Anti-Semitism is on the rise across Europe and the United States. So too are accusations of anti-Semitism as a means of stifling any criticism of Israeli policies towards Palestinians. As with any racially motivated prejudice, anti-Semitism is completely unjustifiable.  So too are the attempts by governments and by the managers of major institutions to not tolerate strong criticism of Israeli government policies towards Palestinians.  

In a recent edition of the New York Review of Books, Katherine Franke describes a purge of critics of Israel on American campuses. She maintains that ‘not since the McCarthy anti-Communist purges have we seen such an aggressive effort to censor teaching and learning on topics that the government disfavors’.

No Australian government has stooped this low, but championing Palestinian rights on university campuses, or calling Israel a racist, apartheid state, raises questions about healthy debate and freedom of speech.

Cases in point concern Marc Lamont Hill, a Professor of Media Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, and Dr Tim Anderson, a political economist from Sydney University.

Both academics risk being dismissed for speaking of the rights of Palestinians and for criticizing  Israel’s policies of military domination of Palestinian people, the dispossession of their homes and lands.

The nature of Lamont Hill and Anderson’s criticism is important but more so is the anxiety of authorities to appear to support Israel, and to avoid appearing to support Palestine.

On university campuses, if debate about justice for Palestinians and for Israelis is to be handled wisely, responses to what may be seen as controversial teaching will need to avoid the good/bad, either/or rush to judgement: either desist or be dismissed, either abide by our university rules for civil conduct, or pay the penalties for disobedience.

On 29 November, International Day of Solidarity for the Palestinian People, Lamont Hill, a commentator for the Television company CNN, spoke at the United Nations about the need for a free Palestine from the river to the sea.

That is a common expression used by champions of national identity in Israel and in Palestine. He spoke as a supporter of Palestinians’ rights to self-determination but his words were seized on as evidence that he wanted Israel to disappear.

The Anti-Defamation League and the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) are reported to have inundated CNN with calls to terminate Hill’s employment. The ZOA President denounced Hill’s speech as ‘Jew hating, violence initiating and genocidal’. Professor Hill was sacked by CNN. The President of Temple University judged his speech to be hateful and anti-Semitic.

The polarization shown in this Israel right or wrong attitude allows neither time nor space for contemplation unaffected by assumptions that Israeli must be treated as exceptional, its policies protected and defended whatever the costs. Lamont Hill is a victim of those assumptions. Temple University management wants to punish their employee.

Across the United States there is a Maginot-line mentality about this issue. A line must not be crossed. No weakness must be shown. Israel’s future is at stake. Palestinian interests do not exist or can be easily discarded.

At Sydney University, Dr Anderson has often challenged what he regarded as ‘war propaganda against Syria, Iraq and Palestine’.

At first sight it appears as though his employers have acted with more patience than their counterparts in that American university. Nevertheless, the strain of thought which says that sharing extreme criticism of Israel with students, as in Anderson’s apparent analogies of Nazi and Israeli practices, represents academic misconduct.

Anderson is reported as having shown students material featuring the Nazi swastika imposed on the Israeli flag, and on social media, he had been explicit about the crimes of the ‘apartheid’ Israeli state.

In any appraisal of this controversy, the use of the word apartheid and labelling Israeli policies as Judeo-Nazi need to be carefully evaluated. In this evaluation, emotions will need to disentangled.

In the Sydney case, it is incumbent on the university representative, the Provost Professor Stephen Garton, and the accused, Dr Tim Anderson, to both engage in this disentanglement. If this does not happen, Sydney will drift into the process of charge and counter-charge, of judgement without evidence, as in immediate anti-Semitism accusations which prevail in the United States.

That drift only produces extreme views and judgements – my Maginot line scenario- which allows no flexibility, no room for interpretation and reinterpretation.

In the Sydney University student newspaper Honi Soit, Dr Tim Anderson is reported as having accused the Provost of acting as a political censor, of being dishonest, evasive and lacking in respect for intellectual freedom.

In a protest against Dr Anderson’s threatened dismissal, a letter to the Provost signed by over twenty academics argued that his suspension would be ‘an unacceptable act of censorship and a body blow to academic freedom at the university’.  The authors of the letter were careful not to refer, let alone to justify the historical analogies used by Anderson, yet the merits of those analogies should be considered.

An almost infinite list of Israeli atrocities, plus earlier suicide bombings by Palestinians, have no doubt affected Dr Anderson’s teaching. Even if the 1948 Naqba removal of 700,000 people from their lands and homes is not referred to, the atrocities include the slaughter of over 1,100 Gazans including 350 children in Operation Cast Lead in 2009 and the slaughter of over 2,200 Gazans including almost 500 children in Operation Protective Edge in 2014.

Over the last nine months, at the Gaza border fence, over 230 young Palestinian protesters have been killed and as many as 20,000 maimed, many for life. Dr Anderson could have listed some of these killings and asked students to make up their own minds as to what historical comparisons they might make.

As a test of a university’s respect for vigorous and reasonable pursuit of ideas, it looks as though Anderson had stretched what his employers would have considered reasonable and vigorous. But the university’s values are only really tested when an academic appears to challenge the rules.

At Sydney University, the official reaction to Dr Anderson’s much more trenchant criticism of the brutality of Israeli policies appears to have included due process measures even though Anderson is currently not allowed to appear on campus.

In late January 2019 a three-person internal Review Committee will make recommendations to university management as to the final decision in the Tim Anderson case.

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STUART REES. Free speech about Israel/Palestine at an American and Australian university.