The University of Chicago is a great school. And academic freedom is a great principle. But should there ever be limits on who can teach what?
Consider the following course offering from Chicago’s 2010 catalog:
Zionism and Palestine. This course has three broad aims, the first of which is to explore the various strands of early Zionist thinking in Europe during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The second aim is to analyze how the European Zionists who came to Palestine created the Jewish state in the first half of the twentieth century. The third aim is to examine some key developments in Israel’s history since it gained its independence in 1948. While the main focus is on Zionism and the state of Israel, considerable attention is paid to the plight of the Palestinians and the development of Palestinian nationalism over the past century.
This sounds unexceptionable, though one might detect a hint of something amiss in the one-sided reference to the “plight of the Palestinians.” In fact, there is something amiss. The professor teaching this course is one John Mearsheimer. Mearsheimer is a an expert in international relations. He has no record of scholarship in the history of Zionism, let alone command of the relevant languages to acquire a knowledge of that history.
What he does have is a record of prejudice and ignorance about Israel and Jews. Together with Stephen Walt, he is the coauthor of The Israel Lobby, which leveled accusations of dual and disloyalty at leading American Jews. A “weak book,” is how Leslie Gelb reviewed The Israel Lobby in the New York Times, one that has “added fuel, inadvertently, to the fires of anti-Semitism.” Others were less generous. “Yes, It’s Anti-Semitic,” wrote Eliot Cohen of Johns Hopkins SAIS in the Washington Post. To be sure, some have showered praise on Mearsheimer and Walt’s scholarship, including a host of Israel bashers ranging from former ambassador to Saudi Arabia Charles "Chas" Freeman all the way out to the white supremacist David Duke, who called the book “a modern American Declaration of Independence.”
Obviously there should not be restrictions of a formal kind on university teaching beyond what the faculty of a self-governing institution like the University of Chicago deems appropriate. But certainly there is room for public opinion to weigh in when academia sinks low. And students should certainly know what dish they are being served in advance. In this distance, a dispassionate inquiry into the history and politics of Zionism that dish will not be.