Monday, February 16, 2009

To Alan Dershowitz: Thanks, but No Thanks (Chill, Man!)

The controversy over Students for Justice in Palestine here has prompted Alan Dershowitz, writing in the Jerusalem Post, to call for a moratorium on contributions to Hampshire College. I answered there within the 600-character limit. Here is the full response:

To Professor Dershowitz:

I respect your expression of concern over the possible motives and consequences of divestment policies, and as a member of the Hampshire College faculty, I of course understand your particular interest in the situation of what I wholeheartedly agree is the “fine school” that educated your son (though I did not have occasion to know him).

Many of us here have taken issue, publicly and privately, with the positions and tactics of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). It is likewise your right to do so. There is much in your posting that I could address, but let me confine myself to two points.

First, I must take issue with your assertion that our institution “promotes discrimination and is complicit in evil” (ironically, this is the same charge the SJP makes, though for different reasons; that may give you pause for thought).

Second, I have always opposed attempts to boycott or divest from Israel as intrinsically unjust, wrongheaded, and counterproductive. For that reason, I must now also oppose your call to boycott Hampshire. One does not correct one error by committing another.

Although I can in principle understand your skepticism regarding the administration’s explanation of the recent incident, I also know that you are a lawyer. As you well know, the law is not about instituting “justice” in the abstract; it is about doing what the law demands. So, too, in all institutional politics: The Investment Committee and Trustees followed the rules under which they are obligated to work. Neither SJP nor you is satisfied with the result. To me, that is a sign that the College behaved appropriately. It would have been far easier to pander to one party or another.

As soon as word of the controversy spread, I contacted representatives of the Administration and Board of Trustees for an explanation. They are, all of them, I can assure you, deeply concerned about the state of campus discourse around the issue of the Middle East. I can find no reason to question their word of honor. Lacking explicit evidence to the contrary, neither should you.

I am certain that (in your phrase) “all decent people - supporters and critics of Israel alike” here will join me in saying that a boycott of Hampshire College will help no one and hurt many. The German-Jewish author Kurt Tucholsky, who committed suicide in exile from the Nazi regime, once famously said that, in the case of satire, which is based on exaggeration, the innocent inevitably suffer along with the guilty. That was literature. That was figurative. We in the real world do not have that luxury. Withholding financial contributions to Hampshire punishes all of us—supporters and opponents of SJP alike—in concrete and unfair ways. It moreover allows SJP to play the role of persecuted martyr. I don’t think that’s what you want.

So, once again, I thank you for your expressions of concern. You no doubt believe that you have the best interests of all at heart. However, in response to your volunteering to launch a boycott of Hampshire, I must (to cite a recently popular political phrase), say: “thanks, but no thanks.” We’ll handle this on our own. Observe our activities, and exercise your right to comment, if you will, but please do not attack the lifeblood of the institution.

If you disagree with the Students for Justice in Palestine, come here—I’ll arrange it—debate them, and help to create the honest dialogue that you feel is lacking. Opening mouths and minds is a far more effective way to make your point than urging parents and others to shut their purses.


Jim Wald
Professor, History


Daniel said...

I'm glad to hear a voice of reason (yours) in all this craziness. I'm a Hampshire alum (F98, graduated 2002). I'm sorry I never took one of your courses. Are there any other Hampshire professors or students expressing similarly reasonable opinions? I feel as though the student activist wing of Hampshire College is becoming less concerned with learning and discussing than with promoting their cause (which at the moment, seems to be focused on bashing Israel). I was glad to read the president and chairman's response, and your response to Dershowitz. I hope similar views are more widely held on campus, and if so, I'd like to read them as well. I'm also curious to know what kind of disciplinary action, if any, will be taken against SJP.

Citizen Wald said...

Thanks, Daniel.

Sorry I never met you during your Hampshire days, either.

Views such as mine are not unique, though they appear less often in the public discourse here, whether because fewer people hold them or because people are more reluctant to express them; probably both. I think it fair to say that they are less common among the faculty.

One should stress, though, that Hampshire College, like others, is home to a range of opinion on many issues. It continues to have an active organizational life with over 100 officially recognized student groups, which include a "Jewish Student Union" and "Students Promoting Israeli Culture and Information" (formerly: "Union of Progressive Zionists," the name of the national organization).

Similarly, SJP and its faculty supporters are not monolithic, either: They range from those who are intrinsically hostile to Israel to those who regard themselves as critical supporters of Israel, with the majority, as in the case of any political organization, probably falling into a well-intentioned but not necessarily well-informed majority in between.

What concerns some of us here is the lack of substantive and respectful dialogue embracing the full range of opinions found on campus. The ideal should be understanding (in Rosa Luxemburg's words) "those who think differently." This applies to all parties.

Since I have no way to contact you directly, feel free to contact me via Hampshire (you know how) for more information.

In the meantime, follow the blog for updates, and pass the word!