I hadn't intended to say anything further about the shameful Martin Peretz affair, and lord knows there are plenty of good reasons for me not to poke my finger in the eye of Harvard's current leadership. But seriously: You'd think after nearly 400 years the leaders of the university would have figured out what the principles of academic freedom and free speech really mean -- and also what they don't mean. But judging from the official university response to the furor, the people I work for appear to be somewhat confused about these issues.
To recap: A couple of weeks ago, Peretz made some offensive and racist statements about Muslims on his blog. Specifically, he wrote that "Frankly, Muslim life is cheap, especially for Muslims," and then went on to say that he didn't think American Muslims deserved the protections of the First Amendment, because he suspected they would only abuse them.
These statements were not an isolated incident or just a lamentably poor choice of words. On the contrary, they were the latest in a long series of statements displaying hatred and contempt for Muslims, Arabs, and other minorities. Peretz retracted part of his latest remarks after they were exposed and challenged by Nicholas Kristof (Harvard '82) in his column in the New York Times, but in his "apology," Peretz nonetheless reaffirmed his belief that "Muslim life is cheap." Indeed, he declared that "this is a statement of fact, not value."
A number of people then began to question whether it was appropriate for Harvard to establish an undergraduate research fund in Peretz's name and to give him a prominent role in the festivities commemorating the 50th anniversary of its storied Social Studies program. A University spokesman defended the decision to accept the money for the research fund and to have Peretz speak at a luncheon by saying:
As an institution of research and teaching, we are dedicated to the proposition that all people, regardless of color or creed, deserve equal opportunities, equal respect, and equal protection under the law. The recent assertions by Dr. Peretz are therefore distressing to many members of our community, and understandably so. It is central to the mission of a university to protect and affirm free speech, including the rights of Dr. Peretz, as well as those who disagree with him, to express their views."
In a masterful display of understatement, the Atlantic's James Fallows (Harvard '70) termed this response "not one of the university's better efforts." As he (and others) pointed out, nobody was questioning Peretz's right to write or say whatever he wants. For that matter, nobody has even questioned whether Harvard ought to give him a platform to expound his views on this or any other subject. (For my own part, if the Kennedy School invited him to speak on any subject he chose, I wouldn't object.
As should be obvious, this issue isn't a question of free speech or academic freedom. Rather, the issue is whether it is appropriate or desirable for a great university to honor someone who has repeatedly uttered or written despicable words about a community of people numbering in the hundreds of millions. And isn't it obvious that if Peretz had said something similar about African-Americans, Catholics, Jews, Asians, or gays, the outcry would have been loud, fierce, and relentless and some of his current defenders would have distanced themselves from him with alacrity.
And let's also not lose sight of the double standards at work here. After a long and distinguished career, journalist Helen Thomas makes one regrettable and offensive statement and she loses her job, even though she offered a quick and genuine apology. By contrast, Peretz makes offensive remarks over many years, reaffirms some of them when challenged, and gets a luncheon in his honor and his name on a research fund at Harvard.
And why? Because Peretz has a lot of wealthy and well-connected friends. Bear in mind that in 2003 Harvard suspended and eventually returned a $2.5 million dollar gift from the president of the United Arab Emirates, after it learned that he was connected to a think tank that had sponsored talks featuring anti-Semitic and anti-American themes. As the Harvard Crimson said at the time, "no donation is worth indebting the university to practitioners of hate and bigotry." So the University clearly has some standards, it just doesn't apply them consistently.
For more on this unequivocally depressing business, you can read:
2. James Fallows' summary of recent developments.
3. A powerful statement by Ta-Nehisi Coates of The Atlantic, examining Peretz's achievements as an editor and questioning his liberal bona fides.
4. A comment by Alan Gilbert of the University of Denver, a former tutor in the same Social Studies program.
5. And while you're at it, you might read the Boston Globe's editorial whitewashing Peretz, and compare it with their reaction to the Helen Thomas affair.
And no, this isn't just a matter of Ivy League academic politics, unrelated to issues of foreign policy. As everyone knows, U.S. relations with the Arab and Muslim world are especially delicate these days. You can read this or this to understand why, but it certainly doesn't help when one of the nation's premier academic institutions decides to honor someone with such deplorable views, even after they have been widely exposed. This is obviously not the main reason why the America's image in the Arab and Muslim world is so negative, but it surely adds fuel to the fires of bigotry.
To take this matter a step further, Islamophobia is on the rise here in the United States. Efforts to combat this pernicious and dangerous trend would be furthered if institutions like Harvard took a principled stand on this issue, and declined to honor anyone who has made bigoted remarks about Muslims (or any other group). This has not happened with Peretz, and history will not treat Harvard well for its behavior in this case.
Update: As I write this, I've received a couple of emails suggesting that Peretz was not going to be speaking at the Social Studies event after all. I don't know if that's true or not, but to me the issue is less about his being one of the speakers, and more about having his name permanently attached to an undergraduate research fund.
Update 2: James Fallows reports on the reported resolution of the dispute (i.e., Peretz won't have a speaking role at the event), and suggests that Harvard could address the controversy by creating a scholarship fund for students of Muslim background.
Writing in yesterday's New York Times, Nicholas Kristof called attention to a recent blog post by New Republic editor Martin Peretz. Here's what Peretz had to say about American Muslims, in the context of the current debate over the Park 51 project and the rising tide of Islamophobia here in the United States:
But, frankly, Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims. And among those Muslims led by the Imam Rauf there is hardly one who has raised a fuss about the routine and random bloodshed that defines their brotherhood. So, yes, I wonder whether I need honor these people and pretend that they are worthy of the privileges of the First Amendment which I have in my gut the sense that they will abuse.
As Kristof rightly observes: "Is it possible to imagine the same kind of casual slur tossed off about blacks or Jews?" And as Salon's Glenn Greenwald shows here, Peretz' bigotry was not a careless choice of words or an isolated incident. On the contrary, he has a long history of similarly racist or bigoted remarks about Arabs, Muslims, and especially Palestinians.
Here's where it gets interesting. As M.J. Rosenberg of Media Matters for America reported last week, on September 25th Peretz is due to be honored by a group of long-time friends -- including a number of Harvard faculty -- who have raised funds to endow an undergraduate research fund in his name. (The event is apparently tied to the 50th anniversary of Harvard's social studies program, where Peretz used to teach).
Does Harvard University really want to have an undergraduate research fund named after someone who would espouse such hateful views? Would all those people who contributed money and who will presumably show up for the event have done so if Peretz made a similarly grotesque statement about blacks or Catholics?
Please note that this isn't an issue of academic freedom or free speech, as nobody is questioning Peretz's right to say whatever hateful things he wants. But at a moment in our nation's history when religious tolerance is being openly challenged, one would hope that premier academic institutions would be setting a positive example. It will be a sad day for Harvard if it turns a blind eye to Peretz' reprehensible attitudes and pockets the money. And in the absence of a heartfelt public apology by Peretz himself, you'd think all those admirers would be having second thoughts.
Update: No doubt stung by the publicity, Peretz has now issued an apology here. He says he doesn't actually believe the sentence he wrote about American Muslims being ineligible for Constitutional protections, but repeats his belief that "Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims." Readers can judge for themselves how "heartfelt" this apology is.
ROBYN BECK/AFP/Getty Images
Two and half years ago, two political scientists published a book that said (p. 188):
Anyone who criticizes Israeli actions or says that pro-Israel groups have significant influence over U.S. Middle East policy stands a good chance of getting labeled an anti-Semite. In fact, anyone who says that there is an Israel lobby runs the risk of being charged with anti-Semitism, even though AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents are hardly bashful about describing their influence. ... In effect, the lobby both boasts of its own power and frequently attacks those who call attention to it."
Over at The New Republic, Leon Wieseltier has provided the latest example of this all-too-familiar tactic, in the form of an incoherent and unwarranted smear of Andrew Sullivan. Yglesias, Larison, and DeLong offer telling rebuttals.
Over at the New Republic, Jonathan Chait is in a lather about J Street, Ezra Klein, and me, mostly because we've independently suggested that unconditional and uncritical support for Israel might not be good for the United States or for Israel either. The essence of his argument is mostly guilt-by-association, but along the way he also hurls a barrage of nasty adjectives at my book with John Mearsheimer on the Israel lobby. And like some other critics, his comments suggest that he didn't bother to read it first.
To be specific, Chait says the book "portrays Israel as a force for evil throughout its existence." He offers no evidence to support that false claim. Had he read the book, here are some passages that might have given him pause.
There is a strong moral case for Israel's existence, and there are good reasons for the United States to be committed to helping Israel if its survival is in jeopardy" (p. 5).
The authors of this book are 'pro-Israel' in the sense that we support its right to exist, admire its many achievements, want its citizens to enjoy secure and prosperous lives, and believe the United States should come to Israel's aid it is survival is in danger" (pp. 113-14).
Israel's creation and subsequent development is a remarkable achievement." (p. 355).
My co-author and I were critical of some Israeli policies, while emphasizing that:
[We are] not focusing on Israel's conduct because we have an animus toward the Jewish state, or because we believe that its behavior is particularly worthy of censure. On the contrary, we recognize that virtually all states have committed serious crimes in their history. . . and that some of Israel's Arab neighbors have at times acted with great brutality" (pp. 80-81).
We also noted that:
almost all of the many gentiles and Jews who now criticize Israeli policies or worry about the [Israel] lobby’s impact find [anti-Semitic] views deeply disturbing and categorically reject them. . . They believe that Israel acts like other states, which is to say that it vigorously defends its own interests and sometimes pursues policies that are wise and just and sometimes does things that are strategically foolish and even immoral. This perspective is the opposite of anti-Semitism. It calls for treating Jews like everyone else and treating Israel as a normal and legitimate country. Israel, in this view, should be praised when it acts well and criticized when it does not....Americans who care about Israel should be free to criticize it when its government takes actions that they believe are not in Israel’s interest" (p. 195).
In short, Chait's characterization of our book is a fiction; he just made it up. He undoubtedly thinks that attacking us in this way will help keep Israel safer. He's wrong. The policy of unconditional and uncritical support that the New Republic has fervently defended for years isn’t working for either the United States or for Israel -- and plenty of other staunchly pro-Israel individuals -- e.g., Daniel Levy, Matt Yglesias, Roger Cohen, Ha'aretz editor David Landau, M.J. Rosenberg, Gershom Gorenberg, Gideon Levy, Akiva Eldar, Aaron David Miller, etc. -- have figured this out too.
Why is Chait so exercised? I think it's because he realizes the discourse about Israel in the United States is changing before his eyes, and that increasing numbers of people -- both Jewish and gentile -- now realize that a more normal relationship would be better for both countries. If Chait were a true friend of Israel, he'd agree.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.