William I. Robinson: Provoking Thought, Courting Controversy

Back in January I posted on a collection of images that when coupled displayed the parallels between Israeli actions today and the atrocities committed during World War II.

It transpires that William I. Robinson, professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara, created the juxtaposition of images comprising the Holocaust and the recent Gaza Conflict as part of his teaching materials.

Naturally, he is now bowing under the equal pressure of criticism and applause for his plucky controversy.

On a personal level I find such methods captivating: when I taught a class on the Intifada I utilised images that some (oddly, mature students) stated were ‘traumatising’; my argument was that war is not clinical and clear-cut.

It is messy, shameful, upsetting, and people lose lives, loves, and livelihoods.

By university level we have a duty to present the facts and if a degree of reality can be infused, then imagery is often the most influential means to do so.

The original piece also comprised an article denouncing Israel’s offensive, stating that: “Gaza is Israel’s Warsaw — a vast concentration camp that confined and blockaded Palestinians. We are witness to a slow-motion process of genocide.”

Shortly after, two Jewish students dropped the class citing they felt intimidated by the professor’s message, before contacting the Simon Wiesenthal Center, which advised them to file formal complaints with the university.

In their letters, senior Rebecca Joseph and junior Tova Hausman accused Robinson of violating the campus’ faculty code of conduct by disseminating personal, political material unrelated to his course.

Robinson, 50, who is Jewish, called the accusations and the campus investigation an attack on academic freedom.

And in a statement that makes me squeal “Yes!” over and over like an agitated monkey, Robinson responds that:

The whole nature of academic freedom is to introduce students to controversial material, to provoke students to think and make students uncomfortable.

I could not agree more: the most memorable lectures and best teachers are the ones that have made my jaw strike the desk at least once during a lecture.

The battle has since been taken online with the Wiesenthal Center posting a lambast on YouTube, Jewish Students Under Siege from Professor at UC Santa Barbara, while Robinson’s supporters have responded with the website Committee to Defend Academic Freedom at UCSB.

This is becoming an alarmingly common phenomena in United States academic circles, more so as it heralds a burgeoning tolerance of censorship.

We cannot change history: just as the actions of the Nazis are noted, so too must the present atrocities against the Palestinians be condemned.

It’s not anti-Semitic or bad teaching pratice: it is merely an uncomfortable truth portrayed in a candid manner.

And if it ensures that the gist of the class is remembered, then Robinson fulfilled his obligation as a lecturer.

10 comments on “William I. Robinson: Provoking Thought, Courting Controversy

  1. ORLY
    May 1, 2009

    This professor acted entirely unprofessionally and dare I say, consummately incompetent.

    There is no comparison between Gaza and Warsaw. Period. For someone to take such an offensively ludicrous position, is the same as:

    Stalin wears shoes. YOU, “Layla” wear shoes, do you not? I rest my case. You are the same as Stalin.

    It’s ok for me to say that as a civilian, just talking trash to another civilian. But when I’m a professor in a position of power at a University, and I start showing my class the similarities between YOU and Stalin, well that is another matter entirely.

    Jews did not fire rockets at the Germans. Nor did they hold pro-Jewish, anti-German parades in Berlin in 1942. Nor did Jews send their own children, wrapped in explosives, to blow up German restaurants and kill German civilians at random. Jews did not form a charter dedicated to the denial and destruction of Germany. Jews did not issue continuous media programming declaring that the solemn duty and honor of all Jews is to die trying to kill any German, anywhere, anytime, women and children alike.

    Jews did not take 4 billion in humanitarian aid from the Germans and use it on explosives instead of schools. They did not issue Fatwas for using housing the Germans made for them. They did not forbid their own people from taking advantage of medical care or humanitarian aid, or steal and sell the supplies to finance more weapons.

    I suggest you spend a week in Sderot, without the luxury of a bomb shelter. Or perhaps you find the celebrations on 9/11/2001 perfectly acceptable.

    The IDF does not throw babies in the air to catch them on their bayonets. Nor do they tattoo numbers on millions of civilians as they march them to the ovens. Has ANYONE else EVER called in to their opponents in war to tell them where the fire was going to hit? ANYONE?

    Yet you would compare them to the Nazis. If after all this, a bare smattering, not really even a primer on the full extent of the lopsided miscarriage of blaming Israel for a group of Islamic extremists who hate all who are not of the same religion, then I am sure I know why.

    Freedom of speech is not the same thing as academic freedom.

    If a student of this same professor offered a paper with the same lack of objectivity and counterpoint, there is no doubt that student would receive a failing grade.

    Therefore, Prof. Robinson fails. Not to mention providing a portrait of arrogance not soon to be matched.

  2. Muhannad
    May 1, 2009

    I beleive professor Robinson used this comparison was to spark debate amognst his class. However, in my opinion, the srudents of this class were not able to handle this contriversial of a topic. Not only did they drop his class, but they made a huge stink and now here we are. His comparison does have to make you think though. Walls are walls no matter what country you are in. Checkpoints! Are you kidding me? Cities destroyed to rubble!!!! The sad part is not the fact that some people spoke their minds and disagreed with each other, the sad part is that things like this still go on in this world til this day. Germans, Jews, Arabs, Americans, we are all humans. Under no circumstances, none what so ever!! Should this be allowed anywhere on earth. And if people want to call it Slow Political and economic Genocide, that is their opinion (which I agree with). But opinions are what spark debate, critical thinking, arguments and solutions. If no one voices their opinion, debates, argues. Things will never change and this will happen again to the next “Country, or race of people” and it will be a never ending cycle. The IDF is guilty of War Crimes against Humanity. It may not be as horrible or terrible as what the Nazi’s did. But it does not make it right!

  3. John Mayer
    May 2, 2009

    No, Israeli atrocities are not the same arocities the Nazis committed. They’re still atrocities. That goes way beyond footwear. Perhaps it is more accurate to compare the Israeli treatment of Palestine to South African apartheid than to the Warsaw ghetto. Lets hope the outcome more closely resembles the latter.

    My nephew was raised in a liberal household and taught to avoid prejudice and stereotype. He visited a young woman in Palestine for a couple of weeks and saw first hand the vicious repression of the people there by the Israeli army. He came back an anti-semite. I hope he eventually regains his objectivity and comes to understand that the evil is not the Jewish people, it is the Israeli government.

    ~ John Mayer

  4. Mike
    May 6, 2009

    There is no room for criticism of the state of Israel period.
    They covet land that is not theirs legally. They do not compensate those whose land they take. They prevent basic humanitarian supplies from reaching barricaded Palestinans. They deprive the citizens of Gaza from obtaining basic sanitary needs, like water and medical supplies. They kill unarmed civilians with mechanized weapontry,mostly financed by billions of dollars annually provided by a complacent US Congress and without any conditions required . They refuse to allow United Nations or Red Cross inspections. They cry foul if the Palestinans were to even think of having a standing army, yet complain when the Palestinians respond to the illegal Israeli occupation and aggression with crude hand-made devices. They build fifty feet high concrete barriers on Palestine lands to prevent Palestinians from visiting their relatives, going for emergency medical treatment or tending to their gardens.
    What shame they visit upon the memory of the victums of the Holocaust under Nazi persecution. Dead is dead, whether by industrial means or modern weapontry. What has the world learned from the Holocaust – not a darn thing, only maybe that genocide will continue to exist as long as free nations allow the practice to continue. The actions of the Israeli government does not represent the wishes of the majority of its own citizens, but such information is not allowed to air by the US television or print media. William I Robinson, sociology professor at UC Santa Barbara shared his academic study of conditions in the Gaza Strip with his students via emails, which unfortunately a few students found it necessary to involve the outside world rather than discuss their concerns with Professor Robinson. It appears that the state of Israel is unique among nations are exempt from any criticism of their state business. If you are non-Jewish, you are labeled an anti-Semite. If you are Jewish, you must be a self-hating Jew. In short, the state of Israel can do no wrong by their own requirements. Until Israeli government allows for the existance of a Palestine free state, criticism of their actions will continue, and they have only themselves to blame.

  5. Courtenay Barnett
    May 8, 2009

    By way of historical reference we could go back to the 1940s and see there what President Roosevelt was saying about “Palestine”:-

    Letter From President Roosevelt to King Ibn Saud, April 5, 1945 (1)


    I have received the communication which Your Majesty sent me under date of March 10, 1945, in which you refer to the question of Palestine and to the continuing interest of the Arabs in current developments affecting that country.

    I am gratified that Your Majesty took this occasion to bring your views on this question to my attention and I have given the most careful attention to the statements which you make in your letter. I am also mindful of the memorable conversation which we had not so long ago and in the course of which I had an opportunity to obtain so vivid an impression of Your Majesty’s sentiments on this question.

    Your Majesty will recall that on previous occasions I communicated to you the attitude of the American Government toward Palestine and made clear our desire that no decision be taken with respect to the basic situation in that country without full consultation with both Arabs and Jews. Your Majesty will also doubtless recall that during our recent conversation I assured you that I would take no action, in my capacity as Chief of the Executive Branch of this Government, which might prove hostile to the Arab people.

    It gives me pleasure to renew to Your Majesty the assurances which you have previously received regarding the attitude of my Government and my own, as Chief Executive, with regard to the question of Palestine and to inform you that the policy of this Government in this respect is unchanged.

    I desire also at this time to send you my best wishes for Your Majesty’s continued good health and for the welfare of your people.

    Your Good Friend,
    His Majesty
    King of Saudi Arabia
    Riyadh ”

    (1) Department of State Bulletin of October 21, 1945, p. 623.

    Quaere: What happened to “Palestine”?

  6. jtb
    May 8, 2009

    Most of these posts miss the point of the controversy.

    It is not about any effort to stop the professor from free expression; nor is it about this or that opinion about the Israeli/Palistinian issue.

    Instead, it is about stopping the professor from trying to stifle free expression among his students; and about his violation of reasonable univerisity rules.

    The professor utilized a student e-mail list of his students, which was created for exchange of class-related information, to send his personal political viewpoint that support for Israeli policies was support for “Nazi” policies. He admitted that the material was not class related.

    In doing so, he not only violated the policy against a professor using univiveristy resources (the e-mail list) for personal political reasons; he also impinged on the free expression of his students by using his position as professor to try and infuse a one-sided view point. 19-year old students who disagree with him are likely to remain silent in the face of being accused as a “nazi” supporter by their professor. There is a policy there against that as well.

    So, if you favor free speech, you have to side with the university policies on this one and find the professor’s actions to be inappropriate.

  7. John
    May 16, 2009

    JTB is absolutely correct. The rest of you rather intelligent people are morons and missing the whole point of the controversy. Legally, this has nothing to do with the comparison itself, the point of contention is whether the professor has the right to divulge from his normal course subject on Globalization to essentially state an opinion on contemporary political situations. This is big no-zone for teachers, instructors and professors because students that disagree will most likely keep quiet in order to not jeopardize their grades and further education. This is what is wrong about the situation. I don’t understand how most of the posters do not get this issue and immediately start talking about Palestinian issue. And contrary to some opinions, nobody has accused professor Robinson or anti-Semitism, but a select few of the posters already believe that the case against Prof. Robinson is being driven by trumped up anti-Semitism charges.

    • a
      May 18, 2009

      If you research a little more John you will find that the original accusations by the two students were specifically anti-antisemitism even referencing state department definitions etc. I also agree that maybe sending the e-mail may have been a slight undue influence, however the course curriculum specifically covered current global conflicts, so it was if somewhat imprudent, well withing a reasonable definition of allowable. I also happen to think the message of his e-mail is a subject that is unfairly considered taboo giving cover to any who would like impunity for their actions.

  8. deborah
    May 30, 2009

    I’d feel more sympathetic to the students if they hadn’t dropped the course, which should have given them less rather than more of a leg to stand on. Had they been serious about the course, they could have gone through the usual channels of talking to the prof, then his chair, etc. Instead they ended up as the conduit for the ADL and Simon Wiesenthal Center? Puulleeezzzeee. If they weren’t narcissists before, this kind of national and international attention on what is a rather mundane issue of being confronted by material they found offensive will certainly they turn them into being so now!

    Analogies are by definition about juxtaposing two different things, but the analogy is really not the point. Instructors sometimes make bad analogies–so what?

    The issue here is why extra-curricular organizations who spend day and night lobbying to try to prevent criticism of Israel have turned administrators into putty such that normal academic practices are thrown into the trash and grown ups who know better allow their campuses to be taken over by anti-intellectual, hyperventilating politicians.

    Administrators and faculty should be educating the politicos as to why campuses are not free to “punish” professors and why the university is a means to its own ends rather than those of whatever organization wants to use it as a venue for their agenda.

    Until administrators make it clear to whoever comes knocking that universities are their own means to their own ends and cannot simply be used via financial blackmail, we will continue to see faculty time wasted on insanity like this. The only thing that surprises me about this entire soap opera is that it occured anywhere in the UC system. No public university has the time to waste these days on such ridiculous theater and trumped up charges against professors.

  9. ipso facto
    June 25, 2009

    I don’t see what all that controversy has to do with Sociology. Universities should deal with knowledge and understanding, not with opinions which will remain as they are until war will set its “truth”.

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This entry was posted on April 30, 2009 by in Americas, Conflict Zones, Israel, Middle East, Palestine, Politics and tagged , , , , , , .
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