Flipping the Line: Not all Academics!
Gerson painted too wide a portrait of the left and academia. Gerson collapsed the left into one homogenous category
The Line welcomes angry rebuttals and responses to our work. The best will be featured in our ongoing series, Flipping the Line. Today, Duane Bratt on why he believes Jen Gerson was too categorical in her branding of academia as being pro-Hamas in her recent column juxtaposing “woke” ideology with support for terrorism.
By: Duane Bratt
Several days ago, Jen Gerson strongly attacked leftists, progressives, universities over some commentary that was pro-Hamas and/or anti-Israel in the aftermath of the October 7, 2023 terrorist attacks. There was lots in the piece I agreed with. In particular, I share the outright dismay and horror of those that justified the murder, rape, torture, and kidnapping of Israeli civilians by Hamas on October 7, 2023 by arguing that “settlers are not civilians.” Likewise, I agree with Gerson on the differences between the Palestinian people (largely poor and oppressed) and Hamas (a violent terrorist organization, who also terrorize the Palestinians).
Unfortunately, Gerson painted too wide a portrait of the left and academia. Gerson collapsed the left into one homogenous category, ignoring the major differences between economic leftists (focused on economic class), identity leftists (focused on diversity), and foreign policy leftists (focused on pacifism and social issues). However, my purpose in this rebuttal is defending academia from Ms. Gerson critique. While I am best known for my writing and commentary on Alberta politics, in fact my PhD focused on international relations (UN peacekeeping in the 1990s) and I have taught/researched it for over 25 years.
In branding academia as almost uniformly pro-Hamas and anti-Israel, Ms. Gerson has made several errors. First, she collapses student groups with professors. For example, she cites the student organization at Toronto Metropolitan University. Ms. Gerson also stated that “it’s no coincidence that the most expensive institutions of education also happen to be clearinghouses for Palestinian support.” A sentence, I assume, that was referring to several student organizations at Harvard.
But student groups tend to be radical. And have been for decades. Whether the issue was the Vietnam War, South African Apartheid, or environmentalism, students have supported the underdogs, oppressed, and marginalized for decades. Support for the Palestinians is not the exception, it is the rule. In fact, from the end of World War II to the Six Day War in 1967, the student “left” supported Israel because it was the underdog.
Before students graduate, get jobs, have families, and become the establishment, it is an opportunity to be idealistic. And to be very sure of their idealism with no room for nuance. Here, I have to agree with prominent American political scientist Dan Drezner who has written about student comments over the Hamas attacks that “the musings of Harvard or Tufts students do not — or at least, should not — amount to a hill of beans in the public discourse. Just because it is now possible for outside observers to read these student scribblings does not mean that they should carry any intellectual weight.” If you believe that student groups run universities, then you must also believe that tuition is free, attendance is optional, and no term papers are ever written!
Second, Ms. Gerson ignored international relations or comparative politics (focusing on Israel, Palestine, or the Middle East more generally) professors and instead quoted any academic, of any discipline, who put out a pro-Hamas or anti-Israel comment. For example, the only academic that Gerson mentions by name is McMaster’s Emeil Joseph (Social Work) whose primary research is on race and post-colonialism in Canada and other western countries.
There were many IR profs across the country who commented on the Hamas attacks in Israel. For example, there were plenty of media interviews with such notable scholars as Thomas Juneau (Ottawa), Stephanie Carvin (Carleton), Steve Saideman (Carleton), Janice Stein (Toronto), even myself from Mount Royal University, and most of this analysis centred on condemning Hamas attacks, the clear ties that Hamas has with Iran, the relationship that Hamas has with the Palestinian people in Gaza. Yes, there was also criticism of Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (his corruption trials, controversial judicial reform efforts, pre-October 7 demonstrations against his government, multiple elections in Israel, etc). There was even commentary about the grievances within Gaza going back decades. But no serious IR scholar said Israel “had it coming,” or that all “civilians were military targets.”
Academics would not be the first group of people who are smart in one area believing that they are smart in all areas. This allows professors in English, sociology, history to opine with confidence on Middle Eastern affairs. This is like business leaders who think they would make great politicians because they have made money and would run government like a business.
Therefore, it would have been useful for Gerson to focus on experts on Gaza, Israel, terrorism, security, etc, and not just on finding individuals who put out anti-Israel comment on social media. Gerson went looking for pro-Hamas/anti-Israel comments from universities, and guess what, found them.
You can believe, as I do, that the terrorist attacks of October 7, 2023 were indeed horrific. And you can also argue that the treatment of the Palestinian people, such as the open-air prison in Gaza, has been shameful. And you can believe the threats of ending the Israeli state, including military action over the decades, by its neighbours means that Israel has to act in ways that are often immoral for the sake of its survival.
The situation is a tragedy, and it is one that is lacking on nuance and good faith on all sides. But if we are going to call people out over their ideological views, we should make sure we pick our targets carefully.
Duane Bratt is professor and chair in the Department of Economics, Justice, and Policy Studies at Mount Royal University
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