Op-Ed: An open letter to Central Student Government

Sunday, November 26, 2017 - 4:21pm

I was invited to participate in the Nov. 14 Central Student Government debate on divestment from Israel, but before I could do so, CSG voted to bar me from speaking. The argument against my participation was that a structural power imbalance in the University militated against the views of #UMDivest, the pro-boycott group, and this could be rectified only by silencing me. I was the only person forbidden to talk that evening. 

I understand and sympathize with the sense of marginalization that was felt, at least before their success on Nov. 14, by many advocates for #UMDivest. And I truly admire the dedication that led them to persist with their campaign despite many reverses. I congratulate the leaders and supporters of #UMDivest.

What I cannot accept, however, is #UMDivest's resort to censorship. The argument that they suffered from an institutional disadvantage, and that this justified preventing me from delivering prepared remarks, cannot withstand scrutiny for three reasons.

First, it was claimed that junior faculty who speak against Israel risk being fired. In fact, procedural and legal checks at the University preclude such an outcome. No junior faculty has ever been fired for expressing political opinions, and such opinions have no bearing whatever on tenure or promotion.

Second, #UMDivest could have engaged senior faculty to speak on their behalf. In my department alone there are six senior professors publicly critical of Israel, four of whom signed an American Historical Association petition against Israel. Twenty other faculty members in various departments, mostly tenured and some very senior, signed the statement of support for #UMDivest. If none of these professors spoke on Nov. 14, it's because they weren't interested or #UMDivest didn't ask them. Neither condition reflects a structural power imbalance within the University.

Third, #UMDivest easily could have enlisted outside academics or well-known regional experts, as they have done in past years. Other students would have raised no objection. The ready availability of such speakers for both sides argues further against the view that institutional factors prevented a level playing field.

In short, one side made better use of opportunities equally accessible to both. Imagine that the Michigan football team showed up to play Ohio State University, but because OSU hadn't bothered to practice, their coach claimed that the game would be "unfair" unless the referee ejected from play Michigan's starting running back — and the referee agreed! Would anyone consider that equitable?

Almost certainly the real motive for preventing me from speaking was #UMDivest's fear that it lacked persuasive counterarguments and that I might sway the vote. Free discussion was too dangerous. Thus we were treated to a surreal spectacle where a community activist from Detroit with no expertise in Middle East history or politics and no connection to the University was allowed to speak for at least half an hour — but a University professor who teaches the subject was not allowed to speak at all.

For those who "know" in advance there is only one truth, this sort of censorship and insult is unproblematic. But it's a position unworthy of a major university founded on the classic liberal assumption that truth can emerge only through unfettered inquiry. Censorship strikes at the University’s very raison d'etre. #UMDivest's fear of open debate undermines respect for the arguments marshaled on their behalf. And censorship conflicts with my own research and teaching — including History 244, History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict — whose central feature has always been respectful, sympathetic engagement with diverse and conflicting viewpoints.

Finally, apropos of current concerns, let me compare CSG censorship with arguments that the University should ban Richard Spencer from speaking on our campus. The CSG action is more justified because as a private rather than a public institution, CSG does not have to provide First Amendment protections. It is less justified because whereas Spencer is a white supremacist and reported Nazi sympathizer, I'm mainstream and my Mideast views align with majority American opinion.

But in a larger sense, political censorship in any form is dangerous because it impedes dialogue, encourages self-righteous isolation and polarization and weakens democracy — which, of course, is exactly what Spencer and his ilk seek. As was obvious at the CSG meeting, "objective” discourse is coming to mean discourse that excludes views one doesn't like. If they were not ominous, the double standards on display on Nov. 14 would be amusing: While CSG representatives spoke in favor of silencing me, #UMDivest supporters in the audience waved signs that read "Stop Silencing Us."

This is not a partisan but a serious national concern. So far this year alone, at least 29 speakers have been disinvited or prevented from speaking on college campuses. They have been hounded down at schools in every part of the country, and they come from both sides of the political spectrum. In encouraging this trend, the CSG did itself no credit. One hopes that censorship, which should be anathema at all institutions of higher learning, will not become a regular feature of CSG deliberations.

This op-ed is an updated version of an op-ed published by the author in Algemeiner and the Detroit Jewish News.

Victor Lieberman is a Raoul Wallenberg Distinguished University Professor of History and Professor of Asian and Comparative History.