Saturday, June 08, 2024

The Redemption of Noa Argamani

The Israeli military announced today that it had successfully rescued four hostages from Hamas captivity, including Noa Argamani. Argamani was a particularly high-profile hostage because video of her abduction was one of the first pieces of footage Hamas released after October 7, showing her pleading with her captors "don't kill me!" as she was taken from the Nova music festival massacre and separated from her boyfriend (whose whereabouts remain unknown).

The Israeli operation which freed Argamani and her compatriots also reportedly killed approximately two hundred Palestinians, according to Hamas figures. These, as always, do not distinguish between civilian and military casualties; we can safely assume there is plenty of both (it is apparent that there was a significant military presence guarding the hostages).

Two days after October 7, I quoted Noa's father Jacob saying the following:

Let us make peace with our neighbors, in any way possible. I want there to be peace; I want my daughter to come back. Enough with the wars. They too have casualties, they too have captives, and they have mothers who weep. We are two peoples to one Father. Let’s make real peace.

That quote came at the bottom of a post titled "What Will You Say 'No' To?" It was a warning to Israel supporters that they needed to decide, then and there, what sort of response or retaliation would not be justified in the wake of Hamas' attack, citing specifically Yoav Gallant's threat to starve out Gaza's population. There's plenty that Israel justifiably could do in response to Hamas' attack, but what would we not support Israel doing? What is too far? What must be taken off the table?

Was it not unfair to level that demand mere days after October 7? Maybe it was, though if Jacob Argamani could think along the above lines, then I'd argue so could anyone. Unfair or not, however, I said that we had to think about those questions then, because 

we just witnessed in real-time a catastrophic failure to grapple seriously with this question on the part of those who've pledge to stand with Palestinians and Palestine. Suddenly forced to decide whether, in the wake of occupation and besiegement, a Palestinian response of "a systemic campaign of house-to-house kidnappings, rapes, and executions" is a valid one, we saw far, far too many individuals unable to say "no" (or at least, say it with any level of decisiveness). This failure stems directly from the tempting broth that assures us that, if the provocation is severe enough and the injury severe enough, no amount of "response" could ever be disproportionate. And so we see that, if you refuse to let yourself think that anything could be "too far", there's no end to the depths of hell you may find yourself apologizing for.

Eight months later, that post is deeply embittering to read. None of this had to happen. Most obviously, October 7 didn't have to happen and the hostages didn't need to be taken. Yet even now, writers like Adam Shatz cannot help themselves in describing the "exuberance" over October 7 as a "prison breakout," "a daring assault on Israeli bases that devolved into hideous massacres" (it did not "devolve" into anything; the sowing of terror and death amongst Israel's civilian population was the primary tactical goal of the operation -- there is essentially no evidence that the primary or even significant targets of Hamas' operation were military bases). Likewise, the warnings to the Israelis that their righteous fury over October 7 did not license the imposition of an indiscriminate siege and turning the entire Gaza Strip into a free-fire zone fell on deaf ears, and now the entire nation is on trial for genocide.

Nobody paid heed, and nobody has seemed to have learned anything. In the months that followed October 7, there were innumerable opportunities to turn off this path, with plenty of blame to go around for why we didn't, but the main culprit is simple: both Israel and Hamas want this war to keep going. Obviously there are some conditions where they'll accept peace; but those conditions are quite far apart, and so for the most part they're both happy to keep the war going rather than deal with the fallout of an actual deal

So now tens of thousands of people are dead, and for what? Noa Argamani is home, but Noa Argamani started at home! Noa Argamani being home was the world on October 6! We're back to where we began, except with unfathomable death and destruction and trauma for uncountable numbers of people.

I'm happy and relieved and overjoyed that Noa Argamani has returned home -- the redemption of Noa Argamani is an unqualified and unadulterated good. But that joy is tempered by the fact that none of this had to happen at all. We could have lived in a different world.

Wednesday, June 05, 2024

A Jewish Studies Purge at UC-Irvine?

There's a brewing controversy bubbling up at UC-Irvine, where Jewish students are protesting the decision to terminate the contract of a popular lecturer who had been teaching a class on Jewish Texts under the auspices of the campus' Center for Jewish Studies. The lecturer, Daniel Levine, is a Rabbi affiliated with the campus Hillel chapter. There are two open letters currently circulating in support of Levine and condemning his termination, you can read them here and here.

There are a lot of moving parts here, and situations like this almost always have lots of little nooks and nuances that can be hard for an outsider like myself to spot. But here's my best attempt to summarize what appears to be going on.

The Center for Jewish Studies is not an independent department at Irvine. It is run as a minor out of Irvine's humanities division and is specifically overseen by the Department of History. Levine is not a permanent member of the faculty, but he was by all accounts a popular teacher who was well-liked and respected by the campus' Jewish community. The official rationale for his non-renewal is that two new tenure-track hires with interests in Jewish Studies mean that his course can be taken over by permanent faculty members, offered every other year. The Jewish students counter that the new faculty members' specific subject-matter expertise does not seem tailored to the Jewish Texts course; further, they believe that Rabbi Levine would have been able to maintain teaching the class on a yearly (rather than biannual) basis.

But there's a bigger issue lurking. Among the demands of UC-Irvine pro-Palestine protesters has been for the university to cut ties with "Zionist" organizations and individuals. The chair of Irvine's history department, Susan Morrissey, is part of the Faculty for Justice in Palestine group which has endorsed these demands. The suspicion amongst the Jewish students is that Rabbi Levine was ousted from his position as a backdoor means of instantiating these demands. This fear is amplified by the fact that both of the new hires appear to be, at the very least, very sharp critics of Israel -- one was a leader of Jewish Voice for Peace at UCLA, and both are signatories to a letter written three weeks after the October 7 attack demanding (among other things) "the end of all U.S. funding to Israel immediately." In essence, the students believe that Morrissey effectively instituted a purge -- replacing a Jewish Studies lecturer who was embedded in the campus Jewish community but (or perhaps, and therefore) was tainted by his association with Hillel and "Zionism" with alternatives who would be less effective in serving the Jewish community (and the community of students interested in the Jewish Studies minor) but were more ideologically congenial and aligned with the political demands of Prof. Morrissey and the pro-Palestine protesters.

None of the above is incontestable. The public explanations from the powers-that-be at Irvine might be entirely on the level. It is far from uncommon that the sorts of considerations that drive faculty hiring and teaching assignments (particularly at a large research university) do not align with what undergraduates believe or expect should motivate who ends up in the classroom. Other than the tidbits identified above, I have no specific knowledge regarding either of the two new tenure-track hires at Irvine; they may be able to cover Levine's class with aplomb. And certainly, there is nothing intrinsically odd about replacing an external part-time lecturer with a tenure-line faculty where possible.

Nonetheless, it is abundantly clear that the Jewish Studies contingent at Irvine has ample reason for both mistrust and discontent. From their vantage, they're losing a great teacher and community member with inadequate replacement, for reasons that seem inscrutable, in a context where their very discipline and their broader standing in the Irvine community seem to be threatened by powerful forces, including the very campus leaders who made the decision at issue here. When a powerful university actor says they support doing a thing (here, cutting ties with the "Zionists"), and then that actor does something that is to say the least compatible with that thing (terminating Levine's appointment), observers are entitled to infer that the thing happened for the reasons that the actor publicly articulated. That isn't dispositive, but its certainly probative, and nobody can or should fault the students for not buying that Morrissey is acting for neutral and purely professional reasons.

In essence, Morrissey put herself in a position where she lost the presumption of trust that might normally accord to decisionmakers in her role. No matter what the "truth" is (which may be unknowable), we have a situation where deep damage has been done to the Jewish Studies minor and the relationship between its overseers and the community it purports to serve. It is clear that, to say the least, the Jewish Studies community does not feel as if the powers-that-be who made the decision to terminate Levine and who are guiding the new direction of the Jewish Studies minor are receptive and responsive to the views of the most-affected stakeholders (maybe if they occupied someone's office? But alas, the hypocrisy trap....).

In any event, at minimum, the Jewish Studies students and the broader Jewish community at Irvine are entitled to more receptivity from Professor Morrissey; to believe that her orientation towards them is not one of hostility and that she views them as a stakeholder to be engaged with, not an obstacle to be overcome. If she cannot restore that relationship of trust, then it may indeed be better if the Center for Jewish Studies be moved into a different portfolio, with leadership that can do the job that she cannot.

Tuesday, June 04, 2024

The Exceptions Aren't Exceptional, They're Just Bad

Today, the Columbia Law Review website is down, reportedly due to the publication of an article by a Palestinian legal scholar on the "Nakba" that occurred in the wake of and as part of Israel's war of independence and its establishment as an independent state. We're still getting details, but the word is that the law review's board of directors (comprised of faculty and alumni) sought to overrule student editors who wished to publish the piece and, failing to do so, took down the website.

I've really found valuable and thoughtful Paul Horwitz's comments on cases like this, and so too here. In particular, I agree with him that it's not right to refer to the Columbia incident as part of a Palestine "exception" to free speech or academic freedom, not because it isn't a breach of academic freedom norms (it certainly seems to be), but because it isn't especially exceptional -- whether we're focused narrowly on Israel and Palestine (as the Minnesota case, above, illustrates) or more broadly on "controversial" topics and issue areas.
I am certainly disturbed by the action of the CLR leadership in simply eliminating the entire article, along with the website, even if it is eventually published. The notion that there is a unique "Palestinian exception" to free speech norms or academic freedom is absurd, in light of numerous other occasions on which writers, editors, publishers, and others have engaged in censorship and self-censorship on numerous hot-button subjects over the years. But I am hardly comforted by the possibility that it is one more exception. And it would be no more comforting if the exception were better seen as a general "controversial subject" exception.

It is quite clear that speech that is harshly critical of Israel quite regularly faces sanction and obstruction that does not comport with free speech or academic freedom norms. But that's not an exception, that's an instantiation of a larger part that free speech and academic freedom norms have many fair-weather friends and so find themselves under serious pressure on the regular. This isn't to say that they don't do important work -- they do, and a lot of speech that probably would be suppressed ends up being permitted because these free speech principles do carry a lot of weight. But the notion that they are impenetrable juggernauts who only rarely and idiosyncratically find themselves challenged is just not true. One reason I try to defend these norms so vigorously is precisely because I recognize that their fragility is the norm, not the exception.

In general, I think I have a more positive outlook towards student-edited law journals than Paul does, and so generally take a dim view of any sort of faculty or administrative meddling in journal affairs (the notion that a faculty or alumni-comprised committee has any role beyond, perhaps, the most soft-touch advisory capacity, in determining what articles the Columbia Law Review does or doesn't publish is absurd to me). So it should come as no surprise that I also strongly agree with Paul that even if there were reasons to think that the student editors acted in a fashion that departed from their own normal rules or processes in accepting this article (which may or may not be true), any interventions that hypothetically might have been justified cannot take the form of an ad hoc, last minute decision to pull the piece from publication altogether.

Indeed, assuming that this article is slated to be part of CLR's print volume, I'm not sure what the board of director's end game is here -- are they going to pulp the entire issue? Even if the article is bad, wrong-headed, offensive (and I haven't read it, so it may be none or all of these things), I see no reason why any of those (for better or worse not especially exceptional) sins cannot be addressed via the normal mechanisms of academic inquiry and response. Prior restraint is not the right move. And if the Columbia board did what it is alleged to have done here, it is shameful and outrageous -- no less so if it is not "exceptional".

UPDATE: The Columbia Law Review board has issued a statement explaining why it took down the website. On my read, nothing they say justifies the decision. The only thing that's potentially eyebrow-raising is the claim that the piece was not selected via the normal article-selection process. But this probably (though not certainly) has less than meets the eye: it is hardly unheard of for a law review to solicit a piece outside the normal article-selection channels, which easily could be (but really shouldn't be) called a departure from the "usual processes of review or selection." For example, when I was a law review editor most pieces went through the articles committee (which I was on), but our book review editor had essentially carte blanche authority to solicit book reviews on his or her own initiative. While there might be some valid basis for complaint if this article was unusually sequestered from (actual, extant) norms and practices of how articles move through the CLR process, such problems do not to my mind justify the extraordinary remedy of taking down the website. The short version is that even if (and this not clear) there are valid process-based objections to what (some members) of the Columbia Law Review did here, that does not mean that taking down the website is an appropriate remedy. As Alexandra Lahav wrote in a thoughtful thread, sometimes events transpire such that there just isn't a way to "preserve the status quo ex ante."

One thing that hasn't been mentioned but which I think may be lurking in the background here is the recently announced boycott of Columbia University graduates by a suite of right-wing judges who've made very clear their intention to inflict collective punishment on the Columbia community for (real or perceived) bad behavior by particular actors. Threats like this understandably could make members of the Columbia Law Review who were not part of (and were not given the opportunity to be part of) the publication decision especially sensitive -- they have reasonable basis to fear they will be held responsible and retaliated against for choices they did not make and might not have even been aware of. I'm sympathetic to those students, but ultimately, the people who have put them in that position are the judges and other actors who have decided to endorse indiscriminate academic blackballing as a political tactic. As much as these students are being put in an unfair position -- and they are -- the board should not have cowered in the face of this blackmail. The principles of academic freedom are too important to be allowed to yield even in the face of a credible threat of external retaliation -- this is true when the boycotters are right-wingers furious about pro-Palestinian advocacy, and it's true when the boycotters are left-wingers livid about Israeli inclusion.