Panelists defended a professor’s controversial e-mail comparing Israeli soldiers to Nazis at Thursday’s forum on academic freedom.
The meeting, held in Embarcadero Hall, drew an overflowing crowd to discuss the case of sociology and global studies professor William Robinson. Robinson is currently under review by the UCSB Academic Senate for sending an e-mail to 80 of his students in mid-January that made parallels between Israeli soldiers in Gaza and the Nazi siege of Warsaw, Poland. The e-mail – which also included side-by-side photos of Israeli and Nazi troops – has spurred debate over whether Robinson’s actions were anti-Semitic or an expression of academic freedom.
Hosted by the Committee to Defend Academic Freedom, a campus organization formed to support Robinson, the panel consisted of an hour-and-a-half discussion and an hour of questions. Following the event, protestors assembled outside holding signs that read “We have the right to question inappropriate professor behavior” and “What about our student rights?”
During the forum, the panelists – law & society professor Lisa Hajjar, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Palestine and visiting global studies professor Richard Falk, sociology professor Geoff Raymond and history professor Harold Marcuse – spoke out against what they alleged is an improper investigation of Robinson.
According to Raymond, the charges brought against Robinson violate campus policy because Academic Senate members contacted outside organizations to discuss the case instead of approaching the department chair to resolve the issue informally.
“When we hear someone say ‘trust in the process,'” Raymond said, “we must respond with our own mantra – ‘give us a process we can trust.'”
However, Dr. Walter Kohn – a UCSB theoretical physics and chemistry emeritus professor and Nobel Prize winner – said he was disappointed in the panel’s lack of diversity.
“It’s unfortunate that the constitution of the panel was one-sided,” Kohn said. “I was wondering how four highly intelligent people who knew that they all had very similar viewpoints didn’t feel embarrassed to be up there without anyone from the other side of the argument.”
Hajjar said even though she found the e-mail’s content questionable, Robinson still had the right to introduce controversial material in an academic class.
“My personal motto is only invoke Nazis when you’re talking about Nazis,” Hajjar said.
During the discussion, some audience members became disruptive when they weren’t allowed to exceed the one-minute time-limit for questions. A UCLA alumnus whose parents are Holocaust survivors grew upset when her time was up, yelling “Because I’m Jewish, you’re stifling me?”
Another audience member, a UCSB student whose grandparents died in the Holocaust, broke down in tears while addressing the panel.
“My grandparents wanted me live in a peaceful place where we would have respectful dialogue,” she said. “Just because something is legal or allowed, that doesn’t make it right.”
Meanwhile, Sal Ramirez, a third-year sociology and black studies major who took Robinson’s course, said the issue has been unnecessarily carried beyond a simple classroom debate.
“It’s unfortunate that this issue has gotten so twisted and politicized,” Ramirez said. “[The e-mail] was an FYI [for your information] thing – if you want to read this, read this. After each week’s e-mail, he opened it up to discussion. I don’t understand why two students just dropped the class and went around [to the] administration. It’s really shady.”