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Harvard, Censorship, And Anti-semitism

 "Professor J.L. Matory will move:

That the Faculty commits itself to fostering civil dialogue in which people with a broad range of perspectives feel safe and are encouraged to express their reasoned and evidence-based ideas."

This is docket item VII.2. for the regular meeting of the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences scheduled for today, Tuesday, November 13.

The proposed resolution is innocuous enough, even insipid.  But why is it being proposed?  The agenda helpfully adds an "explanatory note:"  "The context for this motion is outlined in an opinion piece by Professor Matory, 'Israel and Censorship at Harvard,'  which was published in the Harvard Crimson on September 14, 2007," just as school started.  J. Lorand Matory is Professor of Anthropology and African Studies at Harvard.

This article explains a lot, and in several dimensions.  I've met Matory just once and only perfunctorily, at that.  At a begin-the-year cocktail party for Harvard's Afro-Am Department to which, as it happens, I have made several not very grand contributions. (In fact, I hold a W.E.B. DuBois Medal from the Department, an award I was reluctant to accept since DuBois had been a fervent Communist. But friends persuaded me what actually I already knew, that he had a more intricate life than simply being a Communist and was a mind of very unusual stature.  In the end, I feel more than honored to have this prize.)   As for Matory, I don't recall how he looks, and I am reasonably sure he doesn't recall what I look like either.  Still, I know Matory's reputation, especially among his colleagues, one of whom dismissed him as "simply a crackpot."  

He's also an obsessive.  And one of the people with whom he is obsessed is Larry Summers.  This obsession, one would think, had reached its satisfying fruition when a prior resolution introduced by Matory, a withdrawal of confidence from Summers as the president of Harvard, passed and resulted in the latter's resignation.  There are four direct references (and at least two indirect allusions) to Summers in the Crimson piece.  If it is aimed against anybody in particular the person in the cross-hairs is Summers.  If anybody's right to "express their reasoned and evidence-based ideas" has been violated it has been Summers.  First, in a resolution introduced by Matory himself and passed by the F.A.S. that directly made a certain view of things verboten and pushed Summers out of his job. Second, in the scandal perpetrated by the Board of Regents at the University of California by withdrawing an invitation for Summers to speak at one of its meetings.  

But for Matory, it appears, that Summers's primal sin is defense of Israel.  In public speech, that amounts to one assertion: that the efforts to have American universities disinvest from corporations doing business with Israel is "anti-Semitic in their effect, if not their intent."  This campaign in the United States and ones like it elsewhere are, in my view, both anti-Semitic in their effect and their intent.  You only have to read the fiery language, see the flaming eyes and try to understand how this effort galvanizes its supporters to see that it is the fact that Jews now have power that so offends them.  Power to everybody.  But no power to the Jewish nation.  That is for me anti-Semitic.  Now, not everyone who believes that about power is anti-Semitic.  There are some misguided people, many of them Jews altogether remote from any sense of Jewish community or culture, who want the Jews to take up their traditional role of being the suffering witness.  Forgive me, as a great Yiddish poet once pleaded with the Almighty, "take away our holiness." Of course, much of anti-Zionism is anti-Semitic.  Why else would people all over the world find Israel so tempting a target?

Matory's credentials for pressing a resolution "fostering civil dialogue" are non-existent.  In what must be a mock sympathy for the unmatched grim experience of the Jews in the last century, he asks, "How can one engage in a critical and nonetheless loving conversation about Zionism with a community as gravely traumatized as the Jewish people?"   The Jewish people's answer to the trauma of the twentieth century and to the ongoing, virtually constant trauma of the previous centuries was the political answer of sovereignty. Yes, Jewish power.  In the conflicts in Palestine, Zionism triumphed.  But not without having agreed to a state for the "Arabs of Palestine" -- no one, yes, no one called them Palestinians -- alongside its own.  A tragedy befell those Arabs.  The surrounding Arab states wanted to carve up Palestine for themselves, which is why what remained in their hands after the 1949 cease-fire was the West Bank, simply annexed by Jordan, and Gaza, turned to a rightless satrap of Egypt.  Forty years ago, these countries, plus Syria, which had been deprived of Palestinian left-overs, attempted to dismember the Jewish State within the armistice lines.

The truth is that Matory is ignorant of both the history of Zionism and the history of Palestine.  These histories are nuanced and intricate, and it seems that Matory has not tried to grasp either one.  The Zionist he sees is a stick-figure cartoon of exploitation.  Now, poor man, he also admits hardly knowing one Arab.  He could; it's very easy in a university, after all.  There are Arabs at Harvard, are there not?.  Did he not ever encounter Edward Said, the progenitor of exactly the ideas which he puts forward as his own?        

Matory does make a stab at being even-handed.  

I am troubled by the insouciance of the Arab and Muslim world in the face of unjust suffering by people who   look like me.  A region so publicly committed to its anti-racist religious tradition remains mute over the atrocities of the Arab and Islamic government of Sudan against Africans in Darfur and the south.  Osama bin Laden and his cheerleaders treat as insignificant the deaths of hundreds of non-partisan Africans in the bombings of the U.S. embassies at Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.

But it is neither being mute or insouciant about Darfur for which the Muslim and Arab worlds are guilty.  They are complicit in the enormities, more even than People's China.   I feel solidarity with Matory and his murdered kins.  (TNR has been among the most consistent, ultimately lonely, yet politically realistic voices for Darfur.)  Why has he no solidarity with me and my dead sisters and brothers?  The fact is that thousands of innocent and non-combatant Israeli civilians have been murdered by Palestinian "freedom-fighters."   J. Lorand Matory has no feeling for these women and men.

So he has sponsored an insipid resolution.  If, however, it passes it will be an insidious act, that of trying to shut down the voices of those who see the intellectual and moral crime of anti-Semitism becoming fashionable and respectable once more.  And not in Germany, mind you, but in the U.S.