Ms. Imaan Ali’s heartfelt essay “Michigan in Color: The Myth of Impartiality” (Michigan Daily March 31, 2014) raised issues that move beyond the particulars of the Arab-Israeli conflict to broader questions of intellectual culture. As we’ll see, these questions bear directly on the University’s core mission.

Ms. Ali raised two objections to the talk on the Arab-Israeli dispute that I delivered at the meeting of the Central Student Government on the evening of March 25. First, she suggested that in denying a request that afternoon by a delegation of students from Students Allied for Freedom and Equality that I cancel my talk, I was insensitive to student opinion. The students with whom I met were articulate, well informed, sophisticated and polite, and I thoroughly enjoyed talking to them. Yet this was a self-selecting group of politically engaged students focused on a specific issue. There are no polls or elections of any sort to show that they represent broader student opinion. The only organization that can claim such a mandate is the Central Student Government, which is chosen in elections involving the entire student population. It was the CSG that invited me to speak on the history of the Mideast conflict, and in accepting an invitation from that uniquely representative body, I was not ignoring, but was honoring student opinion.

To help its members consider the resolution on Israel divestment, CSG approached me because I teach a course on the history of the Arab-Israeli dispute. My talk had three parts. The first and longest part traced the development of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I argued that anti-Semitism bred Zionism, which in turn engendered Palestinian nationalism in a process of reciprocal radicalization that began in the 1920s and that continues to the present. I sought to show how a mutual psychology of zero-sum competition has doomed successive peace efforts.

The second part sought to describe Palestinian understandings of the conflict, in particular their acute sense of injustice and victimization at the hands of what from the start, they argue, has been an illegitimate, expansionist, intrinsically aggressive Zionist project. The third part sought to describe Israeli understandings of the conflict, in particular their fear that successive Jewish offers to recognize Arab sovereignty over the West Bank have been rejected because ultimately Arabs seek not the West Bank, but the destruction of Israel itself. I presented the second and third parts with equal sympathy. The Palestinian narrative was 8 percent longer than the Israeli.

This effort to introduce complexity and balance did not sit well with those who see history as a black-white struggle between cardboard heroes and cardboard villains. It did not appeal, for example, to some Jewish-American students and alumni who were deeply offended by my invocation of anti-Zionist images. And clearly, on the opposite side of the spectrum, it did not appeal to Ms. Ali.

The curious thing about Ms. Ali’s critique, however, is that she raised no substantive objections of any sort. She devoted not a single sentence to disputing my facts or interpretations. Rather she argued a priori that a “white, middle-aged male” like me can never deliver a fair assessment of the conflict because his training, emotional orientation and social authority render him instinctively unsympathetic to the Palestinian side. (By the way, at age 68 I was flattered to be considered “middle aged.”) This limitation, she argued, is universal. Knowledge is always contaminated by social position. Impartiality and intellectual independence are myths. This, then, was Ms. Ali’s second and more basic objection to my talk on March 25.

Her position is open to both empirical and philosophical criticism. To claim that being white, male and middle-aged automatically impels one to a particular position is empirically absurd. Large numbers of white, middle-aged males support every conceivable position on the Arab-Israeli question — and indeed every political question. The same variety obtains if one adds “Jewish” to the list of attributes that allegedly determine outlook.

But the more fundamental problem with Ms. Ali’s critique is that it denies the existence of anything we might call truth and cripples the search for consensual knowledge. Obviously, we are all heavily influenced by our social and cultural backgrounds. But that is hardly to say that we have no powers of reason independent of that background. When respected historians disagree, they don’t immediately throw up their hands and say, “Well, there’s no point talking about this any longer, because you’re of one ethnicity (or gender or age) and I’m of another.” Rather, they assemble primary documents and begin to analyze them according to accepted professional procedures. If they rarely achieve unanimity, they often achieve a workable consensus and a roadmap to narrow disagreements further. In other words, because historical analysis is difficult doesn’t mean that we abandon the effort. By analogy because civility and decency are unobtainable, we don’t abandon law, religion and morality.

In education as in morality, the reward for such cowardice is chaos. For a university to assume that knowledge is inseparable from ethnicity, and that ethnicity is inseparable from sympathy, would open the door to instructional balkanization — a system in which only professors of approved ethnicity can teach particular courses and in which student sections are ethnically segregated on the assumption that cross-ethnic understandings are ultimately impossible.

A university’s raison d’être is the opposite: to create intellectually neutral spaces distinct from ethnicity, to foster inter-communal exchange, to erode black-white narratives, to foster a healthy skepticism. Encouraging Muslim-Jewish-Christian dialogue and welcoming opinion of any stripe are precisely the approaches I have followed in the classroom for many years. And this is the approach that inspired my talk to CSG.

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

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