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“Free Speech” at Harvard

A new drama loosely focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is about to unfold at Harvard. Professor J. Lorand Matory, a signatory of the 2002 Israel divestment petition, plans to introduce a resolution calling for “free speech” at the next faculty meeting. Foremost among Matory’s concerns is his belief that criticism of Israel has been stifled on campus.

It’s no longer interesting to note that those accusing Israel’s supporters of stifling speech are among the least-stifled people in the world. Indeed, Matory is so uncensored that he recently published an article alleging censorship—a right that true victims of censorship do not, by definition, enjoy. As he has frequently spoken out against Israel in statements and articles, his opponents have a strong case in declaring his proposed motion bogus.

But Matory’s proposal deserves more consideration. After all, it calls for affirming “free speech,” strangely scorning “academic freedom,” the typical catchphrase employed by professors defending their vocal disdain for Israel. No doubt unintentionally, this selective phraseology properly accounts for Matory’s own limitations: he possesses no professional or experiential qualifications that would make his criticisms of Israel remotely academic. Constitutionally guaranteed “free speech” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however uninformed, is thus the most he can reasonably demand.

In this vein, his admissions during a lengthy phone interview I conducted with him were stunning. After he presented his essential thesis that Israel is a racist, apartheid state, I asked Matory what books had inspired his views. Matory was unable to name a single book or author, saying that he was “largely informed by the international press.” When asked why he hadn’t traveled to the region to examine the conflict’s complexities firsthand, Matory said that he wouldn’t go to Israel on principle, but that such a trip was hardly necessary: he has plenty of Israeli friends and neighbors, stateside. But had he ever spoken with these Israeli friends and neighbors, or Israeli colleagues and students—he claimed to have had many—regarding the conflict? “Not that I recall,” he conceded.

The most bizarre moment in our conversation, however, involved a biographical detail. Matory recalled that the Sabra and Shatilla massacre had catalyzed his disillusionment with Israel, saying that he read about the massacre in the Boston Globe while eating lunch as an undergraduate at Harvard’s old Union dining hall, and had vomited at the table in disgust. Yet this story is impossible: Matory graduated in June 1982, while the massacre took place in September 1982—when he would have been studying in Nigeria on a Rotary Scholarship. “I hadn’t realized that,” Matory said.

Naturally, Matory’s severe gaps in memory, research, experience, intellectual curiosity, and knowledge of the Arab-Israeli conflict should prevent him from achieving academic credibility in this area. And his proposed resolution (perhaps unintentionally) recognizes this, calling for “free speech” rather than “academic freedom”—an appreciable distinction insofar as Matory often speaks on Israel freely, but not in an academically serious manner.

Rather than making him a martyr by contesting his proposal, the faculty should unanimously approve his superfluous demand for free speech with a yawn. Or perhaps some apprehension: the more freely Matory speaks on foreign affairs, the more his lack of seriousness will be exposed, and the worse Harvard looks.


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