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September 11, 2016 4:38 am

The Cowardice of Decent Professors

avatar by Fred Baumann

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Syracuse University campus. Photo: Syracuse University.

Syracuse University campus. Photo: Syracuse University.

Pro-Israel bloggers like William Jacobson and Caroline Glick have brought much attention to a fiasco at Syracuse University first reported by The Atlantic. The invitation to Shimon Dotan, a leftist Israeli filmmaker, to speak on and show his anti-settler movie “The Settlers” at a Syracuse conference on religion and film, was revoked because of the fear of pressure from campus activists supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. While Jacobson and Glick wrote mordant commentaries, pointing to the alarming advance of antisemitism on campus, and The Atlantic stressed the role of political correctness, to me the most interesting character in this story is M. Gail Hamner, the tenured professor who disinvited Dotan. Here are extracts of her letter of disinvitation, taken from Jacobson’s blog, with his emphases. The letter is a classic example of shame-filled shamefulness:

I now am embarrassed to share that my SU colleagues, on hearing about my attempt to secure your presentation, have warned me that the BDS faction on campus will make matters very unpleasant for you and for me if you come. In particular my film colleague in English who granted me affiliated faculty in the film and screen studies program and who supported my proposal to the Humanities Council for this conference told me point blank that if I have not myself seen your film and cannot myself vouch for it to the Council, I will lose credibility with a number of film and Women/Gender studies colleagues. Sadly, I have not had the chance to see your film and can only vouch for it through my friend and through published reviews. Clearly I am politically naive. I also feel tremendous shame in reneging on a half-offered invitation….. I feel caught in an ideological matrix and by my own egoic needs to sustain certain institutional affiliations.

After this came out, as the Algemeiner reported, Syracuse University overruled her and promised, in a high-minded statement of its principles, to re-invite Professor Dotan. In itself that was good news, even if, as Jacobson emphasized, it averted its administrative eye from the dirty work that had put those pressures on Professor Hamner in the first place. Professor Hamner then issued another shamefaced apology in which she describes herself as “overly concerned” about “how others would react,” and apologizes for not having viewed the film in advance. Note, however, that confessing to the crime of not seeing the movie in advance amounts to the admission that if only everyone had known it was an anti-settler movie maybe it would have been okay. (Apparently not though, if Syracuse Professor Miriam Elman, the subject of the Algemeiner interview, is to be believed.)

Professor Hamner is the focal point, the emblem of an issue that should get some attention along with antisemitism and political correctness. Now that the Syracuse administration has told her she made the wrong choice she discovers that she was “overly concerned.” Better late than never. But what scared her so much in the first place? What made her film colleague so anxious that she passed the BDS pressure on to Hamner? Nothing more than losing “credibility,” which almost certainly means being treated as a pariah by the politically orthodox. This is the politics of the middle school lunch room turned monstrous. But as in that lunch room, in academia, too, bullies and cowards have a reciprocal relation. Ideological bullies, when confronted with honest, forthright, even indignant (if well-controlled) opposition, typically back off. They don’t know what to do when the principles they pretend to obey are upheld against them, when their pose of victimization is demolished, and when they are forced to act out the thuggishness they love to threaten. In my experience, when met with principled resistance, the bullies soon take refuge in wailing that it is they who are being bullied.

We will see if the joint letter of protest that the Algemeiner reported on as well in that story, gets a lot of support and makes a difference. “A small group of faculty is depriving us of our rights and we will not tolerate this,” [Syracuse Professor of Political Science] Elman declared.” Good for her and her co-signatories. But, as on most campuses, they have tolerated it until now. How come? Why is it so easy for the bullies? Simply because the nice people, who wouldn’t engage in bullying themselves, are too afraid to object. Thus the victims always think they are alone. At the root of the rise of antisemitism on American college campuses is, as it is so often, the moral cowardice of those who have decent instincts but always find reasons not to act on them.

Every year, I hear baccalaureate and commencement addresses urging our graduates to be open, tolerant, kind. Good stuff, that. But just once I would like to hear someone speaking up for civil courage, for the basic decency to step in where bullying of any kind is occurring and to back down the shouters, the sneerers, and the insinuators, no matter in what garishly torn and blood-stained victim-wear they costume themselves. Most administrators (not all, my experience tells me) are gutless; in a sense they are paid to be, to smooth things over and bend to the prevailing winds. But the cowardice of decent professors, is, I fear, the real issue here as elsewhere. And unfortunately, I know no cure for it.

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  • Harvey

    Everyone seems to be missing the real point .
    Dotan , a leftist film producer, saw fit to make a film condemning the settlers and takes it to a hot bed of radical anti Israel sentiment where it can be used as further evidence as to why Israel alone has no right to exist as an independent Jewish nation . Only Dotan didn’t figure on the fact that selling out his fellow countrymen was not enough to overcome the small matter of his own ethnicity and nationality . To the campus fascists being an Israeli was enough to get him banned .

    Just like the Jews of Weimar Germany 100 years ago who thought that their embrace of German culture would stand them in good stead to weather the antisemitic storm clouds gathering pace , so it is with the left wing Jews of today , Israeli and diaspora who think that by selling out their people will somehow put them in a good light. It won’t . They are just useful dupes treated with the distain they deserve by the very people to which they ingratiate themselves . Mr Dotan is just beginning to find that out for himself

    • Karen

      Very well said

    • You are absolutely correct. And that’s a shame.

    • shoshana

      I do not know you,all I know is that the issue of the israely implantaion in the conquered territories is at the hart of Israel’s internal politics(external too).I came to Israel understanding there is no real life for us in Europe.The jews were never really accepted in Europe even when they thought it became possible after the frensh revolution. but soon enough they had to realise that assimilation was, is, a dream in the best case, a nightmare in most of the time.The jewish population in Palestine fought against the british occupying armyand when they eventually left, David Ben Gourion who was the leader and became our first prime minister declared tha this land is and will be the jewish country and its name is Israel. Israel was internationally recognised as a legitimate country in 1949, on the next day after Ben Gourion’s declaration the armies of six arab countries attaqued ,they los the war and all the other wars later.
      The so called frontiere of 1967 are not, have never be an official bilaterally accepted. It is what was originally called “the green line” a cease fire, NOT an armistice wich the arab countries refused.On the six day war NOT Israel started, The jourdanian army blocked the narrow passageIn the south between Egypt,Israel and Jourdan, The Tiran detroit. It obviously was an agressive act Israel had to react. Israel won. do we have to apoligise for it???
      I want to say also that it is a grave and sad decision of all our different governements to keep all thisland history does not have much to do with it, we are today making history wich is I am sorry to say so, not right.
      some changements had to be done, I repeat, the “green line” of 1967 never was a frontiere.


  • Dave

    As Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” If there are any good men remaining in US Universities, they must stand up now.

  • “The darkest places in hell are reserved for those who maintain their neutrality in times of moral crisis”.
    Dante Alighieri

  • BDS, BLM, Antisemitism all have the same motto. “Be reasonable. Do it our way or there will be violence”. This is the talk of Islam too. And the good guys back down. What a weak world we now live in where only the ‘rights’ of some are honored. If we give up our rights now, soon we will be giving up our lives.

  • Lia

    So very, very sad, that the good do nothing, which allows the bad …

  • richard sherwin

    let me add, tho, this smells like an historical irony. an allegedly left-wing movie director (aka artist/e) prejudged and rejected by superlefties in the USA — this is precisely what the israeli peace now profs arranged for decades to happen to allegedly right-wing israeli academics –who had to reject likud, begin, and other alleged israelofascists to get coveted invitations and airline tickets overseas in the west. let alone sabbaticals, study funds, etc. this by now is a trivial case, schadenfreude is obscenely irrelevant, but historical irony (or simply the punishment of the innocent by the descendants of those their grandparents helped establish a corrupt context for) is bitterly amusing. altogether unproveable all of these allegations, of course. i just watched it happen while i was happily in israel, and of no significance whatever to any political enterprise. trying to survive and with a very honest administration succeeding beyond my expectations. and at time overseas friends who ignored and then could ignore the cabals.

  • richard sherwin

    a nice summary of a bad situation, but the judgment seems a bit facile to me. unless youre a senior prof with tenure (and outside funding, i.e. ‘a chair’ in whatever), the sneaks sneerers and bullies dont sneak. they slander, lie, congeal their collaboration till someone whose career (i.e. make a living and feed family) is threatened in truth. and there is NO recourse, either. not in academia where reputation is ALL there is, no matter how many books youve /not/ published. administrations (unless you got the dirt on them, safely stashed away) most often prove useless. or worse. and you are ‘out there’ on your own, a target of liars, thieves of reputation, and cliques. (this by the way is how most of academia works, even when working well…or passing fair…) so keeping your head down is not cowardice, it’s survival. and for the average prospective ‘professor’ that’s encouragement to not see, not hear, and not do anything that’ll shake the tree or rustle enough so the tree snakes can get you while their slither and smell is hidden under it. and unless you got a clique with the power and dirt you make an easy target. courage stays in a carefully worded footnote. deniable of course. it makes most politicians look like john wayne of the films.

    • Fred Baumann

      You’re right that that is mostly how it is, but that in turn is because the relatively few academic bullies never have to worry about the all-too-silent majority of professors who just avert their eyes and thank their lucky stars that this time it’s not them under the gun. It’s the same as in the middle school cafeteria where the “mean girls”and mean boys decide who is in and who out. It’s the same among chickens, where a pecking order is established. I don’t blame they individual, who knows he or she will get no support for resisting, for acting prudently. But it’s sad that college faculties run along the same lines as a chicken coop. When I was in college I remember old professors boasting of how they stood up to the pro-Nazi faculty (not many I imagine) in the 1930’s. But those same professors fell flat on their faces for the New Left in the Sixties. For adult, educated humans, acquiescence is a choice, not a fact of nature. If enough of the apolitical faculty got sick of the bullying and spoke up en masse, that would at least set limits on it pretty quickly I believe.