University of Michigan’s Victor Lieberman objects that he was silenced at a debate over divestment from Israel

Historians in the News
tags: Israel, University of Michigan, Victor Lieberman

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. ...

Read entire article at The Michigan Daily

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