Monday, May 18, 2009

Anti-Semitism and Israeli War Crimes

While driving to my daughter's daycare at lunch today, I caught a few minutes of discussion on this controversy concerning UC Santa Barbara soc professor William Robinson on NPR. Robinson sent an email out to students in his Sociology of Globalization class that juxtaposed images of victims of Nazi concentration camps with images of Israeli aggression in Gaza and depicted Gaza as a vast concentration camp. Robinson wrote "We are witness to a slow-motion process of genocide."

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.


  1. i agree with your analysis, and it's nice to see someone acknowledge the nuances of the issue.

  2. Bailey5/19/2009

    This reminds me of the Churchill debacle. Things like this spiral out of control so fast, and it seems like everyone left their ability to think clearly at home sometimes.

  3. Michael5/19/2009

    I think the thing about comparing Jews to Nazis being inherently anti-semitic came out of a report on racism by the US State Department. But I agree that you can't apply it across the board, as if it would be impossible for people of any ethnicity to engage in actions that were Nazi-comparison-worthy.

  4. One thing those two students seem to be forgetting is that being Israeli is not the same thing as being Jewish. Thus, questioning Israeli policies does not inherently make one anti-Semitic. This is something that is hard for Jews to understand, because we are taught from birth to understand "Jewish" and "Israel" as one and the same, to view Israel as our homeland, and to support Israel without question. The point of a university is to teach critical thinking skills, and I believe Robinson is attempting to do that by presenting these students with another viewpoint they are likely unfamiliar with. But being uncomfortable because your views are called into question does not justify a lawsuit.