From Suzanne Watts Henderson, Ph.D., an associate professor of religion at Queens University of Charlotte, in response to Lawrence H. Summers’ column “No prejudice allowed on campus – unless it’s against Israel?” (April 1 op-ed):
In his article, Lawrence H. Summers rightly sounds an alarm about the dangers of silencing “uncomfortable” conversations on university campuses. As a professor of religious studies, I tell students that my job means exposing them to information that will likely unsettle facile assumptions they hold sacred.
But there are other dangers lurking throughout Summers’ article, dangers that compromise our campuses’ role in planting the seeds of a civil society. For one thing, the article glibly equates robust debate about Israeli policy with anti-Semitism, an equation that marks that debate as “off limits” in many circles – not just academic, but religious, social, and political as well.
Understandably, the Holocaust has ingrained in many Jews a palpable sense of vulnerability, so that even a classroom discussion about the Israeli occupation of Palestine can feel like deeply personal attack. It’s also made many non-Jews – rightly, I think – aware of the world’s mostly silent complicity in Hitler’s evil regime. Yet rather ironically, to equate open, critical discussion about Israeli policy with anti-Semitism promotes just the kind of silence on which all repressive power depends.
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Another danger proceeds from the first. Summers’ article portrays Israel as “victim,” thus ignoring the stark disparity in power between Israel and the Palestinians. That disparity is systemic, enshrined in ways that curtail the rights, freedoms and resources available to non-Jews. Every day, non-Jewish residents of Israel and the Occupied Territories suffer the brunt of Israel’s power to restrict free movement, access to water, land ownership and building permits, educational opportunities and due process of law. To call Israel to account for these and other injustices stems not from hatred of “the Jews,” as if all Jews everywhere bear responsibility for Israeli policy. It stems from commitment to the ideal to which all self-identifying democracies should be held accountable: the use of power to engender the well-being of all their inhabitants.
Finally, to stifle open debate about Israel in the university setting is to miss a ripe opportunity to promote the kind of deliberative dialogue about difficult topics that our world so desperately needs. Together, we must encounter new information, assess its accuracy, and reflect carefully on how it affects our worldview and our actions. We must be able to listen in a spirit of appreciative inquiry, and with a willingness to disagree well about important matters. As Woodrow Wilson put it, the academic community at its best draws “all minds to a proper adjustment to the physical and social world in which they are to have their life …: to enlighten, strengthen, and make fit.”
A strong, viable Israel depends not on greater sensitivity to those beholden to Israel as idyllic and unassailable. Rather, it depends on our ability to rise to the challenge of an uncomfortable conversation, one that aims to speak the truth in love, to lift up the voice of the oppressed, and to affirm the equal dignity of all of God’s children.