04 December 2007 - Matory can't take the heat
Today I went to hear an address by J. Lorand Matory, the Harvard professor who proposed a motion at last month’s faculty meeting affirming “civil dialogue,” on the grounds that critics of Israel “tremble in fear” on campus. Matory seems to have lost the debate on the merits, especially after these pieces in the Harvard Crimson and these blogs at Commentary and the New Republic (followed by Matory’s response):
“Academic Dishonesty” – Crimson staff editorial
“Harvard Sucks” – Adam Goldenberg, Crimson columnist
“Who’s Really Trembling?” – Julia Bertelsmann, Crimson op-ed contributor
“’Free Speech’ at Harvard” – Eric Trager, Commentary
“Harvard, Censorship and Anti-Semitism” – Martin Peretz, New Republic
“Orwellian Uses of Free Speech” – J. Lorand Matory
Today’s lecture was entitled “What’s Troubling About Zionism: An African-American Perspective.” I thought this might have indicated that Matory, having failed in his free speech ploy, was going to play the race card. Actually, Matory said little—and knew even less—about black American views of Israel. He spent most of the time simply talking about his life, his experiences, his views—himself.
He began by describing his childhood in Washington, D.C. and his early exposures to Jews. His father took him to something called the Jewish Ethical Society. There, he said, he was taught that Israel was “a land without a people for a people without a land.” Little did he realize, he said, that when he was enjoying his milk and cookies he was also “imbibing the justification for settler colonialism.”
This was only one of several myths that were later shattered for the young Matory, including the mouse on the Mayflower and the cowboys and Indians (he suffered, poor fellow, the trauma of admitting to his friends that he backed the Indians). Nonetheless, his early encounters with Jews were formative. He told us, bizarrely, that he read his first Playboy magazine at the Society; he had found it in the trash.
“Jewish people were, and still are, our good neighbors and friends,” he continued. “I hated the Nazis and what they had done to Jewish people.” But he had come to see Israel as a settler-colonialist regime. “How could they feel so little guilt, that in the middle of the 20th century, when everyone else was moving towards human rights and independence, they were setting up a new settler colony?” he asked himself.
“I had reservations about persecuted Europeans having safe haven on lands stolen from black and brown people,” he said. “I saw myself in the Palestinians.” He then presented a shockingly crude and inaccurate history of the Arab-Israeli conflict: Jews steal land from Arabs, Israel supports apartheid South Africa, Cynthia McKinney loses her congressional seat because of the pro-Israel lobby, and so on.
Matory then turned a critical eye on the Arab states—not for their rejection of Israel, but for their treatment of black people. “Many Arabs call me ‘abd, or slave, and contemptuously so. People in the Sudan are riding roughshod over people they consider black like me.” He added that the Cherokee nation recently voted to expel its black members, illustrating the “lack of identification among the oppressed.”
“None of this justifies Israeli atrocities towards Palestinians,” he said. But he had “never sensed that when African-Americans have stood up for Palestinian rights and paid the price that we could count on reciprocal support from the Arab and Muslim world.” (This was a message apparently aimed at his hosts, the Harvard Law School Justice For Palestine, which he evidently took as a proxy for Arabs.)
And what “price” was that? A price so heavy, he said, that black critics of Israel refuse to stand up “for fear they will be crushed by the bull elephant of Zionism.” He gave several examples of what he claimed was the suppression of criticism of Israel at Harvard: the “un-inviting” of several speakers, the “loss of career opportunities” (he gave no evidence), and, most recently, the faculty decision to table his motion.
Matory claimed that the faculty had “illegally” cut off debate, although according to reports in the Crimson there simply weren’t enough professors there to form a quorum. He also claimed that Harvard had canceled an invitation to UK poet Tom Paulin because of his “criticisms” of Israel (he neglected to mention that Paulin had said that Jewish settlers “should be shot dead”—hardly mere criticism).
He also spoke about the cancellation of an appearance by Norman Finkelstein at the Harvard Book Store (a private shop not affiliated with Harvard); the legal and political battles by Alan Dershowitz to stop publication of Finkelstein’s anti-Dershowitz rant, Beyond Chutzpah; and an alleged boycott organized by the owner of Wordsworth Books against WBUR, the local National Public Radio affiliate.
All these, he said, created an atmosphere of fear for critics of Israel at Harvard. The suppression of anti-Israel views, he said, was in the same category of “absurdity” as the exclusion of Hamas from the Annapolis peace negotiations. He complained about receiving hate mail, and about “resistance from a moneyed and media-connected Israeli defence force” (whether in general or particular, I couldn’t tell).
Having rested his case, Matory opened the floor for questions. What he had said until that point struck me as radical and perhaps even antisemitic (“moneyed and media-connected”), but not particularly unusual. But he had maintained a cool, dulcet-toned demeanor, speaking evenly and articulately, doing his best to charm his audience. I was not prepared for what was to follow.
The first questioner was a left-wing Israeli who said that in his two years at Harvard, he had been to more pro-Palesitnian events than pro-Israel ones, and yet had never experienced repression of any point of view. The Harvard Book Store, he said, wasn’t even part of Harvard—
“Did I say it was?” thundered Matory.
“No, but you suggested that it was connected, and the Harvard Coop—“
“Did I ever mention that?” Matory boomed.
I was amazed by Matory’s sudden and unprovoked anger. I jotted in my notes: “EXTREMELY combative.” Matory responded in the same way to most of the questions asked. There were a few friendly ones: one fellow from the community claimed Matory was being suppressed by Dershowitz, who had dared to write an article about the whole affair. “How is that suppression?” I interjected, to no avail.
Nimer Sultany, an Arab citizen of Israel, asked Matory to describe the different attitudes of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr., to the Middle East issue. It struck me as a strategically stupid question, because King’s support for Israel is fairly well-known. Matory claimed not to know what they felt—this in a lecture on African-American perspectives on Zionism—but added that “many people believe the reason he was killed was that he was venturing into areas not dealing with American life,” implying that he might even have been set up by Zionists.
An undergraduate student asked Matory to justify his historical claims. “Five Arab armies invaded Israel in 1948—“
“That’s irrelevant!” he shouted.
“And the Jewish refugees from Arab countries—“
“That has nothing to do with the dispossession of Palestinians!”
He asked her a question, then continued to shout her down. “You’re silencing me,” she said patiently.
“No, I am not,” he declared.
“You asked her a question,” I interjected.
“It was a rhetorical question!” he cried. “This is not a factual issue.” That is, the facts are as I say they are, and the way I say they are is beyond debate. Undaunted, she persisted with her questions. “If you really believe in free speech, why have you only brought copies of your own articles to this meeting [which were being handed out as she spoke], and not copies of articles that disagree with you?”
“I don’t have to represent other views!”
“Then how can you claim to support robust debate?”
The moderator called on the next person to ask a question, but Matory interrupted to tackle the student again. “If someone runs into my car, and I run out of it screaming, the problem is not my screaming but the guy who ran into my car,” he bellowed.
“Five Arab states invade. Who’s driving the car?” she asked.
“It’s as if someone took over my house, and I’m shouting ‘Get out of my house!’” he yelled. “And they refuse to leave. ‘Get out of my house!’”
After this weird exchange, the questioner resumed. It turned out that he was none other than the former owner of Wordsworth Books, Hillel Stavis, whom Matory had excoriated for allegedly organizing a boycott of WBUR. Stavis extended his hand to Matory, who took it, but after that things soon got ugly.
Stavis began recounting his version of events, and he was clearly irritated by the way Matory had portrayed things. “I feel like a mosquito at a nudist colony,” he said. “I don’t know where to begin.” He decided to start by saying that he had never hosted Norman Finkelstein at his store, but he had never had Alan Dershowitz, either. He had stocked a “preponderance of anti-Israel literature in my bookstore,” easily measured in board-feet, since that was what was published more often.
“It is slander,” Stavis continued, “to say that I led a boycott of other sponsors” of public radio in Boston. What happened, he said, was that he had been a supporter of WBUR for 20 years, until the second intifada. Concerned by the station’s coverage of events, he sought a meeting with editors Jane Christo and Kevin Klose.
Stavis asked them why WBUR was constantly airing stories about Palestinian refugees from 1948, but had never once aired a story about Jewish refugees from Arab countries. Klose said that WBUR had indeed aired such stories, and Stavis, taking a risk, offered him a $100 wager that the station had never done so. After weeks of research, Klose came up with nothing but a passing comment on “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross—a program not even produced by the local affiliate.
After that, Stavis said, he decided to stop contributing to WBUR. Other contributors did the same. Yet he had not encouraged them to do so, he said: “I defy you to find a single shred of evidence that I told anyone to boycott WBUR,” he challenged Matory. At the same time, he noted, his own store had been relentlessly picketed by protestors who claimed that he was trying to silence criticism of Israel.
“In the end,” he said, “my business went under. Maybe the protests had something to do with it. Personally, I blame Amazon.com. But I never organized a boycott.”
Matory then responded, arguing that Stavis had indeed organized a boycott, citing a 2002 article in the Boston Globe as his source. Stavis then said he would consider legal action, and Matory shouted something back, and Stavis, irritated, muttered “bullshit” under his breath. “You see?” cried Matory triumphantly. “That is how he behaves. He tries to stifle free speech by threatening to sue me.”
(I’ve since read all the Globe articles on the topic, and in each one Stavis makes it clear that his decision to withdraw funding form WBUR was his alone. The articles also note that Stavis sits on the board of CAMERA, the Committee For Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, which was encouraging boycotts of NPR at the time. But as for a direct connection between Stavis and a broader WBUR boycott, there’s none save his own withdrawal of support. In any case, there’s nothing coercive or repressive about withholding voluntary contributions to a nonprofit, or even encouraging other people to do so!)
I managed to get the last word in, and it was—for me, anyway—worth the wait. I asked Matory why, if he claimed that critics of Israel were subject to unfair attack, he routinely attacked fellow Harvard professors for their opinions without actually substantiating his claims. “Name one,” he said.
“Well, I don’t want to get sidetracked,” I responded, “but let me mention just one. In your recent article, you attacked certain views on race and gender. It’s clear you meant Larry Summers. I find it interesting that you were the one who proposed a motion to censure Summers for expressing his views. You tried to chase him out of the university. So are you really for free speech, or just free speech for yourself?”
“I didn’t try to chase him out of the university,” he said. “I believe he has the freedom to express his views as a member of the faculty, and I welcomed him back to the faculty. But I felt that his views were improper for a university president who has to make important decisions for all of us. And anyway, the real reason he had to resign was that he had poor relationships with the university administrators.”
“I see,” I responded. “And did you propose a motion about that?”
“No,” he said, “but there was also the issue of his financial dealings in Russia…”
“Oh,” I said. “Surely you proposed a motion on that.”
“No,” he said.
“So you censured him because of his opinions.”
“You ran him out of a job, didn’t you?”
That was the end of it. Matory had no answer in the face of clear evidence of his own hypocrisy. I found him to be an excessively vain man, determined to cast himself as a hero of the “oppressed,” a martyr in the fight against the “moneyed and media-connected” interests. He claims to be the champion of free speech, but he can’t take the heat of debate, and turns into the Incredible Hulk when faced with basic questions. In truth, Matory has less to fear from censorship than exposure.