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March 3, 2010

In News

There has been an interesting flap in Cambridge this past week regarding some appalling remarks made by one Martin Kramer. As some of you undoubtedly know, Kramer is a hard-line Israeli-American commentator who has made something of a name for himself attacking the Middle East studies profession, and just about anyone who is remotely critical of Israel’s actions or the U.S.-Israeli “special relationship.” (Full disclosure: he’s taken various ill-aimed swipes at me in the past few years). He was an early supporter of Campus Watch (the organization Daniel Pipes founded to blacklist scholars it disapproved of), and Kramer has also sought to convince Congress to curtail or at least closely monitor the Title VI funding it provides to support Middle East studies and other area studies programs at American universities. He is affiliated with a number of right-of-center organizations in the United States and Israel, and for the past few years, he’s also been a research fellow at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs here at Harvard, under the auspices of its National Security Studies program.

In any case, the ruckus started when it was revealed that Kramer had given a speech at the recent Herzliya Conference in Israel, where he advocated eliminating outside aid to Gazans (which he termed “pro-natal subsidies”) because — according to him — it encouraged them to reproduce, which led to the creation of what he termed “superfluous young males,” which, in turn, contributed to terrorism. He also suggested that Israel’s siege of Gaza was intended to deal with this problem. You can watch his remarks here, but the money quote is the following:

“Aging populations reject radical agenda and the Middle East is no different. Now eventually, this will happen among the Palestinians, too. But it will happen faster if the West stops providing pro-natal subsidies for Palestinians with refugee status. Those subsidies are one reason why in the ten years, from 1997 to 2007, Gaza’s population grew by an astonishing 40%. At that rate, Gaza’s population will double by 2030 to three million. Israel’s present sanctions on Gaza have a political aim, undermine the Hamas regime, but they also break Gaza’s runaway population growth and there is some evidence that they have. That may begin to crack the culture of martyrdom, which demands a constant supply of superfluous young men.”

In other words, if Israel and the West can just keep those pesky Palestinians on a subsistence diet and stop them from having all those babies, the population will get increasingly older and smaller and the terrorism problem will eventually go away.

One rarely hears anyone make such horrific remarks in polite company here in the United States, especially someone associated with a college or university. Not surprisingly, Kramer’s remarks have stirred up a major controversy. Several prominent bloggers — notably Ali Abunibah (who broke the story) and M.J. Rosenberg — accused Kramer of advocating genocide. Juan Cole at Informed Comment referred to Kramer’s ideas as a form of eugenics, Richard Silverstein called it anti-Muslim racism, and a number of people complained to the leadership of the Weatherhead Center. I know that because I am on the center’s executive committee and I received several irate emails demanding that Harvard dismiss Kramer or least distance itself from him. In response, the center’s directors issued a statement saying, “It would be inappropriate for the Weatherhead Center to pass judgment on the personal political views of any of its affiliates, or to make affiliation contingent upon some political criterion. Exception may be made for statements that go beyond the boundaries of protected speech, but there is no sense in which Kramer’s remarks could be considered to fall into this category.” They also said the charge that he was advocating genocide was “baseless.” The Harvard Crimson took a similar line, which you can read here.

I have three points to make about this matter.

First, although a good case can be made that Kramer’s remarks were tantamount to advocating genocide, I would not use that word to characterize them. The 1948 U.N. definition of genocide does include “imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group,” and Kramer’s call for an end to ‘pro-natal subsidies” is very close to that part of the definition. But despite my respect for Abunimah and Rosenberg, I think the word “genocide” has become a loaded term that gets tossed around too loosely, which makes it easy for Kramer and his defenders to portray legitimate criticism of his extreme views as over the top.

What word you use to describe his comments is actually not that important, because their substance is so offensive to any decent person that you don’t need to worry much about getting the right label for them. To illustrate this point, just imagine how Kramer would react if the Iranian government announced that it was worried its Jewish population (some 40,000 or so) was a potential “fifth column,” and that it was therefore imposing measures intended to discourage Iranian Jews from having more children? Or what if a prominent academic at Harvard declared that the United States had to make food scarcer for Hispanics so that they would have fewer children? Or what if someone at a prominent think tank noted that black Americans have higher crime rates than some other groups, and therefore it made good sense to put an end to Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and other welfare programs, because that would discourage African-Americans from reproducing and thus constitute an effective anti-crime program? Americans of all persuasions would appropriately denounce such views as barbaric and racist, and that’s precisely how Kramer’s chilling remarks should be viewed.

Second, I take the issue of academic freedom very seriously and believe that the principle applies to Kramer, even though I found his remarks appalling. Thus, I believe that the Weatherhead administrators were correct in deflecting calls to dismiss him. (Some of you may recall that I thought that the head of Ben Gurion University of the Negev was wrong when she tried to censure Professor Neve Gordon, who is on her faculty and who called for a boycott of Israel. By the same logic, it would be wrong for Harvard officials to cut off Kramer because they disagreed with what he said or even found it offensive.)

But notice that the Weatherhead directors did not quite “refrain from passing judgment” on what Kramer said. The appropriate stance to adopt whenever a faculty member or affiliated researcher takes a controversial or unpopular position is strict neutrality; the institution, or its official representatives, should take no position at all about the validity of the person’s views. Therefore, they should have defended Kramer’s right to say what he did but refrained from commenting on whether the accusations against him were “baseless” or not.

It is also more than a little ironic that Kramer and his defenders are using the principle of “academic freedom” as a means of defense, given Kramer’s past efforts to bring external pressure to bear on academics who made arguments about the Middle East that he found objectionable.

Third, the principle of academic freedom does not prevent scholars from challenging Kramer’s racist ideas, and pointing out just how offensive they are. Nor does it prevent any of us — and that includes academic administrators — from questioning Kramer’s judgment on matters relating to U.S. Middle East policy or from questioning the judgment of anyone who thought that having him affiliate with Harvard was a good idea.

One final point. It is important to emphasize that many Israelis and most American Jews would undoubtedly find Kramer’s views offensive. At the same, however, he is hardly an isolated extremist, or some messianic settler sitting in a trailer in an illegal outpost in the West Bank. On the contrary, he is an especially well-connected individual, with appointments at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and of course Harvard. Moreover, he is not the only Israeli who has expressed such hateful views about the Palestinians. Of course, one can find equally hateful sentiments about Israeli Jews coming from Palestinians and Arabs. But the key difference is that they don’t hold appointments at prestigious institutions like Harvard.