In a number of academic freedom disputes in recent years, the professors whose comments have been subject to scrutiny have been harshly critical of Israel’s government, generally over its treatment of Palestinians.
Many colleges have stood by faculty members who have criticized Israel, but some have not. Consider the case of Steven Salaita, who thought he had been hired by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign but never was able to take his position. In the case of Salaita and others, critics of these academics have said that they do not object to criticism of Israeli policies, but to tones that they say cross a line.
Now a DePaul University professor is facing criticism for the tone of his writings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this case, students demanding that he apologize and go to sensitivity training are arguing that his pro-Israel writings demean Palestinians in ways that are bigoted.
The center of the new debate is Jason D. Hill, a tenured professor of philosophy. His views are not new, but the demands from students that he apologize have taken off since he published an article this month in The Federalist defending the right of Israel — as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed — to annex large portions of the West Bank.
Of the Six-Day War, Hill writes, “Under a different set of political sensibilities, the Palestinian people would have been militarily removed from the area because, morally speaking, after the 1967 war, they never belonged there. The proper response from Israel should have been to immediately annex the land and make the people there the responsibility of their original political homeland: Jordan. There can be no such thing as legitimate ‘Palestinian Territory’ in a geographic region legally seized in a defensive war instigated by a foreign aggressor. The purpose of war is always to vanquish the enemy. The losers of the war cannot make demands on the victors that the victors themselves would not have been put in the position of meeting had the adversary or enemy not forced the victors into making it in the first place.”
In discussing the Palestinians, Hill writes, “Not all cultures are indeed equal. Some are abysmally inferior and regressive based on their comprehensive philosophy and fundamental principles — or lack thereof — that guide or fail to protect the inalienable rights of their citizens. Given the voting patterns of Palestinians — towards Islamicism and terrorist organizations for the most part — that openly advocate and work for Israeli and Jewish destruction and annihilation, a strong argument can and ought to be made to strip Palestinians of their right to vote — period.”
A student petition organized as that column was shared on campus says in part, “We, the students of DePaul University call upon the administration to censure Professor Hill for his heinous statements against marginalized communities. His comments create unsafe and uncomfortable spaces for everyone, especially Palestinian and Muslim students who now all refuse to enroll in a class that is taught by Professor Hill. We are not only seeking censure, but for Professor Hill to commit to racial sensitivity training and to release a public apology for his immoral conduct.”
The petition also notes that DePaul “claims to uphold the Vincentian values of social justice, service and community” and suggests that Hill’s actions run counter to those values. DePaul cited those values in 2007 when it rejected the tenure bid of Norman G. Finkelstein, who had the backing of the political science department where he taught, but whose promotion was blocked by the president in part related to the tone of his anti-Israeli writings. The letter rejecting Finkelstein said in part, “In the opinion of those opposing tenure, your unprofessional personal attacks divert the conversation away from consideration of ideas, and polarize and simplify conversations that deserve layered and subtle consideration. As such, they believe your work not only shifts toward advocacy and away from scholarship, but also fails to meet the most basic standards governing scholarship discourse within the academic community.”
In response to questions about the petition, DePaul released a statement that did not criticize Hill but also distanced the university from his positions.
“It should first be noted that Professor Hill’s statements do not reflect the views of DePaul University, but are his personal views on the subject,” said the statement. “DePaul recognizes academic freedom must be an integral part of an intellectual institution. This freedom belongs not only to faculty, but students and all other members of the DePaul community. Protecting academic freedom requires that we maintain an environment where the members of our university community articulate, challenge and defend their ideas; however, that does not eliminate the need for empathy and concern.”
Via email, Hill said that the university has not talked to him about his statements. He said he would not apologize as students have asked.
“I think we live in an age where there is an abysmal lack of intellectual and moral leadership,” Hill said. “I take myself to be such a leader, and I have no intentions of issuing any apologies. I’ve spoken what I believe to be the truth, and I stand firm in what I believe in.”
Hill added that he believed that the students were trying to violate his academic freedom.
“The student petition violates my academic freedom because it calls for the university to use what some regard as offensive speech as a criterion for shutting down free speech. The students are asking that their subjective criterion for offensiveness be treated as objective and obvious and transparent criterion for what constitutes bigotry,” he said. “Free speech includes the right to offend.”
John K. Wilson, an independent scholar who writes about academic freedom on “Academe,” the blog of the American Association of University Professors, on Tuesday published a piece there questioning the idea that Hill is a hero for academic freedom.
Wilson noted a piece by Hill in The Hill in which he suggested colleges and universities need to be rebuilt with conservative values because of what Hill sees as the problematic views of most faculty members today.
“Ordinarily, the best way to counter an intellectual adversary is through a contest of rational faculties,” Hill wrote. “The person with reality on his or her side, with the best relevant facts and strongest arguments, usually wins. But today’s scholars in humanities and social sciences increasingly declare that modern argumentation is a white, Western form of domination and linguistic imperialism that silences racial and ethnic minorities and devalues their ‘lived experiences.’ One cannot argue with such people. The only alternative is to shut them down.”
Wilson contrasted Hill’s call to “shut them down” with the calls by Hill’s student critics for him to apologize (as opposed to demanding that he be fired).
“It’s Hill, and not his critics, who demands censorship of ideological enemies. He wants existing universities destroyed and rebuilt according to his conservative views, and literally says about left-wing professors, ‘shut them down,'” Wilson wrote. “At a time when leftist students are regularly denounced as oppressive totalitarian censors, it’s important to pay attention to a case like this where a professor has expressed deeply offensive and stupid ideas, and yet the left-wing students are not responding with calls for censorship, but with more speech. By contrast, the conservative professor is the one who advocates repression of academic freedom on a massive scale.”