Sunday, September 28, 2014

"Civil disobedience" is increasingly misused

This was originally posted to the JFR: The Jewish Faculty Roundtable discussion list by Paul Burstein of the University of Washington. It is posted here with the permission of the author.

I think we need to be very careful here. "Civil disobedience" is a term that is increasingly misused, and it would be a good idea to highlight its original meaning. The basic idea, I believe, was that one would engage in peaceful (i.e., "civil") activities that were in fact illegal, but then agree to pay the legal penalty for committing illegal acts as a way of drawing attention to problems in laws or the administration--e.g., disobeying a law against equal accommodation in public facilities to show how outrageous such laws were. Many people disapprove of civil disobedience, but it has a good pedigree--Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., etc.

What many of the anti-Israel (or worse) campus groups often propose or carry out are actions that are not civil disobedience in the traditional sense. The actions are not peaceful, and the perpetrators expect to avoid punishment.  We have to highlight this over and over again, with examples.

In addition, we have to figure out some good way of highlighting the way the term "academic freedom" is being misued. Those hostile to Israel, etc., proclaim the right to do anything they want because what they're doing is protected under the rubric of "academic freedom" (e.g., teach blatantly one-sided classes about the Middle East), while denying others the right to participate in activities that would normally be seen as manifestations of academic freedom, such as "no to study programs in Israel," not to mention denying others the right to engage in activities that virtually every American has the right to engage in (e.g., go on a trip to Israel).

I should add that it would sure be nice of some university administrators took meaningful stands on these issues. The silence from those at the top of universities is astonishing.  And even when someone takes action, such as Phyllis Wise, there's an awfully strong tendency to retreat, when attacked, into discussions of the precise details of whether procedures were followed, without taking any moral stand at all.

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