Liberal Education and Aggressive Nationalism
Liberal Education and Aggressive Nationalism
[Text of a talk given at a teach-in at Columbia University, April 4, 2005]
There's a lot one can say about Academic Freedom: much has already been said today and in the last couple of months at Columbia and Barnard. I won't reiterate or review the discussions which ensued as a result of the making of Columbia Unbecoming. One point I would like to emphasize, however, relates to the practice and role of a liberal education.
Liberal education is premised on certain fundamental principles: questioning received truths, valuing critical consciousness and independent thought, and working to overcome the silences and exclusions of ruling interests. So, for example, critiquing oppressive social norms is considered educationally valuable, as is promoting the pursuit of truth, freedom, and democratic participation. At its best, therefore, liberal education has always involved helping students to explain the real world (by determining the roots and causes of phenomena). But doing that for a very specific purpose: and that is in order to empower students to participate in changing the world for the better, i.e. to empower them to become agents of social transformation. A liberal education at its best should be committed to no less.
The fact that it falls short of this achievable ideal is something to think about: what kind of constrains, for example, does the satisfaction of ruling economic and political interests put on education? Why does educational autonomy have to be curtailed by the requirements of the market? Indeed, can the notion of education I've been outlining above have a chance of becoming a reality in a society ruled by the interests of the exploiting minority? It is clearly a given that ruling groups constantly seek legitimizing forms of knowledge which ensure the maintenance and reproduction of their power and interests. Education is forced to participate in this production of consent and conformity, and is therefore compelled to internalize and instill the values and assumptions which will sustain and consolidate the elite's own rule. So in that sense the "achievable ideal" I outlined above is constantly under assault: independent thought is undermined and critical consciousness is devalued if they are deemed to threaten the interests of the powerful and advantaged.
All of this is very elementary, and I mention it for a reason: for me the recent controversy at Columbia falls under the rubric of an assault by special interests on the core values of liberal education. Let's look at the facts: We have a small number of Zionist students who, by cooperating with powerful outside forces, have managed to launch an international campaign against Columbia claiming mistreatment and intimidation in the classroom. It is mind-boggling that such a small number of students can achieve so much: A conference on the Peace Process was cancelled and another conference by right-wing ideologues and so-called defenders of Israel was held on campus to support their claims. National and international newspapers have constantly reported on their activities. The Israeli embassy got in on the act and complained to Columbia about alleged faculty misconduct. The Anti-Defamation League weighed in making false allegations about anti-Semitism on campus. An Israeli Minister, Natan Sharansky, came out in support of the students and accused Columbia (of all places) of running an anti-Semitic campus. A committee of distinguished academics was formed to investigate their claims. Dozens of students and faculty were interviewed. Hundreds of letters were exchanged. Thousands of conversations on campus and beyond were had about their plight. They have even reached Jerusalem in their crusade, where one of them divulged to Haaretz that they were only targeting critics of Israel in their campaign. Their achievement is big and mighty.
They get all this international publicity, yet claim their voices are not heard, and insist on using the language of victimhood, of defense, and of injury. Indeed, they appropriate the language of the powerless for their own purposes. And that really intrigues me about this whole episode. Why does such power need to disguise itself in the discourse of powerlessness? Why claim to assume the position of defense when you are really attacking? It really makes one pause.
I'd like to suggest a possible answer to this conundrum. I'd like to read their discourse as symptomatic of the wider discourse of aggressive nationalism being exhibited with such force and sweep today both in the US and also in Israel, two central poles in the world of the David Project.
Let me begin with the US: The strategy of "ttacking, expanding, and becoming more powerful in the name of defense"is deeply entrenched in US nationalism. From the wars on Native Americans to the War on Terrorism, the US has always dubbed aggressive expansion as defensive action. The Cold War period epitomizes this logic: the rhetoric of the "deterrence and containment" of the Soviet Union stood for an aggressive US policy of expansion, subverting popular regimes and undermining independent forms of nationalisms around the world (from Sandinista Nicaragua to Arafat's Palestine, who unlike the US's favorite ally in the region, the King of Saudi Arabia, was at least democratically elected by his people). To the lasting disgrace of US nationalism, the US attack on Vietnam in which around two million died is still described as a defensive war against communism. The fact that the US elite perceives their position to be defensive tells us nothing about the objective situation: self-perceptions are used here as tools to legitimize paranoia and intervention.
With the fall of the Soviet Union, US power enters into a crisis of legitimacy, and the challenge for the US state is clear: how to design a way to maintain and reproduce the Cold War structures of domination and dependency when the excuse for them has literally just collapsed. It is with this in mind that the so-called War on Terrorism needs to be understood. The US has successfully exploited al-Qaeda terrorism to increase its sphere of interference abroad (with Iraqi deaths tolls for the US control of oil in Iraq exceeding the 100,000 mark already) and create a regime of suspicion, fear, and intimidation at home.
This same imperial principle of "expansion-by-defense" also applies to Israel's behavior since inception. In the War of 1948, the Jewish Haganah forces (which means defense in Hebrew) committed tens of massacres in Palestine, pillaging their way through Palestinian homes, towns, and villages and occupying lands which were not even allocated to them by the UN partition plan of 1947. They exceeded their internationally recognized borders even before the so-called Arab Liberation Army declared war on the Jewish state. For the Jewish forces, the expulsion of around a million Palestinians, the expropriation of their lands, the razing and destruction of their 350 villages, and the active prevention of their return were of course all measures of self-defense. Under the guise of defense, Israel aggressively asserted political sovereignty and supremacy in Palestine, and created what Ben Gurion (the founder of the State of Israel) once approvingly called "the dictatorship of the Jewish people." Wars of aggression have since then become a specialty of the Jewish State. The list is long: the attack (with Britain and France) on Egypt in 1956; the crushing of three Arab armies in 1967 in six days, occupying the West Bank, Gaza, Sinai, and the Golan Heights; and, the invasion and occupation of Lebanon in 1982, which resulted in the slaughter of 20,000 civilians. Israel also persists in systematically oppressing and denying the national rights of the Palestinians, both inside and outside of its borders. Its own Palestinian citizens, who lived under a cruel military regime until 1966, continue to this day to be subjected to systematic discrimination and unequal civil and political rights. And the Palestinians of the West Bank and Gaza continue to suffer the brutality of the longest occupation in modern times....all of course for security reasons. According to this Israeli logic, it is the occupied who constitute a threat to their occupiers and oppressors.
The excesses of power are clearly in evidence here. Yet Israel continues to present itself as a victim-state and persists in exploiting the deaths of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust (and the sufferings of many more) for its own colonial interests. The more Palestinians it kills, uproots, and dispossess, the more checkpoints it creates, closures it ruthlessly enforces, walls and colonies it builds, property it destroys, homes it demolishes, and lives it reduces, the more it needs to exploit the Holocaust to ward off criticism of its oppressive policies and destructive urges. The opening of the new Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem is yet another step in this direction, as was recently argued by Amira Hass in Haaretz.
Such aggressive nationalism has another casualty, and this will bring me back to my opening remarks about liberal education. To achieve their expansionist objectives Israel and the US require conformity from intellectuals: independent thought and questioning have to be silenced. This has never been made clearer to me than in the encounter between Ben Gurion and the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber in 1949. Confronted with the full force of Jewish territorial nationalism, Buber dissentingly asked: "Jewish soil to what end?...What for?" Impatient and irritated Ben Gurion replied: "What are all these questions for? One can ask, but first of all we must build the state."
Buber's uncompromising critique has resonated throughout the century. The list of dissenting intellectuals is too long to read here. In the US, the names of Chomsky and Said come immediately to mind. It is the function of the academy to keep this honorable tradition protected and alive.
So, I'd like to conclude with a warning for the future: Beware when the powerful cry tears of victimhood. Beware when those tears seek to curtail legitimate academic discussion and silence the truth about Israel. And Beware when all of this is done in the name of Academic Freedom. Always ask, with Martin Buber: "What for?"
Bashir Abu-Manneh is a Palestinian from Israel, who teaches at Barnard College.