Academic freedom is a foundational value of any university. Defined by a scholar’s fundamental right to express his or her ideas without fear of retaliation and punishment, freedom of expression in the university setting sets the stage for progressive thought. When we censor professors — the very people who foster that progressive thought — we hinder the academic environment.
Recent events at USC involving international relations professor David Kang have brought this issue to the forefront of University politics. On Oct. 26, Kang gave a presentation for an introductory class, which in part focused on terrorist organizations. Kang titled a lecture slide, “Who are terrorists?” and provided a list of nine groups who, as Kang later explained, were “called terrorists by their opponents.” This list of groups and individuals included communist leader Mao Zedong, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, the Irish Republican Army and, most notably in this case, Israeli Zionists.
Kang’s association of Israeli Zionists with terrorism caught the attention of a student in Kang’s IR 210 class, who leaked the Powerpoint presentation to the Jewish Journal, stating he was “disturbed” by the slides. Both this student and the Jewish Journal believe that Professor Kang was promoting anti-semitic views and was feeding the class the idea that Israeli Zionists are terrorists. A petition demanding Kang apologize and be censured for the presentation was widely shared and signed.
However, it seems more likely that Kang was trying to foster an engaging learning environment by discussing the issue of how opposing groups perceive and represent each other. Controversies are bound to emerge in classroom settings, but this should not have been a controversy.
Zionism is a political movement advocating for the national liberation and self-determination of the Jewish people. And within this movement, there have been a number of individuals and Jewish paramilitary groups that have incited violence against civilians and others who do not share their views. Most notoriously, a Zionist organization called the “Irgun” bombed the King David Hotel in 1946, killing nearly 100 people.
Of course, this does not mean that the Zionist movement as a whole is rested in terrorism, but some groups and people do in fact think of Israeli Zionists as terrorists; stating this fact of others’ perceptions of Zionism is neither false nor slanderous. Still, others may think of them as heroes. Kang posed students with this question for the sake of dialogue and to give students a glimpse of reality.
The buzz on this issue prompted Roz Rothstein, the international director of StandWithUs, a pro-Israel organization behind a petition to have Kang explicitly condemned by the University, to declare: “USC Professor David Kang dehumanized all Israelis, Jews and others who believe in Israel’s right to exist during his lecture this past October.”
Rothstein went on to assert that Kang’s inclusion of Israeli Zionists on his slides was a form of hate speech. It was at this point that the petition garnered a few thousand signatures of people who agreed with Rothstein. But one might guess that many of them weren’t actually in the classroom when Professor Kang presented his slide, and that their outrage was the product of unawareness of the context.
In the words of Rothstein, herself, an educator is someone who is supposed to “help students think critically about the world.” To do this, a professor must engage in intellectual debate with students. From Kang’s point of view, he was trying to do just that. He explained: “The point of the exercise was to get students to think about how and why organizations are labeled as terrorist organizations, and to foster a discussion about who does the labeling and for what purpose.”
Kang was not saying that all Israeli Zionists are terrorists, nor was he really giving an opinion at all. Rather, he was using the example to facilitate an insightful discussion on cultural relativism and how it impacts the image of terrorism across people of different groups and backgrounds.
This is not the first time that professors have brought up controversial topics such as terrorism, and why some groups and not others are considered terrorists. It certainly won’t be the last time students are offended by material in a classroom, and students should always have the right to contest a professor or start an intellectual debate if they disagree with something.
However, it is when we skip the process of intellectual debate and censor professors and educators that we infringe upon academic freedom and integrity. If the student in Kang’s international relations class disagreed with the information presented, then he should have voiced his concerns in class. A true academic environment cannot exist without engagement in intellectual debate, and this debate, sadly, cannot exist in its fullest and most beneficial extent if educators fear censorship or retaliation.