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Jewish Identity and Civil Rights in America

Original Article

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The Uncivil University: Intolerance on College Campuses, Revised Edition

By Mervin F. Verbit, Jewish Book World
Summer 2010

This book shows how Israel is presented negatively on American campuses—in student activities, in course offerings, and in academic conferences. Some of the cases cited have been widely discussed and are well known. Others are likely to be news even to people who follow Israel’s place on campus. Most go far beyond honest criticism. They apply standards to Israel that are applied to no other country, condemn Israel for actions that are routinely accepted when done by other countries, and often challenge Israel’s very legitimacy as a state (something not seen even in the harshest critiques of other countries), thus constituting “anti-Israelism” or anti- Semitism. The book also documents how political correctness and the notion of academic freedom are (mis)used on campuses in general and specifically to justify attacks on Israel that are intellectually and morally insupportable.

The authors describe the roles of students, faculty, administrators, trustees, and donors, attributing their actions—or inaction—to, mostly, radical relativism and a 1960’s support of whoever is perceived as the underdog (faculty), to lack of information and insecure Jewish commitment (most Jewish students), to a meek desire to avoid controversy (administrators), and to acceptance of professorial dominance in the content of the university curriculum and extracurricular program (trustees, donors, and political leaders).

The authors urge administrators, trustees, and political leaders to take a more active role in determining what happens on campus. They do not consider that a restructuring of roles in American university life is highly unlikely and, if it were to take place, could well be a double-edged sword. What is missing in the book is exploration of how to rebuild the academic community’s understanding that support of Israel is, in fact, consonant with the basic ideals that most university people accept and how to provide Jewish students more generally with the background and commitment that will predispose and enable them to defend their own interests. The Uncivil University has dramatically called attention to a serious problem. Now we need to think through and develop appropriate and effective long-range responses.

Mervin F. Verbit a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania with a doctorate from Columbia University, is professor of sociology at Touro College and director of the Israel Studies Institute, which cultivates a better understanding of Israel among American academics. Formerly, he taught at Brooklyn College of The City University of New York, where he also directed the university’s Program for Study in Israel and is now professor emeritus.

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