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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘[Intellectual] Occupation Week’: Dishonesty and dilettantism in presenting a ‘counter-narrative’

Published: November 12, 2010
Section: Opinions

This week, two student groups at Brandeis University are hosting the first “Brandeis Israel Occupation Awareness Week” with a stated goal to present a “nice counterpoint … to the Zionist narrative” through a series of lectures and presentations. This week includes an appearance by MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, who will address Israeli “apartheid,” a speech encouraging boycott and divestment from Israel and a performance by a Palestinian rap group.

The Brandeis Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace are organizing the week’s activities, which, it should be mentioned, are independent of the festivities of “Israeli Apartheid Week,” which will be hosted across American campuses in early 2011. All of this raises two questions: To what extent do rap groups, speakers who encourage divestment and who use highly charged and sensitive words such as “apartheid” succeed in presenting a counter-narrative, and how should universities relate to such initiatives, particularly when their names are attached to them?

To answer these questions, we must examine both the message of such projects and the way in which it is presented.

Speakers such as Chomsky, who encourage not only a halt to certain Israeli government policies but also, in effect, the withdrawal of support from the Israeli state, the de-legitimatization of its existence and the toleration of violent means to achieve it, advocate the aims of terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. (In fact, Chomsky met with Hezbollah leaders in Lebanon in May of 2006.) Framing these points as “counter-narratives” is an injustice both to the only stalwart of human rights in the Middle East—Israel—and to the Palestinians themselves. It is those Palestinian families that genuinely strive for peace and for better lives with their Israeli neighbors who, in the course of shifts in Palestinian governance, have had their narrative and goals sabotaged by terrorist regimes such as Hamas.

However disturbing, this is not the fundamental flaw with an American university accepting unquestioningly such initiatives.

The issue is rather one of free speech—particularly on the permissibility of offensive or “hate” speech—on American soil. Calls for the destruction of Israel are offensive to those who have a right, as do the citizens of any sovereign nation, to defend their land and live there. Thus we reach a fundamental question: do such student groups have the right to invite such speakers, to host such events and to sponsor such initiatives despite their genocidal content?

In the United States, individuals and groups seem to have a legal right to express their views publicly, to demonstrate and to promote platforms no matter the disruptive nature of their content. But the law does not exist in a vacuum. As citizens of the same republic, we all possess moral responsibilities to one another. That means that, as a community which is bound by the law, we simultaneously engage in a discussion of what is right and what is wrong.

University campuses, as forums for the free exchange of ideas and incubators for the next generation of citizens, should not be exempted from this principle.

“Brandeis Israel Occupation Week” and all its variants—regardless of their message—are the legitimate expressions of the views of a particular cross-section of American society and, as such, seem to be justified. They are, moreover, paradoxically justified despite their message of destroying a legitimate democratic nation.

However, we as students, administrators and teachers all have a moral responsibility to one another—not only as citizens but also as promoters of honest scholarship—to present such issues completely to one another. This means not only being mindful of the views of all members of this community, but also taking care that the discussion is a balanced and academically valid one.

Today I proudly speak of Brandeis as my home, the incubator for my ideas and my professional trajectory. Although I do not agree with the mission of “Brandeis Israel Occupation Week,” I recognize and respect the legal right of my fellow Brandeisians to speak their minds. However, this must be done in a just and honest way to show that this is not the only counter-narrative, that there are many voices and stories to be told and that all must be shared. Before we go about parading our civil liberties, let’s be intelligent and realize which of them might violate the liberties of our neighbors.

It should be the basic interest and priority of those students who stand at the forefront of this debate to ensure that this task is achieved. If “Brandeis Israel Occupation Week” takes place without such morally-guided reflection and action on their part, then I see no justification for the planners of this week’s events to display the hubris of calling themselves liberal-minded individuals who defend social justice. Social justice is based in social responsibility.

Editor’s note: The author is a member of the Brandeis graduating class of 2007.