By now, sociology and global studies professor William Robinson – who circulated online material to his students that compared Israeli soldiers and Nazis – has become the focus of a smoldering national debate on academic freedom.
On Jan. 19, Robinson used a course list server to forward several news items that he had coupled with his own commentary. The first part was an article from the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle that was critical of the Israeli occupation of Palestine, while the second was a photo essay that portrayed Israeli violence against Palestinians side-by-side with images of Nazi violence against Jews during the Holocaust.
In a section of his commentary, Robinson wrote that the Palestinian experience in Gaza parallels the Nazi siege of Warsaw.
“Gaza is Israel’s Warsaw – a vast concentration camp that confined and blockaded Palestinians,” Robinson wrote in the e-mail. “… We are witness to a slow-motion process of genocide.”
What has been widely misreported by the media so far, Robinson said, is the fact that he did not author the photo essay.
“Even the [Los Angeles] Times got it wrong,” Robinson said. “I want to make clear was that what I did was distribute course material through a course server. I introduced these items with a commentary of my own, but I did not author the two news items – I included them for discussion.”
These materials, Robinson added, were optional supplements for weekly voluntary class discussions.
The material was sent out to his 80 students in his Sociology 130SG: The Sociology of Globalization class, and two of his students promptly dropped the course. The two students reached out to two Jewish-affiliated organizations – the Anti-Defamation League and Stand With Us – and then filed complaints with UCSB.
Ever since Robinson’s forwarded course material was made public, allegations and rebuttals have shot back and forth.
According to Robinson, he is charged with being anti-Semitic and having introduced into his class material that was irrelevant to the subject matter. These charges, Robinson said, are ridiculous and offensive.
“The fact that I did include my interpretation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is totally within what is normal and expected. … One of the most pressing affairs of January was the Israeli assault on Gaza – there was nothing that could be more relevant to this course at that time,” he said. “When you bring up delicate, sensitive, inflammatory, controversial material in the classroom, we as professors are carrying out our mission … to jar students in order to challenge them to think critically about world issues.”
Most disturbing, according to Robinson, is that the investigation into his actions comes hand-in-hand with a political agenda. Outside input from the ADL and SWU, he said, is unacceptable and violates procedures for dealing with faculty matters.
“The Israel lobby is possibly the most powerful lobby in the United States, and what they do is label any criticism of anti-Israeli conduct and practices as anti-Semitic,” Robinson said. “This campaign is not just an attempt to punish me. The Israel lobby is stepping up its vicious attacks on anyone who would speak out against Israeli policies.”
However, many disagree with Robinson’s assertions. Roz Rothstein, international director of SWU, said her organization immediately questioned his actions.
“We believe in free speech, but we don’t believe that a professor should be using their class roster to sell their own political opinions,” Rothstein said. “It is intimidating for a professor who has a very high position in a student’s mind to force opinions on these students. Our concern is that he abused his position and that it was unrelated with his class.”
Her organization is particularly interested, Rothstein said, because this could be a major building point for academic freedom cases around the world.
“This could be a precedent setting case for other universities,” Rothstein said.
Robinson alleges the university committed numerous egregious violations of procedure for investigating faculty conduct. Additionally, Robinson claims that the SWU contacted Chancellor Henry T. Yang and may have threatened to withdraw fiscal support from the university if Robinson’s actions were not examined.
However, Rothstein denies this accusation.
“[A] board member did actually send a letter to Yang expressing his concerns, but he never, under any circumstances, said ‘I’m going to pull funds,'” she said. “[Robinson is] making things up.”
In any case, Robinson said, there should be an investigation into the university’s response to the situation.
“I know that the Chancellor should not bow down to financial blackmail. … If he did, he should resign,” Robinson said.
Not only are these inquiries into his academic conduct demeaning, Robinson said, but they are counterproductive to everyone at an academic institution.
“These campaigns to silence debate constitute a grave attack on academic freedom, on free speech and on democracy itself,” Robinson said.
What’s to Come
According to Paul Desruisseaux, associate vice chancellor of Public Affairs, an investigation is ongoing. Beyond that, Desruisseaux said, the university has no comment on the proceedings of the case.
Regional Director of the ADL Cyndi Silverman said that the ADL is certain the university can handle further investigation and only hopes that Robinson and other professors come to realize the appropriate boundaries for academic free speech.
In his opinion, Robinson said, the university needs to make amends for their errors.
“I think the university in the person of its leadership – the chancellor, vice chancellor, members of the Academic Senate – has not yet and absolutely has to repair the damage [and] come out in full support of academic freedom. I expect the university to apologize to me and to conduct these inquiries and organize public forum in which the principles of academic freedom need to be publicly discussed,” Robinson said.