Stifling voices hurts students, free exchange of ideas

These past few weeks there’s been a lot of talk about who you can and can’t talk to.

As has been widely reported, the membership of the American Studies Association (of which I am a member) voted in favor of a resolution boycotting Israeli universities. I’ve come out publicly in opposition to the boycott, primarily on the grounds of academic freedom. Others — Liel Leibovitz (in Tablet), Peter Beinart (Daily Beast) and Mark Brilliant (Chronicle of Higher Education) — have offered their own opposition to the boycott for their own compelling reasons, and far more eloquently than I.

My opposition to the boycott grew out of three fundamental beliefs:

1. The ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip is bad for Israel, and it is bad for the Palestinian people.

2. More discussion, research and informed exchange is better than less.

3. Universities (both Israeli and American) are unique for their ability to tolerate and even encourage productive, complicated, difficult conversations among people who may not always agree.

So, I found myself agreeing, in spirit, with the ASA resolution, as I, too, would like to see Israel reach a sustainable, equitable and just peace with the Palestinian people. But I opposed the spirit of the resolution because it ran against my fundamental understanding of the kind of critical engagement that universities not only encourage, but enable. I voted against the resolution.

In a seemingly unrelated incident, the student board of Swarthmore Hillel in Pennsylvania voted unanimously to defy guidelines put forth by Hillel International regarding whom they are permitted to host for Israel programs. The Swarthmore vote could not have been more timely.

The coincidence of these two events point out the weakness in attempts to stifle discussion. In the ASA, we have a professional academic organization voting to boycott its peer institutions, effectively recommending to its members who they can and cannot talk to. In the example of Hillel International, we have approximately the same thing: an umbrella organization telling its affiliates whom they can and cannot speak with.

The irony of the coincidence is so obvious that it hardly bears further comment. It is not hard to find Jewish organizations that support Hillel International’s guidelines and have come out strongly against the ASA resolution. At the same time, those who have come out in support of the ASA resolution probably welcomed the decision of the Swarthmore Hillel students.

To support the free and open exchange of information and intellectual work, and to encourage the vibrant (albeit sometimes difficult) educational atmospheres of our universities, means opening avenues for conversation, not foreclosing them. To criticize Hillel International and then turn around and support the ASA resolution is absurd. To condemn the ASA and support Hillel International’s guidelines is just as silly and shortsighted.

Hillel, obviously, has different responsibilities than do academic departments, and thus, Hillels play by slightly different rules. And they should. But as active members of university campuses, they — like the American Studies Association — owe it to our students to allow them to engage with complex issues and the many shades of gray so they learn how to think critically and for themselves.

Cordoning off some ideas or organizations as “beyond the pale” does our students and our colleagues a great educational disservice by keeping them from learning to engage in complicated conversations, particularly around issues that matter so much. That is true for our undergraduates, and it is true for my colleagues in American Studies. Protecting students from some ideas does not make the campus a safer place, because it limits the ways in which productive, if challenging and uncomfortable, discussions can happen.

That is the point of a university education. It is difficult to imagine a university campus that does not value free and open intellectual inquiry. It would be hard to argue for the value of a college degree without some appreciation of critical thinking. It would be impossible to imagine receiving a college education without experiencing ideas with which one does not agree.

We want our students to grow over their four years with us. We want them to hold different beliefs when they graduate than the ones they held when they showed up on the first day of orientation. The only way to do this is to expose them to unfamiliar ideas that they have to reckon with, reconcile, reject, entertain or embrace. And both Hillel and American Studies should foster those kinds of experiences, both in the classroom and outside of it.

We encourage our students to be critical thinkers, thoughtful consumers of information and passionate people. Universities give them the space to do so. Our students are smart enough to handle these opportunities and to grow from them. Let them learn how.

Ari Y. Kelman is the Jim Joseph Professor of Education and Jewish Studies at the Stanford Graduate School of Education.