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UCSB Professor Faces Faculty Inquiry Over E-mails

An ADL complaint cites the instructor's use of e-mails that draw comparisons between Nazi atrocities and Israeli activity in Palestine

When UCSB sociology professor William Robinson forwarded an e-mail to his students during the course of his winter lectures earlier this year, he wanted to get some discussion going on the matter.

What he got instead of discourse on the controversial e-mail is a committee of his peers preparing to decide whether he violated faculty codes of conduct.

“I expect to be completely vindicated,” he said. A final decision has yet to be made. 

In January, Robinson forwarded two e-mails to his class of 80 students for his course on “The Sociology of Globalization.” One e-mail was a commentary written by a Jew for an American Jewish newspaper criticizing Israel’s takeover of Gaza. The other was a photo essay juxtaposing images of the atrocities of the Nazis in Warsaw with images of Israeli activity in Palestine.

It was the second e-mail that deeply offended two of his Jewish students, senior Rebecca Joseph and junior Tova Hausman, who launched complaints against their Jewish teacher for what they saw as anti-Semitic rhetoric, especially when prefaced with phrases such as “Gaza is Israel’s Warsaw.” Their efforts to address this perceived insult finally reached the ears of the Anti-Defamation League, which sent a complaint to Robinson. Eventually, the university responded with the ongoing formation of an ad-hoc committee to review the situation.

“We felt that the comparisons between Nazis and Israelis were offensive ... well beyond legitimate criticisms of Israel,” said Cyndi Silverman, director of the local branch of the ADL.

“In our view, no accurate comparison can be made between the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the atrocities committed by the Nazis against the Jews,” says the ADL complaint to Robinson, which urges him to “unequivocally repudiate” the views expressed in his forwarded e-mail.

In response, Robinson and the students who support him have launched the Committee to Defend Academic Freedom at UCSB, contending that his actions were within the scope of his work. It’s a position that Robinson defends vigorously.

“What we do as university professors, and this is the point of higher education, is to provoke students to think of the world we live in,” Robinson said. Part of academic freedom, he said, is to bring controversial subjects into the classroom in order to challenge students.

“It’s perfectly legitimate to raise those issues, to say for instance in discussion: ‘One of the most horrible events of the 20th century was the Holocaust, and this is what the Nazis did in these images. Now look at these images taking place in Palestine by the victims of the Holocaust.’ That’s open debate, that’s what we do in the university ... there are striking parallels and you can agree or disagree with that, but that’s a matter of what we look at and what we debate.”

More to the point, Silverman said, is the way Robinson conveyed the information.

“In our letter we just stated that we recognize his academic freedom, we recognize his right of free speech,” she said.

What the ADL is concerned about was the manner in which he presented his information, she said, and whether it was truly within the scope of his work.

“There’s a number of faculty codes of conduct about faculty integrity and what you can send out to your students,” Silverman said. In sending this to students he violated a number of faculty codes of conduct,” she said, adding that he “overstepped his bounds by sending out course information unrelated to the course.”

Robinson argues that it was forwarded as part of course material.

The end result, Silverman said, is that two of Robinson’s students became so intimidated and distressed over the situation that they were forced to drop the course.

Adding to the controversy was a visit by Anti-Defamation League National Director Abraham Foxman last March. According to Robinson and his supporters, the meeting was to pressure university officials to investigate charges of “anti-Semitism” against him.

Silverman contends, however, that the meeting was planned months in advance, before the issue with Robinson even began.

“Abe Foxman did not come out in response to Professor Robinson,” she said, adding that Foxman came out on a fundraising mission.

Regardless of the intention, the outcome was that Foxman did address the situation with Robinson with university officials.

“When the meeting started, Foxman quickly launched into what I would call a rant about what he said was an anti-Semitic email that professor Robinson sent to his class,” said Harold Marcuse, a UCSB history professor in support of Robinson who was at the meeting. “We then had an open discussion about Foxman’s comments and the charges against Robinson. In my recollection, that was the only thing we talked about at the meeting. Nothing else was discussed.”

According to Paul Desruisseaux from UCSB, the matter is still being reviewed to determine if there is a need for a formal investigation. While the students in support of Robinson claim that university officials are being deliberately uncommunicative, Desruisseaux says that any comment now by UCSB’s top officials would be “prejudicial.”

“It’s not appropriate for the chancellor or anyone to weigh in on, or to comment on the situation,” he said.

For the moment, both sides are playing a waiting game, with Robinson concerned what example the university might set as a result of this process. The student supporters have set up a campus forum to discuss the situation on May 14.

“My big concern is that if this is not addressed rapidly and forcefully by the university in defense of academic freedom, we are going to set a precedent and an environment of censorship and intimidation on campus,” he said.

Meanwhile, the ADL is also watching the process, waiting to see what the ad-hoc committee formed by the Academic Senate is going to find in terms of the alleged violations of conduct.

“We’re giving the university time to run this course and then we’ll see how to respond to it,” Silverman said.

Noozhawk staff writer Sonia Fernandez can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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