Monday, February 8, 2010

Benny Morris: Banned at Cambridge University Out of Fear. Who’s Next?

By Barry Rubin

Jake Witzenfeld, president of Cambridge University's Israel Society, canceled a talk by Benny Morris, an Israeli scholar, apologizing for any "unintended offense." "I decided to cancel for fear of the Israel Society being portrayed as a mouthpiece of Islamophobia," he said. "We understand that whilst Professor Benny Morris' contribution to history is highly respectable and significant, his personal views are, regrettably, deeply offensive to many....”

Mr. Witzenfeld should resign his position immediately since by leading a pro-Israel group he will no doubt be portrayed as all sorts of slanderous things and give offense to people. After all, the existence of Israel itself is “offensive” to many Muslims and others, which is not a reason for wiping it out, presumably. As Witzenfeld might know, pro-Israel groups have been banned on British campuses before and perhaps this is what he fears.

As for giving offense, his cowardice offends me, if that's his criterion for making decisions. Hopefully, someone less fearful can be found to head the society.

I have known Benny Morris for many years, including at a time when he was on the far left and we disagreed on just about everything, through the time that he has shifted position as a result of the trauma—felt by all Israelis—over the failure of the 1990s peace process. These experiences underlined the fact that certain more self-blaming and optimistic ideas about politics in Arabic-speaking and Muslim-majority societies didn’t work. Professor Morris adjusted to that reality, as did many other Israelis and others. Come to think of it, that was Israel's equivalent of September 11.

In addition, I have read Professor Morris's books, including the recent one arguing that historically Islam has been used by Muslim-majority polities to foster imperialism. While my approach is somewhat different, I respect his work, he makes many good points, and people write parallel things about Christianity’s historic employment in politics every day.

Moreover, while I was “offended” by Professor Morris’s views for many years in the past the idea that this should make me or anyone else to try to ban him from speaking never occurred. There’s something called belief in freedom of speech and a faith in the power of debate to reveal the truth that counters such censorship.

For the record, the idea that anything Morris has said or written shows some hatred of Muslims or racism is, let’s not mince words, a lie.

But what is most shocking about this travesty is Witzenfield's phrase “being portrayed as.” In other words, the mere fear that someone might claim that you are racist or Islamophobic—even if you know you aren’t and even if you know the speaker isn’t--is now a cause to refuse to hear a speaker or discuss an idea in the United Kingdom. Following the Witzenfield rule, any serious discussion of Middle East politics, terrorism, religion, and lots of other subjects should be banned since there are definitely those who will portray opinions they don't like as hateful, offensive, and racist (even if they have nothing to do with race).

What does the kind of behavior evidenced at Cambridge--and many other recent examples can be cited-- do but turn slander into a very effective weapon, indeed an irresistible weapon. Now if Muslims or leftists or antisemites or anti-Americans don’t like someone or something they can just attack him or her or it—even proving the accusations have some basis in truth is not important—and destroy their ability to speak to an audience.

This began with the refusal to admit Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician, to the United Kingdom and it is spreading to the point where the basic rights taken for granted by people living in democratic societies are now in jeopardy, at least in Western Europe. Wilders himself is now on trial in the Netherlands for using his right of speech. Indeed, this harassment is also being used by his political rivals to hurt his party’s electoral chances in the coming election.

Isn’t this kind of thing precisely what believers in liberty have been warning about for three centuries? Well now it’s here. If this can happen to Benny Morris it can happen to anyone. Indeed, I wonder whether I would be allowed to speak at the Cambridge University's Israel Society. After all, a few sentences or phrases can always be twisted or taken out of context. Or, if that proves too difficult, claims about what someone says or believes can simply be completely made up.
And why even bother to do that since no proof is required of anything except someone opposing your views and not believing in democracy or free speech. Is this the kind of behavior we want to reward with total vitory? Are these the kind of people we want in control of our rights?

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