested.

The fact that UC-I’s habitually craven administrators, led by Chancellor Michael Drake, were even motivated enough by the students’ errant behavior to have them ejected from the event is a promising sign.

While the university has always claimed to be dedicated to encouraging debate and scholarly inquiry by letting the Muslim Student Union mount annual hate-fests to demonize and vilify Israel and Jews, the MSU has effectively hijacked all discussion of the Middle East on campus, and its events are not platforms at which opposing views are aired and discussed.

As is frequently the case when speaking about the Israel/Arab conflict, the discussion often glosses over the real problems of Palestinian culture, politics, and society (including its cult of death), and focuses all criticism on the perceived defects of Israel, Zionism, and Jewish power.

This notion that pro-Israel speakers and scholars do not deserve, on a moral or intellectual basis, an opportunity to participate in scholarly debate is a dangerous one, even if it comes from tendentious students. It starts with the assumption that Israel, because of its perceived moral defects and its oppression of the hapless Palestinians and the theft of their lands, does not even have the right to participate in intellectual debate, that academic free speech in Israel’s case can be modified and is not absolute.

And while Muslim students and other campus radicals have, at UC-I and other college campuses, seen to it that speech they do not approve of, spoken by people with whom they disagree, is shut down with the “heckler’s veto,” they have never missed an opportunity to invite their own stable of slimy, anti-Israel, anti-U.S. speakers.

A closer look at the ideas tossed about by some of the Muslim Student Union’s invited guests suggests both the moral incoherence and intellectual debasement that characterizes the human output of these events.

Amir-Abdel Malik-Ali, for instance, former Nation of Islam member and convert to Islam, has been a ubiquitous, poisonous presence on the Irvine campus who never hesitates to castigate Israel, Zionists, Jewish power, and Jews themselves as he weaves hallucinatory conspiracies about the Middle East and the West.

Speaking in May 2006 from a podium with an execrable banner reading “Israel, the 4th Reich,” Malik-Ali referred to Jews as “new Nazis” and “a bunch of straight-up punks.”

At a 2008 event, he claimed that “Groups like Hamas and Hizbullah” are not the real terrorists at all. No, the actual “terrorists are the United States; the terrorists are Israel!”

Another odious guest speaker who regularly makes appearances on the hate-fest circuit is Muhammad al-Asi, a Muslim activist from Washington, D.C., who has written that “The Israeli Zionist are [sic] the true and legitimate object of liquidation.”

Just months after 9/11, al-Asi hurled similar invective at Jews, in the context of Israeli oppression of Palestinians. “You can take a Jew out of the ghetto,” he said, “but you can’t take the ghetto out of the Jew, and this has been demonstrated time and time again in Occupied Palestine.”

The MSU is entitled to hear whatever opinions it desires. It is not, however, entitled to prevent other views from being heard on campus merely because pro-Palestinian students have decided they will not recognize the very existence or legitimacy of Israel or hear the ideas of individuals who are able to explain the Israeli side of the argument.

University officials need to make clear their campuses will allow many different views and perspectives and not countenance the exclusion of unpopular thought from the proverbial marketplace of ideas.

Concern for the Palestinians may be a commendable effort, but the exclusion and demonization of Israeli speakers and government officials as a tool for seeking social justice for that one group “represents a profound betrayal of the cardinal principle of intellectual endeavor,” observed commentator Melanie Phillips, “which is freedom of speech and debate,” something universities should never stop diligently defending. And they should certainly never abandon that pursuit to the baleful whining of ideological bullies intent on suppressing the views of others.

About the Author: Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., is president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East and author of “Genocidal Liberalism: The University’s Jihad Against Israel & Jews.”


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