Read Professor Victor Lieberman’s letter to CSG for banning him from speaking on divestment
The #UMDivest resolution was passed for the first time in University history last week
UMich history professor Victor Lieberman sent The Tab an "Open Letter to the Central Student Government" concerning his participation in last week's campus debate on divestment from Israel. Lieberman is anti-divestment and has published works on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
I was invited to participate in the November 14 Central Student Government debate on divestment from Israel, but before I could do so, the 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 November 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 their 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, institutional and legal checks at Michigan preclude such an event. 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. Nineteen other faculty in various departments, mostly tenured and some very senior, signed the statement of support for UMDivest. If none of these professors spoke on November 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 in past years. 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 OSU, 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 counter-arguments 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 who knows nothing about Middle East history and who has no connection to the U of M was allowed to speak for at least half an hour — but a U of M professor who teaches the subject was not allowed to speak at all.
For those who "know" in advance that 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 of Michigan'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 teaching — including History 244, History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict — and my own research, whose central feature has always been respectful engagement with diverse and conflicting viewpoints.
Unfortunately the events of November 14 reflect a national climate of intolerance that has led to the silencing of speakers of various political persuasions on college campuses all across the country. Irony of ironies: while student representatives spoke in favor of preventing me from talking, UMDivest supporters in the audience waved signs that read "Stop Silencing Us."
One hopes that censorship, which should be anathema at any institution of higher learning, will not become a regular feature of CSG deliberations.
Raoul Wallenberg Distinguished University Professor of History and Professor of Asian and Comparative History