On Jan. 19, sociology and global studies professor William Robinson authored an e-mail to 80 of his students comparing Israeli soldiers to the Nazis.
The e-mail, passed on to Robinson’s Winter Quarter Sociology 130SG course, drew comparisons between Israeli soldiers in Gaza and the Nazi siege of Warsaw, Poland. The document also included side-by-side photos of Israeli and Nazi troops.
Two students, offended by Robinson’s e-mail, dropped the course and filed complaints with the Academic Senate’s Charges Committee. Three months later, Robinson is under review by the university and his e-mail has spawned a debate over whether his actions were anti-Semitic or an expression of academic freedom.
Robinson asserts that the allegations leveled at him are unwarranted and that his intentions were misconstrued by students, the school – specifically the Academic Senate’s Charges Committee – and now, by the Anti-Defamation League. Robinson said that the Academic Senate has violated the Faculty Code of Conduct, which promises to “protect academic freedom.”
“My right in accordance with the Code ‘to present controversial material relevant to a course of instruction’ is being flagrantly violated and I am under harassment,” Robinson said in a makeshift press release. “The essence of the students’ complaint, as they themselves state it, is that my introduction of material into my course critical of Israeli state policy constitutes anti-Semitism, and this is the only argument made by the complainants to substantiate their charge of anti-Semitism.”
Robinson refused an interview with the Daily Nexus, and the Academic Senate also declined to comment.
In early March, Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, invited a number of school officials and faculty members to a meeting. According to an e-mail from the Committee to Defend Academic Freedom at UCSB – a non-university affiliated organization – this meeting was confidential and held to urge university officials to investigate the charges of anti-Semitism levied against Robinson.
Michael Young, vice chancellor of student affairs, was named in the e-mail as an attendee of the meeting.
“It is true that there was a meeting,” Young said. “What is not true is that the meeting was confidential. Most of us were invited without knowing why we were being invited. … I thought it was inappropriate for me to be there, to be honest.”
While Young said issuing comments on matters of academic discrepancies fall beyond his scope of duties, he said the charges against Robinson strike him as an issue concerning the right of freedom of information.
“This is not my area, but it is my view that academic freedom must be protected,” Young said. “In a free society, people should have the ability to speak their mind and speak their piece.”
Richard Applebaum, a professor in the Global Studies Dept. and friend of Robinson, said Robinson’s actions have been misrepresented. Applebaum said he believes Robinson meant for the e-mail in question to be educational, and that its message has been misconstrued by outside involvement.
“I can’t imagine he wanted to draw an exact parallel between [the current situation in] Israel and the Holocaust,” Applebaum said. “I personally find the images offensive, but I think he’s simply trying to educate students on current events and what’s happening in the world.”
In light of the various accusations, Robinson maintains that he has not acted outside of his rights and that the charges being brought against him are entirely unfounded.
“My classes are spaces of open discussion and debate on a wide range of global affairs. Students are encouraged to discuss and debate any and all material introduced into my courses and to introduce their own related material,” Robinson said in the press release. “I am being accused of violating the Faculty Code of Conduct because I introduced material into my course which disagrees with the political views of the complainants. … If I had introduced into my course material critical of the policies and practices of the Iranian state would you have moved forward to this point with a complaint by students that such critical material is constitutive of discrimination or persecution against Muslims?”
Jeb Sprague, a sociology graduate student and member of the Committee to Defend Academic Freedom, said the Anti-Defamation League has distorted the facts to fit to their own motives.
“We feel that ADL is politicizing and conflating the critique of the state of Israel’s actions in Palestine with the critique on the people of Israel,” Sprague said. “Why are these outside organizations doing this before we are able to have a dialogue about it?”