Flemming Rose and academic freedom: a response to Nathan Geffen

Accusations of hypocrisy are complicated,and have been inappropriately levelled at Rose

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Photo of Flemming Rose
Flemming Rose at the 2015 European Students For Liberty Conference in Berlin. Photo: Wikipedia user derthis

Nathan Geffen argues that while Flemming Rose should have been allowed to speak at UCT, he is not the free speech champion he is made out to be, and was thus a poor choice of speaker for an academic freedom lecture. The basis for this allegation is that Mr. Rose works for the Jyllands-Posten, a newspaper that supported the Israeli bombing of Gaza, which included the bombing of the Islamic University of Gaza, in 2008, and that Mr. Rose has evidently not commented on European and American government measures to counteract Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) measures against Israel.

Because I defended the invitation to Mr. Rose, Mr. Geffen then seeks to taint me by accusing me of “inattention to Palestinian humanity” because I have not characterized Israel as “a systematic oppressor of the civil rights of millions of people”.

Mr. Geffen claims that this is not a case of “whataboutery” – a manoeuvre whereby one accuses one’s opponents of hypocrisy – for he acknowledges that Mr. Rose (or anybody else) cannot be expected “to comment on every free speech issue”.

However, declaring that one’s move is not a case of “whataboutery” does not mean that it is not a case of it. Indeed, having made his declaration, Mr. Geffen immediately proceeds to say that “the suppression of activism against the Israeli occupation is the elephant in the free speech room that some of the loudest free speech proponents ignore”. Thus, because Mr. Geffen has decided that this is an elephant in the room, anybody who has not commented on this should be viewed as an inauthentic defender of freedom of expression.

When an accusation of hypocrisy is a legitimate move and when it is a fallacious ploy, is a complicated matter that cannot be resolved here. However, it is precisely because it is so complicated that Mr. Geffen has not demonstrated either that he falls into the former rather than the latter category or that it is Mr. Rose who is the hypocrite.

Among other things Mr. Geffen would need to explain is whether critics of Israeli interferences with Palestinian academic freedom are hypocritical if they are not equally vociferously critical of Palestinian interferences with Palestinian academic freedom. On the face of it, one would think that somebody genuinely concerned about Palestinian academic freedom would be concerned by all serious threats to it.

This is not the place to determine the rights and wrongs of the complex and tragic Palestinian-Israeli conflict (and the resultant suffering of humanity on both sides). What is relevant is that there are passionate disagreements about that conflict. Freedom of expression entails that nobody should be prevented from expressing their views – whether they be defenders of BDS or of Israel. Thus, I am unequivocally opposed, as I am sure Mr. Rose is, to any measures that would silence people on either side of this debate. Mr. Rose and I are similarly opposed to laws that criminalise holocaust denial. Mr. Rose has expressed those views in Israel, where holocaust denial is illegal.

I agree that quite distinct from the principle of freedom of expression is the question whether a particular person is a suitable choice to deliver an academic freedom lecture. There would be something inappropriate about inviting an opponent of academic freedom to deliver a lecture intended to support academic freedom. However, that is certainly not true of Mr. Rose, even if he has not commented on those Palestinian matters that are the preoccupation not only of Mr. Geffen but also of a number of previous TB Davie lecturers, including Howard Zinn, Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Kader Asmal and Achille Mbembe. Could it be that the content of people’s views about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is a test of who is and who is not acceptable as an academic freedom lecturer?

Professor Benatar is Head of Philosophy at UCT. He is a former member of the Academic Freedom Committee. 

Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.

TOPICS:  Freedom of Expression

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Write a letter in response to this article


Dear Editor

Professor Benatar neglects a few important nuances. In his case, it was not merely that he has "not characterised Israel as a systematic oppressor of the civil rights of millions of people"; he has described Israel as a "robust liberal democracy". It's not clear to me how someone committed to human rights can describe Israel like that when, for just a start, it has dozens of harsh laws discriminating against people because they are not Jewish.

And my criticism of Rose is not merely that he's been, as far as I can tell, silent on state and institutional suppression of BDS in Europe and the US, or that his newspaper is aggressively pro-Israel. It's that he visited Israel months after the 2008 attack on Gaza that left many civilians dead and wounded, the university damaged, and the economy in ruins. In that trip, he gave succour to the Israeli government by highlighting Islamic intolerance and failing to say anything much or at all about the somewhat more salient issue in Israel: Palestinian civil liberties.

Rose's 2009 visit to Israel reminds me of those purported campaigners for freedom who visited South Africa during the 1980s to lament intolerant communists and African dictators to the north, but glossed over apartheid.

Dear Editor

Nathan Geffen says that I ignore a few important nuances. Focusing on such details may be his way of ignoring the central important point: He thinks that Flemming Rose and I are not committed to freedom of expression because we have not criticised Israel to his satisfaction. He wants to claim that this is not “whataboutery”, but that is exactly what it is.

Israel has many imperfections but it has far fewer than any of those states and peoples that have been sworn to its destruction for longer than it has existed. Geffen objects when defenders of Israel say to its enemies, including the BDS movement, that they are hypocritical in focusing so exclusively and vociferously on Israel and ignoring the exponentially worse regimes against which it is defending itself. Thus it will not do for Geffen to offer the same charge of hypocrisy when we focus on what we reasonably take to be the larger problem. He simply cannot have it both ways.

In my initial response to him, I pointed out that that charges of hypocrisy are complicated and that he would need to do much more to make his case. I note that his letter makes no progress in that regard.

If Geffen believes that only those who share his views on Israel are suitable defenders of academic freedom, then he has not understood what academic freedom is. Many strident critics of Israel have delivered the TB Davie lecture in the past. Is Mr. Geffen really suggesting that it would be inappropriate to hear from those who might happen to have an alternative view?

Dear Editor

Professor David Benatar misunderstands or ignores the extent of my concern about Flemming Rose. It's not only that Rose has apparently been silent on the suppression of BDS activism by European and North American governments and institutions. That by itself would have been a curious inconsistency for an outspoken free speech advocate based in Europe. It's also -- in fact primarily -- that Rose, like Benatar, has directly supported the Israeli state, as I explained in my article.

The TB Davie Memorial Lecture is usually given by people who have campaigned for freedom and against oppression. Flemming Rose was a poor choice because he has supported a repressive regime (I repeat: he nevertheless should have been allowed to proceed). Any past supporter of apartheid South Africa would also be a poor choice. I can only guess the unnamed oppressive regimes Benatar is referring to. But supporters of the governments of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Egypt and Jordan would also be poor choices to deliver the TB Davie Memorial Lecture, no matter how much they talk of their love of freedom of expression.

Dear Editor

Nathan Geffen misunderstands my argument. He says that the “TB Davie Memorial Lecture is usually given by people who have campaigned for freedom and against oppression”. Because he takes Israel to be a repressive state he thinks that anybody who supports Israel against its enemies supports repression and is thus a poor choice of speaker. He’s happy to concede that “supporters of the governments of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria, Egypt and Jordan would also be poor choices to deliver the TB Davie Memorial Lecture”.

However he is curiously silent about supporters of Palestine. Both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are exponentially more repressive and less liberal than the State of Israel. Thus, those who stand against Israel are supporters of greater repression.

Let’s be absolutely clear about this. When I speak about those who “stand against Israel”, I am not speaking about those who offer balanced and nuanced criticism of Israel and who disagree with many of its policies. I fall into that camp, as do millions of Israelis. Instead, I am speaking about those, such as Geffen and a slew of previous TB Davie lecturers, who are or were involved in one-sided anti-Israeli activity. They have taken sides and their side is the more repressive, more illiberal and less democratic one. Thus, whether Geffen realises it or not, his argument applies much more forcefully to many past TB Davie lecturers than it would to Flemming Rose. Yet it is to Rose and Rose alone that Geffen has objected.

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