Last week, I argued here that there was no point in debating with people who fundamentally disagreed with you; if you believed in Israel’s right to exist, I wrote, and someone didn’t, you really have very little reason to sit down and chat.
Apparently, Israel’s academic detractors were paying attention.
This weekend, the American Studies department at NYU held a conference titled “Circuits of Influence: U.S., Israel, and Palestine.” With a morning session about the history and efficacy of boycotts and a lunchtime workshop devoted to organizing students on campus and featuring representatives of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voices for Peace—both organizations being strong advocates of BDS—there could be little doubt about the conference’s true aim.
Not that you’d know about any of it: inviting friends and colleagues to the conference on her Facebook page, NYU professor Lisa Duggan—you may remember her as the president of the American Studies Association and a strong voice in support of the organization’s decision last year to boycott Israeli universities—asked that the conference be kept secret.
“PLEASE DO NOT post or circulate the flyer,” read her message. “We are trying to avoid press, protesters and public attention.”
Now, it’s one thing for a student organization like Hillel or private institutions like Jewish museums or high schools to decide that their intellectual horizons exclude those who do not share certain core beliefs. A university, however, does not have that privilege. It is—or should be—open to all ideas, to myriad points of view, to discussion, to dissent.
Because any attempt to seriously study human conduct is likely to stir up emotions and give rise to ideological barricades, our best universities have come up with policies to safeguard that sanctity of academic freedom in their midst. Title I of NYU’s own poignant faculty handbook puts it elegantly when it states that professors “should not introduce into their teaching controversial matter that has no relation to their subject,” and should at all times “exercise appropriate restraint” as well as “show respect for the opinions of others.”
The recent conference’s organizers did none of that. Forgoing any semblance of serious study, viable research, or honest attempts to understand the intricacies of the subject at hand, they turned their classroom into a seminary designed exclusively to cultivate hatred for one particular nation state and fashion this animosity into ruinous political action.
Hence the call to keep things secret: while academic institutions are, of course, never obliged to let members of the public into their hushed sanctuaries—that’s a privilege obtained by paying a hefty tuition—one should be very, very suspicious of any learned person who insists—against the long-standing and proud American tradition of free inquiry, against the common-sensical and democratic expectation that the university see itself as part of the community that supports and sustains it and not as a small and zealous sect apart—on conducting intellectual work under the cover of darkness.
The university should judge whether the organization of a discriminatory conference and the insistence that participants comply, Mafia-style, with a sort of academic Omerta meets its own standards. The rest of us are left with the less subtle and more tragic duty of witnessing the formerly solid tradition of intellectual freedom and debate melt into air.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.