Op-Ed: F&M Students Express Support for Intellectual Freedom

Written by Zeyu Wang | | Signed by the following F&M students 

We, members of the Franklin and Marshall College community, recognise our often difficult situation on campus in approaching controversial topics such as the Israel-Palestine conflict. In particular, we recognise the pressure that seeks to undermine our freedom of speech across academia. We unconditionally uphold the value of freedom of speech and condemn foreign intervention with an explicit agenda from Israel. As evident in the cases of Kylie Broderick and David Miller discussed below, we mournfully recognise that our rights are at peril and urge academic institutions to protect their professors and students.

This August, an Israeli diplomat baselessly accused a graduate student of antisemitism and said she was unfit to teach a history course called “The Conflict over Israel/Palestine.” Anat Sultan-Dadon, Israeli Consul-General in Atlanta, arranged meetings with a dean in the University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill, pressuring the UNC administration to remove Kylie Broderick, a Ph.D. student teacher, from her teaching position. Certain pro-Israel advocacy groups and Sultan-Dadon’s consular officials cited Broderick’s postings on Twitter [1] [2] as antisemitism. For her vocal support of the “Boycott, Divest, and Sanction” (#BDS) movement and her critique of Zionism, Broderick’s statements were interpreted by Sultan-Dadon as “not only heavily biased, but fall clearly under what is defined as antisemitic by the IHRA working definition of antisemitism” [3]. The consul was referring to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s heavily-contested working definition of Antisemitism. However, the 40-words long IHRA definition [4] was used, for example, by the UK government officials to threaten to sanction universities who do not comply [5]. In the consul’s evaluation of Broderick’s statements, we find it absurd and misleading to equate one’s disapproval of the Israeli nationalist narrative to the Nazi-era practice of antisemitism. This pressure to remove Broderick from her employment in a US higher education institution happens at the express consent of a foreign government, to defame and intimidate a teacher, to uproot our freedom of speech in American academia.

We mourn all loss of lives. We extend our empathy towards all victims of genocidal wars. We realise the presence of various political agendas across the globe that target specific groups of people. We condemn Nazi Germans at the height of which was Eichmann (whose bureaucracy, according to Hannah Arendt, embodied the “banality of evil”); we condemn Israeli occupation of Palestine and Israeli attacks in Gaza and West Bank; we condemn the PRC’s recent genocide [6] in Xinjiang. And the list continues wherever human atrocities occur. We understand that suffering as a human phenomenon isn’t unique to victims of the Nazi Holocaust. We reject IHRA’s suggestion that anything pertaining to the Jewish statehood is justified on the basis of past suffering in the Holocaust. We find it plausible to draw comparison between Israeli bureaucrats and soldiers who obey their superior’s command to carry out attacks against Palestinians and Nazi officials who obeyed the command of Hitler: both inhumanly attempting to erase another group of people, regardless of doing it physically or culturally. Yet under the IHRA suggestion, this would fall under “contemporary examples of antisemitism in public life”: “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” [4]. We reject IHRA’s suggestion that Israeli government policy has impunity from any criticism. 

Unlike Broderick who happened to keep her job secured [7], David Miller, an eminent political sociologist, head of Propaganda Studies at the Sociology Department at the University of Bristol in England, was not so fortunate. Professor Miller has lost employment [8] [9] [10] since Friday 1 October after eight months of external pressure Bristol had to face. A vocal critic of Israel, Miller once famously said: “a real question of abuse here — of Jewish students on British campuses being used as political pawns by a violent, racist, foreign regime engaged in ethnic cleansing” [11]. In this widely quoted statement that we endorse, he was referring to the propaganda campaigns launched from Israel that manipulate Jewish individuals in Western countries to spread the Zionist ideology and perpetuate a war with Palestine. To be clear: he was not targeting Jewish students on the basis of them being Jewish, nor “raising the prospect of real physical harm” [12]. Yet this, among other similar remarks, sparked controversy in British academia and politics since February; over 100 MPs, along with Pro-Israel lobbyist groups, called for his dismissal from the University of Bristol [13] [14]. We find it alarmingly ironic that a professor of propaganda studies becomes himself a target of propaganda. We reject that Miller’s profound criticism would constitute “hate speech” as a smear campaigner claimed [15]. We stand resolute against such smear campaigns targeting the finest thinkers of our age.

Since February, a list of about 200 scholars and intellectuals across the UK, US, and Europe have been in support of Professor Miller. The list grew to 466 over the months, and includes prominent scholars such as Noam Chomsky, Ilan Pappé, and Norman Finkelstein [16] [17] [18]; the renowned gender theorist Judith Butler also signed the statement initially [19] but later withdrew for reasons of their own. The letter addressed to the Bristol administration states that “[Professor Miller] is known internationally for exposing the role that powerful actors and well-resourced, coordinated networks play in manipulating and stage-managing public debates, including on racism. The impact of his research on the manipulation of narratives by lobby groups has been crucial to deepening public knowledge and discourse in this area.” We endorse this finding and encourage more people to speak out against the censorship campaign against Bristol’s David Miller.

To further worsen the climate of fear and censorship, there is a public blacklist called “Canary Mission” run by pro-Israel smear campaigners. It is a website that “compiles dossiers on Palestinian rights advocates and labels them racists, anti-Semites, and supporters of terrorism” [20]. The blacklist exposes personal information of students and professors across the US academia. The propaganda designating supporters of Palestinian rights as terrorists, racists, and anti-Semites only seeks to further harass and intimidate those advocating for peace, not at all seeking to rebuild on the scars of war, which we think a Zionist Israel was largely responsible for. We are aware of the intention and tactics in the Canary Mission and see it as a bad example of what freedom of speech can be misused to do: it works to precisely stifle our freedom of speech. We call upon all ideologically belligerent sides to commit ourselves to reciprocal respect.

In July this year, over 150 intellectuals published an open letter on Harper’s Magazine, calling for more open debates, not less. “The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.” We completely agree with this idea; and we see unhindered exposure of one’s idea as the premise for further debate. Despite how much a community is divided and each side sees the other as wrong, there is still hope for mutual understanding. If a majority group or a specific minority group sees an idea as bad, they should seek to defeat it by persuasion, not stifle it by force.

While many of us do categorically reject the “even-handedness” or “two-sidedness” to the Israel-Palestine conflicts, we do recognise that undesirable narratives have a right to exist and shall be, as all narratives are, subject to debate and critique. We reaffirm that freedom of speech, which is essential to long term democratic participation for everyone, must be upheld against all odds. We look forward to more debates in the future on topics that were of concern to our campus community. We stand in firm support of Kylie Broderick and David Miller whose professional lives have been at risk to various degrees due to foreign intervention. We understand that our freedom of speech may be at peril on our own campus and are dedicated to defending it by all means.

Link to list of signatories (continuously updated).

Contributing writer Zeyu Wang is a junior. His email is zwang6@fandm.edu.

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