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NYU’s Secret Anti-Israel Conference Revisited

An exchange with NYU American Studies professor Lisa Duggan

Liel Leibovitz
March 05, 2014

About that headline? Just kidding: it’ll be hard for me to have an exchange with Lisa Duggan, because the organization she heads, the American Studies Association, decided that people like me, namely Israeli academics, should, alone of all God’s children, be denied the right to engage with their colleagues in research and conversation.

Now, if she were talking to me, Duggan might have argued that the ASA’s boycot applies only to Israeli academic institutions, not individuals, as if institutions could somehow be separated from the men and women who run and inhabit them, and as if such a distinction did anything to dull the sting of bigotry inherent to the decision to single out one group of people as untouchable. That would be just the kind of semantic obfuscation that, judging by her comment to my piece yesterday about a secret anti-Israel conference she helped organize this past weekend, seems to characterize Professor Duggan’s thinking.

Because these issues matter very much—at stake is the future of academia, an institution on which we all dearly depend, and the soul of at least one great American university, NYU—it’s worth while taking a few moments to study Professor Duggan’s response.

The conference in question, went her main argument, wasn’t secret at all, but rather an ordinary academic event which, by its very nature, is open only to students and members of the faculty. Professor Duggan is right that academic conferences are designed solely for members of the academic community; I acknowledge as much in my piece. But her answer is disingenuous. Ordinary academic conferences, and I’ve sadly organized a few of them myself, never come with explicit disclaimers warning participants that mum’s the word. That’s because while academic conferences aren’t open to the public, they oughtn’t to be concealed from the public either. Real scholarship can never thrive or grow meaningful unless firmly planted in common ground and nurtured by sunlight and free inquiry. This is not to say, of course, that anyone should be able to walk into any classroom and say anything they please at any time, but when academics go to great lengths to keep the very fact that they’re conferring from the public eye, they transform themselves from thinkers and scholars working privately for the overall benefit of us all into a small special interest group dedicated to nothing but the advancement of their narrow ideological agenda.

But Professor Duggan’s warped view of just what it is academia is supposed to do goes much deeper than that. “ALL organizations on campus have events which are not ‘balanced’ or open to the public, this is routine,” she wrote in a response she posted in the comments section of my piece. “Certainly zionist groups on campus have many such events.”

Yes, they do. And that’s fine. There are a lot of organizations on campus, and they are entitled—as I’ve argued here before—to their predilections and their biases. But what Professor Duggan helped organize was an official academic conference, and official academic exchanges do not have the privilege of discriminating against a certain point of view, of blocking out voices, of quashing debate.

Sadly, Professor Duggan seems to miss this point entirely. “If the conference had been on US empire (with no supporters of empire present, and no press or public invited or wanted),” she continued, “it would have attracted zero attention, and would have been considered ordinary.”

No, it wouldn’t have, or at least it shouldn’t have, because a conference like that, much like the actual one Professor Duggan helped organize this past weekend, is anathema to the core notion of what academia is, or ought to be, about. Let me be abundantly clear: if you’ve made up your mind in advance; if you’re disinterested in debate; if you’re oblivious to facts and nuances and subtleties; if you take care to interact only with those you know enthusiastically agree with you; if you strive to keep your affairs from scrutiny, you may be many things, but a genuine and honest academic isn’t one of them.

I can go on and on. I can ask, for example, what reason, other than prejudice, do American studies scholars have to obsess so monomaniacally on Israel and Palestine. Or I can note, as one insightful blogger had, that Professor Duggan is disingenuous at best when she argues that “there was no attempt to restrict the range of views of professors and students who wanted to attend” the conference, a claim that fares poorly if you consider the fact that its organizers chose to invite only speakers who adhere to a very specific point of view, and then actively discouraged advertising the conference widely, which might have attracted not just the public attention Professor Duggan so greatly fears but also, quite likely, professors and students who are interested in the conference’s subject but who aren’t among the small social circle of true believers to whom the invite seems to have been restricted. But all of that would be pointless. There’ll never be any real debate between me and Professor Lisa Duggan; she had done everything in her power to make sure of that.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.

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