November 13, 2023

LITVAK | The Middle East Conflict and the Faculty’s Responsibility

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There is an episode of Seinfeld in which Jerry’s Catholic dentist, Tim Whately, converts to Judaism. Jerry is very upset and goes to complain to a priest that Whately has been telling Jewish jokes. The priest, perplexed, asks whether Jerry takes offense at Whately’s jokes as a Jewish person. “No, father,” Jerry insists indignantly, “I am offended as a comedian.” 

There is more than one reason to take offense at what has been going on at Cornell and other campuses in the past three weeks. We shall not speak here of the way in which the specific target of fanatical hatred was rendered publicly unmentionable, not to say invisible until an increasing climate of fear and hostility led to a threat of violence. Neither shall we speak of the persistent unwillingness to acknowledge the reality of Jewish loss and Jewish isolation; and we shall have nothing to say about the still greater reluctance to grapple with a wildly misguided and meretricious deployment of the word “human” as if it were the opposite of the word “Jewish.”     

But there is one objection to the current climate of opinion — so far unacknowledged by the academic community — of which it is still possible, even imperative, to speak. Failure to do so is to compound the damage being done to the integrity of the teaching profession and to the trust between teacher and student in the absence of which no real education is possible.  Whatever our personal response to the unfolding spectacle of physical and verbal violence now being directed at Jewish people not only here, where we live, but everywhere, it is as professors and educators that we wish now to speak and to register our offense.

To begin with, we must consider the question of student safety. It is surely clear that no student can feel unsafe in a classroom without all students feeling similarly vulnerable. It is for this reason that universities have made such strenuous efforts to screen classrooms from hate speech and to encourage sensitivity and respect for difference. The implication, reinforced at every anti-Israel protest, that there is only one reasonable and moral response to a complex military and civic crisis — with victims on both sides of the political and territorial divide — sends a chilling message to students who have a legitimate and entirely understandable interest in discussing the issue openly with their peers and their teachers. Openly — without fear of reprisal, intimidation and the threat of public shame. If professors abdicate their responsibility to ensure the freedom of all their students to speak their minds, what happens in the classroom hardly deserves the name of higher education. What passes for teaching under such circumstances is called propaganda.

Second, we must address the question of academic standards. As professors, we are committed to helping students learn to think about any number of intractable problems — social, environmental, intellectual, political, biological.  To do this effectively, we commit ourselves to rigorous training in a variety of demanding and challenging disciplines. We expect students to follow similarly rigorous standards of inquiry and we assess their work on their ability to do so.  In the history department, undergraduates must demonstrate their mastery of primary sources in order to make any kind of argument. In the social sciences, we spend much time and effort making sure sound methods are being used to analyze data and derive conclusions. The first and last question of every scholarly discipline is: “How do we know this?” But what intellectual credibility can this question possibly command when professionally trained scholars undertake to opine on matters that are well beyond the scope of their knowledge?

When scholars decide to take up the microphone and speak, with all the authority that an advanced degree can confer, on issues with which they have only a superficial acquaintance, and pass judgment on events taking place in a part of the world the history of which they do not know and the languages of which they do not read? Any such performance — whether undertaken in innocent enthusiasm or for the sake of vanity and attention — is an expression of contempt for the years of painstaking effort that it takes to master any subject. As scholars, people who seek to capitalize on their credentials in this way are, in fact, expressing contempt for their colleagues. As professors, they are also making it very difficult for all of us to ask our students to follow the rules that differentiate the conscientious pursuit of knowledge from the irresponsible reproduction of ignorance.

Finally, we must speak of another elusive, but no less important aspect of teaching, one threatened by what we can only describe as a dispiriting lack of scholarly imagination that afflicts the dominant academic “reading” of the war between Israel and Hamas.  One of the most characteristic features of Socratic teaching is the philosopher’s extraordinary ability to help his interlocutors see the implications of their position on a specific question — to imagine, that is to say, that their opinion was fact. What would the world be like, Socrates inquires, if Thrasymachus (the defender of the position that justice is equivalent to the effective exercise of force) were right? As anyone who has ever taught knows, students often adopt views which they have not fully thought out and repeat commonly held propositions which they have not fully digested.

A good professor is one who can lead students to confront fully and honestly the meaning and consequences of what they are saying. In this respect, it pains us to say, the teaching profession has failed. Instead of asking students to actually entertain the hypothetical prospect of a Hamas victory, scholars have given intellectual sanction to the widely-held illusion that such a victory will bring peace and democracy to the Middle East. The same people who pride themselves on razor-sharp critical sensibilities have allowed a dubious and dangerous fantasy to go uncontested. And yet, very little empirical evidence is required to make a strong case that the same people who are prepared to engage in kidnapping, murder, rape and torture — to hold life cheap — in the name of promoting their uncompromising political and religious goals are going to commit themselves to a life-enhancing program of human flourishing which American students believe they are endorsing in committing their principles to the support of the cause represented by Hamas. It rests with professors — more than anyone else — to call on students to imagine what it might be like to live under the sort of freedom which is underwritten by an organization openly dedicated to the aggressive pursuit of power and revenge and allied to a rogue totalitarian state currently engaged in a brutal war of conquest against a neighboring sovereign nation.  

There are many ways to understand what is going on around us. But one way — the way that is most clearly visible from where we sit — is to see it as an assault on the teaching profession and discourse, an assault with which the profession itself seems to be cooperating with.  For us, this cooperation, evident in the near-total absence of resistance to the subversion of the principles that inform our vocation, is an unmitigated tragedy. Its consequences will be felt long after the guns stop firing. And its victims will be precisely those whose approval we are now shamelessly courting and whose young impressionable minds are our most important charge.

Olga Litvak is the Laurie B. and Eric M. Roth Professor of Modern European Jewish History in The College of Arts and Sciences. Her research and teaching focuses on the east of Europe, the Jewish people, social fracture, mass migration, sexual anarchy, the rise of anarchy and catastrophic violence. She can be reached at [email protected].

Barry Strauss ’74 is a former reporter and editor at The Cornell Daily Sun and the Bryce and Edith M. Bowmar Professor of Humanistic Studies in The College of Arts and Sciences. He is the former chair of Cornell’s Department of History and the Judith Reppy Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies. His research and teaching focuses on lessons from political and military leaders of the ancient world. He can be reached at [email protected].

Lawrence Blume is a Distinguished Professor in Economics in The College of Arts and Sciences. His research and teachings focus on evolutionary processes in markets and games, economic theory and game theory. He can be reached at [email protected].

Harry Katz is the Jack Sheinkman Professor of Collective Bargaining in The School of Industrial & Labor Relations. He is the Director of the Scheinman Institute. His research and teaching focuses on global labor and work. He can be reached at [email protected].

Richard Geddes is a Professor in the Cornell Brooks School of Public Policy. his research and teaching focuses on the funding, financing, permitting, operation and maintenance of heavy civil and social infrastructure. He can be reached at [email protected].

Ruth Collins is an Associate Professor in the Department of Molecular Medicine in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Her research and teaching focuses on molecular protein function and intracellular traffic. She can be reached at [email protected]

David Zax is an Associate Professor in The College of Arts & Sciences. His research and teaching focuses on the disorder of structure and dynamics within chemical and biological systems. He can be reached at [email protected]

Adam Seth Litwin is an Associate Professor in The School of Industrial & Labor Relations. His research and teaching focuses on the determinants and impact of labor relations structures and technological change. He can be reached at [email protected].

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