Preserving Academic Freedom at the University of Chicago

, Richard Cravatts, Leave a comment

Perhaps when literary critic C.S. Lewis despaired of “omnipotent moral busybodies . . . who torment us for our own good,” he was anticipating the tendentious rants of members of the University of Chicago’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a toxic campus group of anti-Israel activists who have helped lead a campaign of libel and delegitimization against the Jewish state, and, at times, have inspired ugly anti-Semitism disguised as being merely criticism of Israeli government policies.

SJP has a long history since its founding in 1993 of bringing vitriolic anti-Israel speakers to their respective 200 or so campuses, and for sponsoring Israeli Apartheid Weeks, building mock “apartheid walls,” and sending fake eviction notices to students in their dorms to help them empathize with Palestinians.

Now, SJP’s U Chicago chapter has mounted a targeted campaign to deplatform a course, “Security, Counter-Terrorism and Resilience: The Israeli Case,” being taught by visiting professor and Israel Institute Fellow Meir Elran, former deputy director of Israeli Military Intelligence and retired Israeli brigadier general who also directs the domestic research programs of Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies.

SJP’s attempt to boycott and dissuade their peers from enrolling in this class is not the first effort this year to interfere with teaching at the university. In January, for instance, SJP posted on its Instagram page the shocking admonition, “DON’T TAKE SH*TTY ZIONIST CLASSES.” Students were asked to “Support the Palestinian movement for liberation by boycotting classes on Israel or those taught by Israeli fellows.”

According to the SJP post, any students who enrolled in the two classes, “Gender Relations in Israel” taught by Meital Pinto and “Narrating Israel and Palestine through Literature and Film” taught by Stephanie Kraver, would be “participating in a propaganda campaign that creates complicity in the continuation of Israel’s occupation of Palestine” and that, in its view, “Israeli-centered classes are designed to obscure Palestinian perspectives.”

The arrival of General Elran, a veteran of the Israeli military, was particularly offensive to the SJP scolds, inspiring them to issue a statement in which they based their critique of the course on their own ahistorical, factually-flawed narrative about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, opposing any pro-Israel views to be expressed and claiming, as they always do, that Israel is an illegitimate entity that exists on stolen Palestinian lands which it illegally and brutally occupies with its tactical and strategic military force.

“On Elran’s telling of Israeli history,” the statement contended, “Israel appears not as an expansionist apartheid state predicated on the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian land, but as an embattled liberal democracy surrounded by ‘large hostile Muslim populations’ and mired in a ‘Muslim-Jewish conflict’ not of its own making.” In other words, SJP believed, the reality that the Jews of Israel have faced a genocidal onslaught from psychopathic terrorists determined to extirpate the Jewish state and murder its Jews is merely a fiction, a false narrative promoted by Israel. The truth, according to SJP, is that Israel was created on Palestinian land and now oppresses the indigenous population with a system of racist apartheid and military occupation, all factually and historically incorrect, as any sentient observer knows.

Anticipating that defenders of the course would point to the University’s own commitment to academic freedom and the right of faculty and students to enjoy free and open debate—even concerning controversial topics—SJP said that Elran’s course should not be insulated by those precepts. Why? Because, as their statement put it, again reversing fact and narrative to suit their own advantage, “No principle of ‘academic freedom’ or ‘intellectual diversity’ justifies hosting classes taught by complicit Israeli military personnel – particularly not classes that misrepresent Palestinian history, treat Palestinian deaths as fodder for ‘strategic’ military theorizing, and inundate students with the Orientalist worldview of Israeli colonists.”

SJP’s opposition to General Elran has not been limited to published statements denouncing the professor and the course content. On February 2nd, SJP members mounted an in-person protest at Cobb Hall, the building where Elran’s course is being taught, something the activists have been doing since the class began and a tactic meant to physically and morally intimidate enrolled students as they enter and leave the building. The February 2nd protest was particularly grotesque since it had as its secondary purpose, according to an SJP Instagram post, “to commemorate the 10 martyrs of the Jenin Refugee Camp.”

Consider how shocking and morally deranged it is for students on an American campus to celebrate terrorists whose supposed martyrdom is achieved by murdering Jewish civilians in Israel—and to do so outside of a classroom full of Israeli and Jewish students and a professor who reasonably understand that their support for Israel would make them justifiable targets for the psychopathic madmen who feel compelled to murder civilians as “resistance” to and occupation of a factitious Palestine.

Consider how a university community would respond to a similar protest that glorified the murder of 10 black people in Buffalo by a white supremacist in May of 2022 or the 2016 murder of 49 gay people at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando by a deranged homophobe. The response and criticism of such a demonstration for such psychopaths would be thunderous, immediate, and severe, but at the University of Chicago, the event passed without comment.

The so-called martyrs that SJP commemorated in their protest died in the Jenin refugee camp, a location that is notorious for being a terrorist stronghold and, as i24News has noted, is “a central base for terror groups such as Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades . . , Hamas,” Lion’s Den, Fatah, and others. Nowhere acknowledged by SJP, of course, is the fact that Jenin is proudly referred to by Palestinians “as the ‘Martyrs’ Capital,’ [and] at least 23 of the 60 suicide bombers that attacked Israel came from Jenin, according to Israel —more than any other Palestinian city.”

And typical of SJP’s virulent anti-Israel narrative, Israel and the IDF are depicted as a brutal, nearly sadistic force that regularly and randomly murders innocent Palestinian civilians. But the inverse of that is actually true, and the IDF is methodical and fastidiously careful in its incursions to suppress terror against its citizens, as it was in the latest Jenin operation.

“2023 has seen increased terror attacks & IDF counter-terror operations,” noted Honest Reporting, a media watchdog organization, “with an equal number of Israeli & Palestinian civilian casualties.” But the media and activists like SJP “report all Palestinian deaths equally,” Honest Reporting noted, “choosing not to mention that 49 of the 60 Palestinian deaths were confirmed terrorists actively engaged in attacking Israelis. And 8 were under the age of 18.” Given that Palestinian terrorists wear no uniforms and regularly embed themselves in civilian populations, it is the unfortunate reality that, even given Israel’s extreme care in minimizing casualties, some civilian deaths occur—regrettable, of course, but the fault of the terrorist groups who initiated conflict against Israelis with rockets, bombings, knife attacks, car ramming, and shootings.

Aside from the evident moral indifference SJP demonstrated in honoring those who murder Jews, other important academic considerations are being compromised by the group’s disruption of the Elran class.

When a visiting faculty member is asked to teach a course, as is the case here, he or she is thoroughly vetted in advance by departmental faculty and others with an academic interest in or knowledge of the proposed course and professor. To teach at an elite institution such as the University of Chicago, a visiting professor must possess both professional experience and academic credentials to satisfy the hiring committee and to insure that the course will be taught to the standards of the host university. Clearly, General Elran is qualified, both academically and professionally.

So the troublesome issue here is that a small group of activist students, SJP, with a poisonous enmity toward Israel, Zionism, and Judaism have assumed the right to overrule the decision of the University’s faculty and call for a boycott and cancellation of a course. The course in question is not, importantly, a mandatory course, so any student can avoid the course by simply not enrolling. If the morally sensitive SJP members were compelled to take Elran’s course, they might have a stronger argument for having someone else teach the course or not making it mandatory, but that is not the case here.

SJP and other anti-Israel activists on campuses would prefer, of course, that nothing that might be construed as pro-Israel ever be uttered or taught or written about on campus. The late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once quipped that “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts,” something SJP has yet to realize or comprehend. They are certainly permitted to have their own version of history and their own narrative about the Israeli-Palestinian debate, but people as knowledgeable, and even more knowledgeable, than they also have their own narratives, facts, and set of truths.

And SJP’s latest repellent tactic of physically disrupting the operations of the University, of course, are more than simply annoying; they are violative of the University’s own rules of student life and conduct. “The right of freedom of expression at the University,” the code reads, “includes peaceful protests and orderly demonstrations. At the same time, the University has long recognized that the right to protest and demonstrate does not include the right to engage in conduct that disrupts the University’s operations or endangers the safety of others,” precisely what SJP’s protest outside the classroom and building entailed. The code also has a warning to offenders that “Any member of the University who engages in disruptive conduct will be subject to disciplinary action,” although it seems SJP has yet to be punished for their aggressive activism.

Coincidentally, it was the University of Chicago that published a seminal set of guidelines for university free speech, the 2014 “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression,” often referred to as the Chicago Principles.

“Although members of the University community are free to criticize and contest the views expressed on campus, and to criticize and contest speakers who are invited to express their views on campus,” the report read, they may not obstruct or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe. To this end, the University has a solemn responsibility not only to promote a lively and fearless freedom of debate and deliberation, but also to protect that freedom when others attempt to restrict it.”

SJP must recognize that, while they have the right to express their views publicly and forcefully, they cannot expect or attempt to suppress those same rights of expression enjoyed by others.