Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Law professor Peter Berkowitz has written an article for the University of Chicago student newspaper, complaining about the conduct of a local sociology professor during a panel discussion there in which they both participated. The panel, Berkowitz writes,
consisted of Professor [Saskia] Sassen, who spoke on behalf of transnationalism, or principles and forms of government that transcend the nation state; myself, discussing nationalism and how Israel could be both a liberal democracy and Jewish state; Professor Ann Bayefsky (to whom Professor Sassen sneeringly refers) of Columbia University Law School, who analyzed the double standard the U.N. has applied to Israel for decades; and Professor Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Yale University geneticist, who sought to equate Zionism with Nazism, racism and apartheid.
According to Berkowitz, Sassen's reaction to this set of initial remarks was a vigorous condemnation of Bayefsky's and Berkowitz's defense of Israel, after which she stormed out of the session without waiting for a response. To Berkowitz,
by walking out on the panel midway through the event “after she had spoken for a second time but before she could be challenged” Professor Sassen showed that she held her own opinions to be beyond criticism and regarded her opponents’ opinions as unworthy of serious debate. Professor Sassen’s performance was more than unprofessional. It was rude to the organizers, to the audience, and to her fellow panelists.

Taking her conduct and comments together, one is led to conclude that Professor Sassen objects to sharing a stage with people who hold views that differ from hers; that she finds offensive the obligation to confront evidence ad arguments put forward on behalf of positions she dislikes; and that she has forgotten or is unaware that the kind of debate that educates is debate with people with who hold the opposite opinion.
I can understand Berkowitz being appalled at Sassen's behavior--but not at her walking out of a discussion where opinions are being expressed that she considers outrageous. In many cases, in fact, that's exactly the right thing to do--to refuse to lend to false or morally reprehensible assertions the dignity and respect of responding to them as if they were credible or legitimate. Indeed, I would have been sorely tempted to walk out on Prof. Qumsiyeh's calumnies against Israel myself, had I been there.

No, Professor Sassen's shame was not to have stood up for what she believed in, but rather to have believed in some truly awful things. Professor Bayefsky was absolutely correct in pointing out that the UN has, over the years, obsessively condemned Israel--and only Israel--for behavior that is a good deal more scrupulous than the norm for typical UN members. Meanwhile, if Berkowitz correctly characterized the claims of Professor Qumsiyeh, then for Sassen to side with him against Bayefsky was simply shameful.

But that is the level to which the international debate about Israel has fallen, these days: to savage the Jewish state in terms that, were they applied to any other nation on earth, would be instantly recognized as frighteningly hate-filled--even arguably racist--has become so normal in some circles that merely to point out this state of affairs is itself sometimes criticized as a breach of decorum.

Witness, for example, what happened when one of the blog "Crooked Timber's" collective of distinguished left-wing academics invited discussion on the topic of why discussions of Israel tend to get so heated. Despite the moderator's promise to "be especially ruthless in deleting comments that I think are unhelpful or that lay the blame all on one side in an overheated way", there followed, among other comments, repeated comparisons of Israel with Nazi Germany and South Africa under apartheid, dark hints about "Israel’s enormous political influence in the US", and numerous ad hominem attacks against Israel, Israelis and their supporters--all left intact by the moderator. Eventually one commenter suggested that the problem might be that "most poster[s] are strongly anti-Israel, and they make many ad hominem attacks on supporters of Israel." Shortly thereafter, the moderator shut down the discussion, singling out this latter commentator's complaints as examples of the incivility he despaired of ever escaping.

It is pointless to engage in debate of this sort by standing on matters of civility. There are civil, effective ways to respond to offensive statements, but they do not involve criticizing the offender's lack of adherence to the conventions of public propriety. They involve asserting, frankly and unabashedly, that the statements in question are morally objectionable in the extreme, and explaining exactly why. If the offenders adopt the same position with respect to their opponents, then obviously no reasonable dialogue can take place, and it is pointless to criticize either side for refusing to continue to attempt one. Rather, it is up to outside parties to decide for themselves which side--if either--is in the right.

For decades following Israel's creation, it was commonplace for Arab representatives to refuse even to acknowledge the presence of Israeli representatives in public settings, so as not to imply that the latter had any legitimacy. At the time, it seemed like a huge propaganda victory for Israelis to be able to point out that they were open to dialogue at any time, but for the rudeness of their hypothetical Arab interlocutors. In retrospect, however, Arab intransigence had its own propaganda value, eventually convincing an astonishing number of people that their steadfast rejectionism was grounded in some kind of ideal of justice, when in fact it largely consisted of ethnic hostility tinged with cynical self-interest. It is long past time for supporters of Israel to stop boasting about their politely indulgent tolerance for their opponents' hatred, and start standing up for moral principle, not just formal civility, by denouncing attacks on Israel for what they are--vile calumnies, rather than mere breaches of etiquette.

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