Moshe Habertal is generally considered the finest expert on medieval Jewish thought of his generation. His most recent book is “Maimonides: Life and Thought,” published in 2013. Habertal holds joint appointments at Hebrew University and New York University. For 15 years he has also been involved in drafting a code of ethics for the Israel Defense Forces and educating soldiers at how it should be applied to complex military encounters.
He feels Israel likely made mistakes in Gaza in 2014 that caused civilian deaths that were disproportionate to the military objectives sought. But, as he suggests in a December 2014 discussion at the Jewish Theological Seminary, he believes those were isolated episodes, not the intended fruits of Israeli policy.
Overall, he argues that the IDF worked very hard to minimize civilian casualties.
For a group of student activists at the University of Minnesota, among them the local chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, this personal history turns Habertal into nothing more than “a professional apologist for Israeli war crimes.” For the protestors, his stance on Israel’s actions in Gaza are enough to disqualify him as a man of conscience. Apparently, anyone who does not thoroughly condemn Operation Protective Edge is an apologist for genocide.
In any event, they considered him so far outside the acceptable parameters of moral discourse that he could not be permitted to speak on campus. They made a point of claiming seats at his Nov. 4 lecture, and one-by-one rose to lead chants against him. As each protestor was escorted from the room, another arose to sustain the demonstration. This routine lasted for 30 minutes. When the room was finally cleared of protestors, they continued chanting in the hall so that the audience could not hear what Habertal said for at least 15 minutes longer. Eventually, Habertal was able to deliver his lecture. This organized assault on academic freedom was carefully planned. It has since been praised online as a courageous form of public testimony.
In that misguided account, the student protestors are not bullies but heroes, soldiers in the war for truth.
A brief protest as a lecture is about to begin, perhaps a minute devoted to chanting slogans, is arguably an acceptable exercise of free speech in a university. But attempting in a sustained and relentless fashion to prevent an invited lecturer from speaking, as people in Minneapolis did, violates the most basic principles of the university. The opportunity to learn, to hear the views of an exceptionally thoughtful scholar was overturned for an extended time by mob action. But the Minnesota Anti-War Committee and its allies in SJP do not seem to be on campus to be educated. They are apparently there to mount aggressive protests to block dialogue and education, to dictate what can and cannot be heard on campus. Silencing a speaker is not an exercise of speech rights, as the demonstrators claim, but an assault on the opportunity to learn.
Had the organizers spent an hour or two online, they could have read some of Habertal’s writings or listened to some of his presentations on YouTube. But perhaps they did and regarded his faith in human reason, his struggle to apply ethical principles to asymmetric warfare, as yet more cause to silence him.
Habertal has taken on the difficult task of defining ethical rules of war in an environment where enemy combatants wear no uniforms and are mixed in with the civilian population, where armies do not meet on an open field of battle but instead in crowded cities. He champions the notion that soldiers must consequently risk their own lives to protect civilians, a position most modern militaries have not honored. Had the Minnesota mob listened to Habertal and posed pointed questions about civilian deaths, they might have heard specific examples of military actions he condemns. Perhaps they would have prompted him to clarify or modify his contributions to the Israeli military’s ethics code. But they proved instead that such dialogue is antithetical to them. Indeed, had the protestors not been removed, the talk might not have taken place.
Events in Minnesota have crossed a line. If such tactics spread, if we continue to see other scholars of any political persuasion silenced, we will have fundamentally transformed higher education. The tradition of listening to and debating intellectual opponents, of entertaining challenges to your own beliefs — a core principle that defines higher education — has been assaulted. One would like to believe the Minnesota students could be led to understand why the values that have long sustained higher education need to cherished and honored, but that hope may be naïve.
While the Minnesota administration has condemned what happened, the situation calls for more. The university — and all universities — must redouble their efforts to protect the rights of duly invited speakers, however unpopular their ideas may be in some quarters.
Cary Nelson is president of the American Association of University Professors and a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, He is an outspoken advocate for academic freedom.