On witch-hunts and how to fight them

May 3, 2009

In News

By Peter Schmidt

The Anti-Defamation League’s top official met with administrators and faculty members of the University of California at Santa Barbara last month and urged them to investigate a professor for academic misconduct for his harsh criticism of Israel in an e-mail message to students, a university spokesman confirmed on Tuesday.

But the spokesman, Paul Desruisseaux, said a university administrator had told Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Jewish advocacy group, that an investigation was already under way in response to two students’ complaints, and that any further discussion of the matter would be inappropriate.

The university, Mr. Desruisseaux said, “has not responded in any way to any pressure from the ADL or other groups” in its inquiry into misconduct allegations that the two students formally brought against William I. Robinson, a professor of sociology, in response to the e-mail message. He said the investigation was “working its way through standard procedures,” with a panel of the Academic Senate looking into the matter to determine whether the allegations have enough weight to be considered by the senate’s Privilege and Tenure Committee.

A national spokeswoman for the Anti-Defamation League, Myrna Shinbaum, confirmed Tuesday that the meeting with university officials had taken place. She declined, however, to provide additional comment, and said Mr. Foxman was out of the country. Officials of the organization’s Santa Barbara regional office, which also was involved in the March 9 meeting, declined to take calls and referred inquiries to the group’s national headquarters.

Dueling Statements

The controversy surrounding Mr. Robinson has attracted widespread
attention at Santa Barbara and elsewhere, with some students on the
campus forming a group in support of him and a long list of scholars
signing onto letters urging that the investigation be dropped. On
Tuesday, California Scholars for Academic Freedom, an organization
comprising more than 100 faculty members at colleges around the state,
issued a statement calling the misconduct charges “without merit” and
“brought to silence criticism of Israeli policies and practices.”

The uproar centers around an e-mail message that Mr. Robinson sent on
January 19 to students in his “Sociology of Globalization” class. In
it, he accused Israel of war crimes for its military actions in Gaza,
and forwarded juxtaposed photographs of what he called “Nazi
atrocities against the Jews and Israeli atrocities against the
Palestinians.” He argued that “Gaza is Israel’s Warsaw” and
characterized Israel as a state “founded on the negation” of the
Palestinian people.

On February 9, Cynthia Silverman, director of the Anti-Defamation
League’s Santa Barbara office, sent Mr. Robinson a letter saying her
organization had received complaints about his e-mail message. Her
letter—copied to the campus’s chancellor, Henry T. Yang, and the
university system’s president, Mark G. Yudof—called the professor’s
comparison of Israelis and Nazis “offensive” and the views he
presented in his e-mail message “intimidating to students.”

The letter, arguing that the e-mail message appeared unrelated to Mr.
Robinson’s sociology course, cited several provisions of the
university’s faculty code of conduct that, it said, he had probably
violated by using his university e-mail account to distribute a
message that was not course-related.

‘His Damage Is Irreversible’

In the ensuing weeks, two students separately filed formal letters of
complaint about the e-mail message with university officials. Both of
those letters complained that Mr. Robinson had violated the same
provisions in the code of conduct that had been cited by the regional
office of the ADL, and both accused Mr. Robinson of anti-Semitism
using a definition taken from a U.S. State Department document.

One of the students wrote, “This professor should be stopped
immediately from continuing to disseminate this information and be
punished because his damage is irreversible.”

The other student said she had been nauseated about a professor
sending such an e-mail message and felt compelled to drop the class in
response to it.

The campus spokesman, Mr. Desruisseaux (who is a former editor at The
Chronicle), said the March 9 meeting with Mr. Foxman and local ADL
officials was organized by Leonard Wallock, associate director of the
campus’s Walter Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion, and
Public Life. Among those in attendance were Michael D. Young, vice
chancellor for student affairs; David B. Marshall, executive dean of
the College of Letters and Science; and several faculty members.

“To the participants from our campus,” Mr. Desruisseaux said, “the
purpose and agenda of the meeting had nothing to do with the Robinson
inquiry. It was planned as an informal discussion of issues of mutual
concern to the campus, its students, and ADL.”

When Mr. Foxman pulled out the regional ADL office’s letter of
complaint about Mr. Robinson and asked if the university had done
anything in response, “about half the people in the room did not know
what he was talking about,” Mr. Desruisseaux said. Mr. Marshall then
told the ADL official that the inquiry was under way, and ended
discussion of the subject.

A student group that is supporting Mr. Robinson and working closely
with him, the Committee to Defend Academic Freedom at UCSB, issued a
statement arguing that Mr. Foxman had held the meeting solely to
pressure the university to investigate the complaints against the
professor. Neither Mr. Robinson nor the committee was able on Tuesday
to produce any faculty members who had attended the meeting and who
could support their account, however. Mr. Robinson did not comment on

The Anti-Defamation League’s calls for Santa Barbara to investigate
Mr. Robinson is not its only current effort to challenge campus
relationships with critics of Israel. The group also is protesting
decisions by Michigan State University and the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill to have Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a vocal
critic of Israel, speak at their commencements this year.

American Jewish professor probed after comparing Israel to Nazis

04.30.2009 | Haaretz

By Cnaan Liphshiz and News Agencies

A Jewish professor from California who is under review for disseminating material that equates Israelis to Nazis has petitioned other scholars to protest a probe of his actions, an Israel advocacy group has told Haaretz.

The University of California, Santa Barbara, is investigating allegations of improper conduct and anti-Semitism against Sociology professor William I. Robinson for sending an e-mail to 80 of his students in January that contained photos of Jews killed by the Nazis and similar photos of Palestinians killed in the recent Israeli offensive in Gaza.

The founder of the group whose members filed the complaint against Robinson, the U.S.-based Israel advocacy student group StandWithUs, told Haaretz that the e-mail used the terms “concentration camp” and “genocide” when referring to Gaza.

“The bylaws of the school forbid using classrooms for as platforms for dogmas that have nothing whatsoever to do with the material being studied,” StandWithUs founder Roz Rothstein from Los Angeles said while on a visit to Israel.

The complaint against Robinson was filed by two students. Lia Yaiger, one of the pair, is a graduate of StandWithUs’ Emerson Fellowship program, which trains students in campuses in “response techniques” to anti-Israel efforts on campus.

In Robinson’s petition – which Rothstein says has been sent out to “radical left-wing” professors – he argues that he was within his rights of academic freedom to challenge students with controversial topics, and that the process that the university has initiated is an attempt to silence him and infringes on his right to free speech.

The same email that Robinson sent already roused controversy in January, after a Norwegian diplomat serving in Saudi Arabia used her official mail from the foreign ministry to spread it to recipients.

The letter contains gory images of slain children said to have been killed in the Israeli attack on Hamas in Gaza, juxtaposed with photos of Holocaust victims in seemingly correlating situations.

One photo showed the charred remains of casualties from Gaza next to burned bodies from a Nazi death camp. Others showed Arab children behind fences next to Jewish children in ghettos, and Israeli troops next to Nazi Wehrmacht soldiers.

Enough With the Campus Inquisitions!

04.29.2009 | The New Republic

By Alan Wolfe

William I. Robinson teaches sociology at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Describing himself as a “scholar-activist” on his website, Robinson deals with recent economic trends such as globalization. He does so in a manner reminiscent of the leftism once so popular in the 1970s as if, no matter how much the world changes, academic fads should never go out of style. I try to keep abreast with the field of sociology; Robinson is not a name that would appear on any list I would make of its most distinguished practitioners.

In January, Robinson sent an email to the students in his “Sociology of Globalization” course. In it he accused Israel of war crimes in Gaza, drew analogies between the Israeli occupation of the area to the Warsaw Ghetto, and included photographs comparing Israeli actions in the region to the actions the Nazis had taken against the Jews. Some students complained. The Anti-Defamation League has called for an investigation. UCSB’s response has been to say that an investigation is already underway. Many faculty have sent letters of protest arguing that Robinson’s academic freedom is being abridged. On the contrary, say his critics: Robinson went way beyond his academic responsibilities by sending propagandistic emails to his students on a subject that had nothing to do with his academic interests.

For me, this is an open and shut case. Neither Robinson’s leftist kind of sociology nor his activist kind of politics are mine. Yet the idea of investigating him is appalling and the ADL should be ashamed of itself. Precedents are being set in this case that could have serious ramifications for everyone teaching in public universities–and perhaps even private ones.

We ought to want professors in our universities who teach about controversial subjects to provoke, and even outrage, their students. We should be pleased that they care enough about the issues of the day and about what students believe to send emails to them when things happen in the world that bear on the major issues of the day. Academic apathy is a serious problem. No one could ever accuse William Robinson of that.

At the same time, we should be wary of anyone who views the university not as a place for the exchange of ideas, but as an environment for therapeutic self-affirmation. “This professor should be stopped immediately from continuing to disseminate this information and be punished because his damage is irreversible,” one unnamed UCSB student argued. Nonsense. Whatever damage words and pictures can do is out-weighed by the arguments and discussion they provoke. This student was angry. That was the point. The idea that Robinson caused some kind of irreversible damage here is preposterous. Seeking to punish him is even worse.

The ADL operates at the same level of this confused student. The director of its Santa Barbara office described Robinson’s comparisons as “offensive” and claimed that writing to students is “intimidating.” But there can be little doubt who is trying to intimidate here. The ADL’s mission is to protect us against the hatred of anti-Semitism. Once upon it time it believed that the best way to do so was to call for open discussion on the grounds that minorities subject to majority stereotyping benefit most when the intellectual air is free. Now it has become part and parcel of the thought police, monitoring campuses for any sign of what it considers offensive speech and putting pressure to bear on university administrators to stop it. We now have a world in which Catholics try to prevent Barack Obama from receiving an honorary degree at Notre Dame while the ADL leads similar campaigns against Desmond Tutu speaking at North Carolina. This is the kind of ecumenicalism we do not need.

A Committee to Defend Academic Freedom at UCSB has been formed and it includes a protest against Robinson’s treatment from Noam Chomsky. I almost never find myself in agreement with my fellow alum of Philadelphia’s Central High School. But I would be dismayed if only those protesting the ADL’s actions in the Robinson case were those who shared his political views.

There are all too many inquisitors out there in the world opposing this or that speaker or campus, watching what professors are saying; in my own neighborhood, Clark University considered cancelling a speech by Norman Finkelstein while Boston College did cancel one by Bill Ayers. This whole business is threatening to spin out of control. Those of us who once opposed the smug political correctness of the academic left ought to be just as opposed to the new version of political correctness adopted by the ADL and its supporters.