A professor’s article claiming Israel’s “moral right” to annex the West Bank has caused an uproar at DePaul | On Culture | Chicago Reader

A professor’s article claiming Israel’s “moral right” to annex the West Bank has caused an uproar at DePaul 

To censure or not to censure? The university community is divided.

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click to enlarge Jason Hill

Jason Hill

courtesy the artist

Last month, DePaul University philosophy professor Jason Hill wrote an opinion piece for the Federalist, a conservative online magazine, that argued for Israel's "moral right" to annex the West Bank and Gaza.

The article claimed that Israel won the territory in a defensive war and that its Palestinian population, to the extent that it supports organizations that "work for Israeli and Jewish destruction," lacks "moral authority" and constitutes "a national security threat."

Along the way, he suggested that "not all cultures are indeed equal."

It was incendiary, and it got noticed. A DePaul student organization immediately put together a change.org petition demanding a public apology and asking that the administration censure Hill and send him for racial sensitivity training.

The petition, which also cites tweets made by Hill, charges that "[h]is comments create unsafe and uncomfortable spaces for everyone, especially Palestinian and Muslim students who now all refuse to enroll in a class that is taught by Professor Hill." At press time it had more than 3,400 signatures.

DePaul, still known as the school that denied tenure to "Holocaust Industry" challenger and Israel critic Norman Finkelstein in 2007 (as well as subsequent incidents), responded promptly and, it seemed, unequivocally, on the side of free speech. In an April 24 e-mail to the university community, president A. Gabriel Esteban wrote that "The university will not censure Professor Hill for making unpopular statements."

That should have been the end of it, Hill says. But it wasn't. A week later, the DePaul Faculty Council took it upon itself to pass (hastily, by a vote of 21 to 10) a resolution that, while it affirmed Hill's right to publish his opinions, "condemns in the strongest possible terms both the tone and content" of his article. According to the resolution, his article misrepresents history, distorts facts, promotes racism, and, "counter to the DePaul mission, states that 'not all cultures are indeed equal.'"

The Faculty Council urged Hill "to take cognizance of the real harm his words have caused to students and other members of our community."

And on May 15, acting provost Salma Ghanem also weighed in, issuing a statement on official letterhead that said she was "deeply saddened that Professor Hill used his right to academic freedom and free speech to disparage one group over another," and complimenting "the way members of the DePaul community made their voices heard."

Hill didn't attend the Faculty Council meeting or a university-sponsored forum that followed it. He was receiving death threats, he says, and didn't want to put himself into a hostile environment. But at a talk in Wilmette last week about his latest book, We Have Overcome, an appreciation of America that reflects on his own journey since his arrival from Jamaica at the age of 20 as a Black gay immigrant with $120 in his pocket, he opened with an assessment of the situation in higher education. Indoctrination into cultural Marxism, he claimed, has replaced learning in the humanities and social sciences, and a climate of intimidation and fear suppresses First Amendment rights. "It's not unique to DePaul," Hill said. "It's an assault on free speech on American campuses."

He says he stands by what he wrote, and that his critics are conflating something he did say with something he didn't. "I've always said that all individuals are endowed with equal intrinsic moral worth and value. But not all cultural practices are equal. What about cannibalism, for example?"

He also says his own mixed heritage, which includes a Sephardic Jewish great-grandfather, has nothing to do with his advocacy for Israel.

Faculty Council president Scott Paeth says, "I wouldn't call what we did a censure. Our goal was to say, on the one hand, that his right as an academic to write what he wanted was something that we recognized and honored. But we did not want to seem to be endorsing his viewpoints. We were seeking a way to thread a very delicate needle."

Hill says he's talking with a lawyer, which led me to seek the opinion of DePaul law school professor and Faculty Council member Mark Moller. He told me that "an official statement by the faculty's governing body condemning [Hill's] op-ed is, functionally, an act of censure," and that "faculty governance bodies shouldn't be weighing in on the op-eds of individual faculty." In a follow-up e-mail, Moller wrote: "While I was not impressed with Professor Hill's inflammatory op-ed, that op-ed is nonetheless extramural speech on a matter of public concern and, as such, is plainly protected against official censure as a matter of academic freedom."

Says Hill: "I find it ironic that two weeks after the article was published, the Students for Justice in Palestine and other students are free to hold an anti-apartheid week against Israel on campus and I don't think they felt their safety was compromised in any way, and it's I who need a security escort on campus."

The students had also held a demonstration a week after publication. Their chant made an indelible impression: "Professor Hill, you can't hide! / We know you want genocide."   v

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