Two Jewish students immediately dropped the class and filed complaints with the university. Since then the issue has become quite public and controversial, with those on one side vehemently arguing that Robinson's words were anti-semitic, and their opponents claiming that they are trying to silence him and prevent the free and open discussion of ideas that's so vital to academic progress. The most common critiques of Robinson's words include the following: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not relevant to the course, so Robinson should not have sent out the email, any critique of Israel is anti-semitic, and comparing Jews to Nazis is anti-semitic.
Cases like this always cause my slow-down-and-carefully-parse-this-thing-out alarms to start violently ringing. This really is a complicated issue. And it's compounded by the presence of war photos, which always ramp up emotions, as well as terminology such as Nazi and genocide, which are also mechanisms that serve to intensify emotional responses. All of this combines in a recipe for strong emotional responses and poor critical thinking. So a good way to start with issues like this is to carefully back away and try to think through it as calmly as possible.
It seems the three claims that are central here can be examined one at a time. Clearly the Israel-Palestine conflict is relevant to a course on globalization. But is it true that any critique of Israeli leadership is anti-semitic? One would hope not. But this attitude is not unique to this situation. How many times have American dissenters been called unamerican for critiquing their own government? This is a common ad hominem. Perhaps it's partially motivated in this case by consideration for the historical experiences of Jews and a desire to be supportive of their security and autonomy. But exempting a group of people from basic standards of social justice and decency does not benefit them. And it only furthers the cycle of violence. War crimes are war crimes are war crimes, no matter who commits them. If American Indians were to suddenly perpetrate war crimes on European Americans, or Tutsis on Hutus, or Armenians on Turks, would we resist critique and censure of them on the basis of their historic mistreatment and genocide? It seems unlikely.
But what about the third charge? Is it true that comparing Jews to Nazis is inherently racist? It is true that this is something we ought to be very cautious about, given the historical context. And generally speaking, comparing anyone or anything to the Nazis is at best not helpful and at worst counterproductive and dismissive of the horrors experienced by victims of the holocaust.
But I'm hesitant to say it's inherently racist, or that we can never compare anyone to Nazis. It seems to me that people could engage in actions that would merit comparison to Nazis. Even Jews. Does that mean it was an appropriate comparison in this case? Not really. Although the treatment of Palestinians by Israel has been outrageous in some cases and dismal overall, it doesn't quite amount to that of the Nazis. Does this mean Robinson's words are anti-semitic? I don't really think so. They were clearly ill-advised and insensitive and counterproductive. But I think that within the scope of academic freedom we have to allow for hyperbole and figures of speech. Robinson's comparison of Gaza to a concentration camp was clearly meant to be figurative. It wasn't particularly prudent, but that doesn't mean it amounts to racism. So I think that those who call for disciplinary action against Robinson are allowing their emotions to carry them away, just as Robinson's emotions carried him away as he wrote this email. An apology from Robinson is definitely in order, but his words don't seem to justify the kind of escalation that's occurring.