Former Harvard President Larry Summers on Academic Freedom and Anti-Semitism

Remarks of Lawrence H. Summers Columbia Center for Law and Liberty January 29, 2015:
I am delighted to help inaugurate this forum on academic freedom. Academic freedom is essential if universities are to succeed in their missions of creating and disseminating knowledge. Universities excel when they are governed by the authority of ideas rather than the idea of authority. And more perhaps than at any other moment in history, the work of universities–transmitting knowledge and values from one generation to the next, and creating new knowledge — determines the future of nations.
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It speaks to the importance of universities in the life of nations that George Washington very much wanted to devote his farewell address to a proposed American national university until he was dissuaded from the idea by Alexander Hamilton, not because Hamilton did not like the idea but because he thought the farewell address was the wrong occasion for its presentation. So Washington instead bequeathed a substantial part of his not inconsiderable fortune to the proposed university.For this reason, I have always had an ambivalent reaction to the famous observation about academic politics that “the fights are so vicious because the stakes are so small” which is variously attributed to Henry Kissinger, Woodrow Wilson, and Columbia’s own Wallace Sayre. On the one hand no one who has lived in a university and certainly no one who has presided over one can deny that much energy is dissipated over matters of little ultimate moment. On the other hand because the ideas universities produce and pass on are so important the stakes in what they do and therefore in what they fight about are actually immense.This is how I feel about the issue of academic freedom in general and about issues involving Israel and possibly anti-Semitism in particular. I have chosen to speak about academic freedom and anti-Semitism for three reasons. First, discussions of academic freedom without a particular context are doomed to be platitudinous and unhelpful. It may be that hard cases make bad law, but easy cases provide little insight for those who must make difficult decisions. In any event as a meat-eating, number crunching economist I have little capacity for abstract philosophical doctrine. Second, my labeling of initiatives and statements advocating for Harvard to divest from any company that invested in Israel as “anti- Semitic in effect if not intent” was the source of more academic freedom controversy than any other academic freedom issue (though certainly not any other issue) that took place while I was President of Harvard. Third, I believe that the general failure of American academic leaders to aggressively take on the challenge posed by the Boycott, Divestment, Sanction (BDS) movement represents a consequential abdication of moral responsibility.No one, including me, come to academic freedom matters in a purely abstract way so just a few words about my background here. I am Jewish and identified but not seriously observant. During my lifetime I have never felt that there was prejudice against me, members of my family, or close friends. I support and feel affinity with the State of Israel. While such expertise as I may possess is in economics not international security, it has been my instinct that Israel has made consequential policy errors particularly in regards to settlements. I have often wondered whether Israeli intransigence regarding settlements has made the achievement of peace with the Palestinians more difficult and has hurt Israel’s security position. During my time in government I worked, I wish with more success, to promote prosperity in the West Bank and Gaza for its own sake and because I believed it would contribute to the peace process.

I’d like to do two things this afternoon. First, I will explain why looking back I spoke out in the way I did against proposals advocating for universities to divest from Israeli companies or companies transacting with Israel, and comment on the debate my remarks engendered. Second, I will offer some observations on the BDS movement and a range of current controversies.

The Genocidal Nature of Anti-Israel Radicalism Reveals Itself at UC Davis

In a morally coherent world, the chilling statement “Hamas & Sharia law have taken over UC Davis” would not have been spoken publicly, and certainly not by an elected student leader at an American public university. But in California, the veritable epicenter of academic anti-Israelism and its attendant stealth jihad, this statement, spoken last week by student leader…

The First of its Kind: UNGA Informal Plenary on Anti-Semitism

By: Kayla Green, University of Pennsylvania Law School, Class of 2015

“It is up to you who are the faces of the world to be the architect of the house in which the Mother of all hates will see its face reduced”  —Bernard-Henri Lévy, Keynote Speech at the General Assembly Meeting on the Rise of Anti-Semitism

On 22 January 2015, the United Nations General Assembly met to address the concerns of a rise in anti-Semitic violence worldwide. This informal meeting was the first of its kind and began with a keynote speech by Mr. Bernard-Henri Lévy, French intellectual, philosopher and writer, Keynote speaker, who implored those in attendance that “when a Jew is struck, humanity falls to the ground.”

On the subject of the new European wave of anti-Semitism, the Representative of the European Union to the United Nations noted, in a statement reaffirmed by all EU representatives, that the several incidents in Europe culminating in the “attacks in Brussels and Paris” assault the heart of the European Union’s “common values.” On that note, H.E. Harlem Desir, State Secretary for European Affairs, France stated that combatting anti-Semitism is combatting hatred, ignorance and impunity. H.E. Samantha Power, Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations and member of President Obama’s Cabinet, reiterated that “any Jew in France, in Europe, or anywhere in the world who fears wearing a kippah, shopping in a [kosher] market, putting up a mezuzah, or fears living in a Jewish community is a victim of anti-Semitism,” and reminded the GA that “when the human rights of Jews are repressed, the rights of other groups are often not far behind.”

CFP: “Music as Resistance to Genocide” International Workshop — 26 October 2015, Los Angeles

We have received the following CALL FOR PAPERS which may interest our readers: International Workshop “Music as Resistance to Genocide” Organized by the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research in collaboration with the Thornton School of Music at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 26 October 2015, Los Angeles, CA The Center for Advanced Genocide Research at the USC…

University of Chicago and Free Speech on Campus

Earlier this month, the University of Chicago released a praiseworthy update to its policy on freedom of speech.  The policy protects free academic discourse and speakers’ rights to address controversial topics, while also setting forth principles about students’ responsibilities to respect guest speakers and fellow students, and about the University’s need to prevent disruptions to…

The Brandeis Center Holds Second Annual National Law Student Leadership Conference

The Brandeis Center hosted its second National Law Student Leadership Conference in Washington, DC on December 29-30.  This event took place as part of the Center’s recent law student and public outreach initiatives.  Many of the students in attendance were members of their universities’ chapters of the Brandeis Center.  Our law student chapter program fills an important gap in American legal education, offering educational programming that connects students’ legal education to pressing Jewish civil rights issues.  The conference’s primary focus was on engaging the students in dialogue with each other about the issues facing them as aspiring lawyers and proponents of civil rights through a series of lectures, panels, and roundtable discussions with several prominent figures in academia, government and professional law.  In attendance were the LDB chapters of University of Pennsylvania, CUNY, UVA, University of St. Thomas, UCLA, and ten others.  Several other students are in the process of forming their own chapters and others plan to do so in the coming weeks.  The conference’s events covered a variety of legal and political issues related to the Brandeis Center’s core mission, such as the power of student leadership, federal protection of the civil rights of Jewish students, and fighting anti-Semitism.

The conference began with addresses from the Brandeis Center’s own Aviva Vogelstein and Kenneth L. Marcus at the District Architecture Center.  Vogelstein welcomed the students and guests to the forum. Marcus began his speech by asserting the importance of combating anti-Semitism through legal action and then by recounting the history of the Brandeis Center’s student chapter program, whose level of success has exceeded all expectations praising the member-students’ demonstrated ability to accomplish goals with unparalleled enthusiasm. Law students, according to Marcus, have the responsibility to focus on more than just succeeding in school – they need a broader sense of what it can truly mean to be a lawyer.  However, Marcus warned, taking stands on important issues will inevitably foster adversity, which is why crusading for civil rights is a task that merits the utmost respect.  He expressed gratitude to the students for their efforts to strengthen the LDB’s fight against injustice.  Marcus ended his speech by discussing the importance of a fair educational system. “To understand what’s happening locally,” he remarked, “you have to have an understanding of what’s happening globally.” And with that, he introduced the keynote speaker, Hon. Ira Forman, the US State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism.

Forman gave an engaging, off-the-record speech about his experiences fighting against anti-Semitism abroad during his time with the State Department.  Forman, former Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Council, gave a highly informative speech that drew upon his extensive experience dealing with discrimination in order to put some of the conference’s central topics in a larger historical context.  The students were thrilled to get the opportunity to hear from a high-ranking governmental official on an issue of such importance to them.