letters in response to my letter…

It’s not often that I write a letter to my alumni magazine. I did so, because two alumni had written letters that had not yet been rebutted, in which they in effect labelled a course on Zionism and Palestine as antisemitic at worst, biased at best. The course is taught by Professor John Mearsheimer, who is a very prominent political scientist. I don’t know Professor Mearsheimer; I never took any poli sci courses at Chicago, although I did have a roommate who thought very highly of his teaching. When I was a student at the U of C, Mearsheimer was very uncontroversial. Then a few years ago, he teamed up with Professor Stephen Walt of Harvard to write a scholarly article about the Israeli Lobby and its effect on US foreign policy. This was probably the first time two highly regarded academics approached such a controversial subject. I’d read their paper and while one might argue with a part here and there, my feeling is that it was largely dead on, and at the very least, constituted appropriate scholarship. Needless to say, Mearsheimer and Walt were labelled as antisemites, but I felt they had approached this topic with suitable caution,  and took great pains to avoid their work falling into the category of antisemitism (for example, they clearly emphasized that they were referring to an Israeli Lobby made up of Christians and Jews, not a Jewish Lobby, which is an antisemitic construct).

Apparently, Mearsheimer is teaching a class on Zionism and Palestine. Two alumni of my distinguished alma mater wrote letters to the alumni magazine in which they said things like:

“The U of C has allowed itself to stumble into the volatile issue of whether Professor Mearsheimer will be “teaching” a course in Zionism and Middle East foreign policy or in reality serving as a proxy voice advocate of the anti-Jewish, anti-Israel idealogues that seek the final solution of extinction of Israel, the only vibrant, productive, functioning democracy in the Middle East.”

“Propaganda is the teaching of the captive mind. Has Mearsheimer actually become not an educator but a “useful idiot” of the enemies of Israel and, for whatever reason, the University of Chicago an unwitting accomplice?”

“Professor John Mearsheimer’s undergraduate class, Zionism and Palestine, pays “considerable attention … to the plight of the Palestinians.””

“A respected scholar” who “always limits enrollment in his seminars by requiring instructor’s consent” and “a very popular teacher,” Professor Mearsheimer’s students often agree with him about “modern-day Israel” and welcome reinforcement for their partisan views. But for undergraduates interested in nonpartisan scholarship, Professor Mearsheimer’s class does not offer a “safe environment.””

I felt this needed some balance, so I wrote a letter and independently, another alumnus wrote his views as well. The point of my letter was simply that there was an automatic assumption that teaching about the effects of Zionism upon the Palestinians is opinion-based rather than evidence-based, and that anything that goes against the accepted (in the US, at least) narrative that Israel is an embattled “vibrant democracy” is condemned as antisemitic. I find that inappropriate, particularly in an academic environment.

I got home yesterday from a work trip to the UK and The Netherlands and found the latest copy of my alumni magazine, which contained several responses to the letters that I and another alumnus had felt compelled to write a few months earlier. I was glad to see some supportive letters, one of which referred to me as “courageous.” I strongly disagree, but the sentiment was appreciated. The University of Chicago Magazine did allow both of the original letter-writers to try to rebut the letters I and another alumnus had written in support of Mearsheimer’s class, and unfortunately the Magazine clearly has indicated that no further discussion would be published. That’s a shame, since I think their points, along with the alumnus who lives in the highly religious and conservative community of B’nei Brak, deserve some further discussion, although I probably shouldn’t even try to rebut the latter’s belief that “Moreover, the moral right of the Jews to live in all of “Palestine” goes back approximately 3,700 years, as documented in the Old Testament (affirmed by Muslims as a holy book) and confirmed by countless archaeological findings.” It’s not worth anyone’s time to try to discuss how the Old Testament hardly constitutes a historic document. And the fact that Palestine is clearly deserving of quotation marks in his letter (I wonder how he’d have felt if I had discussed “Israel?”) indicates that this is not a U of C graduate who has an open mind.

It’s interesting, though, that this has essentially pitted Jew vs. Jew in the letters section of the U of C Magazine. It’s interesting, because that actually is the reality. Many of us do not buy into the “My Israel, right or wrong” point of view. We can’t view Palestinians as collectively guilty for terrorism. Nor can we ignore their plight. Whether one calls Israeli society “apartheid” or not (and my personal view is that, while it is not a precise analogue of what happened in Afrikaner-ruled South Africa, it’s pretty damned close in many ways), is not the point. The point is that Israeli society does discriminate against Arabs, Jews of non-Western background, Jews who are not religious, and many other groups. It’s wonderful that Arabs can participate in the Israeli government, but why shouldn’t they? Aren’t they citizens? And the same people who love to point out Arab Israeli participation in the Knesset paradoxically do not point to the participation of Jews in the Iranian parliament as similar evidence of a “vibrant democracy” in that repressive country.

One point was made that, in effect, we shouldn’t be criticizing Israel when other countries do bad things too. Honestly-is this really the best rational argument someone from my distinguished alma mater can make? I doubt I would have gotten a decent grade when I was in school there had I made that sort of argument in a paper. I have no issue with anyone disagreeing with me, but could we at least base it on factual data, rather than false comparisons?