Totalitarian Teaching

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Trumped up anti-Semitism charges at Rutgers designed to chill free speech | Editorial (nj.com)

My experiences of being targeted for special treatment by my high school teachers, just because I had political opinions that differed from theirs, have influenced my teaching career in more ways than I could possibly list in a blog like this; putting aside the positive influences in my life (Mom and the good teachers I had in college), they may be my primary motivation to be a teacher, and to always be conscious of how I treat my students. I don’t deny having strong political opinions on a broad range of issues, but unlike the teachers I had back in the day, I don’t treat my students any differently for having opinions that differ from mine. My job as a teacher is to help students learn how to think, not “teach” them what to think. (In one case, a particularly zealous high school “teacher” of mine shoved me into a wall and concussed me for my opinion on an issue. He sure “taught” me what a power-hungry asshole he was that day.)

To be sure, I had a lot of poorly-informed opinions back in high school; I’ve already written here about how the second-wave feminist teachers I had in high school gave me all the wrong ideas about what feminism is, and how it wasn’t until I got to a great school, that had great teachers and students, that I really understood feminism enough to have an informed opinion about it. If my high school teachers had made the effort to talk with me about the deeply problematic assumptions I was making as I formed some of my earliest political opinions, then maybe I would have been able to course-correct a lot sooner than I did, but those teachers never bothered to do that, probably because they just wanted to hate me. (Hate is a very strong word, and I don’t use it lightly here. When the time is right, I’ll provide more details about the mistreatment I received over those years of my life, both in school and elsewhere, but that will have to wait for another time.)

A few years ago, there was a story in the news about a high school student whose principal reportedly put the fear of you-know-what into her, and forced her to pen a written apology, for writing something critical of the Israeli government in school. I can’t remember if it was a written piece for one of her classes or the school newsletter, and I can’t find a link to any of the contemporaneous news stories about this controversy right now; this is why I need to do a better job of bookmarking these pieces as they get published. I remember the story very clearly, though, because what happened to this student was all too familiar to me, and I empathized with that student so much that it was physically painful for me to read of her plight.

There’s a lot to be said about the Israeli government and its treatment of Palestinian people, but I don’t want to get into that right now, simply because it’s not that germane to the main point I want to make in this blog. For now, the only thing I want to note here is that Israel’s government is widely considered to be the most right-wing of the Western world (in the cultural sense, not the geographic), and that this fact is critical when it comes to understanding how American conservatives not only frame Israel and its politics, but are now attempting to legislate free speech pertaining to Israel.

The nation of Israel has been a cornerstone of American conservative ideology for generations, mainly because its existence unites several disparate elements of the American conservative movement. For evangelical Christians, who interpret the prophecies of the Book of Revelations literally, the presence of Jewish people in Israel is a necessity for the return to earth of Jesus Christ that they clamor for. Neoconservatives see countless dollar signs whenever they look at armed conflict in the Middle East, since fanning the flames of war there results in even greater demand for the weapons manufactured by so many American companies with strong neoconservative ties. Despite the increased presence of a vocally anti-Semitic segment of the current conservative movement, strong support of the Israeli government remains a pillar of American conservatism writ large.

Note, however, that “the Israeli government” is not the same thing as Israel. That country’s government is not synonymous with the country itself, any more than America is synonymous with the government of Donald Trump, or Barack Obama before him, or any other leader in any of our branches of government in our history. No one alive today was born when the Declaration of Independence was signed, and I have a very strong feeling that none of us will be alive when the United States of America breathes its last breath as a country; these entities called countries contain ideas that existed before we were born, and will continue long after we pass away. What conservatives do when they conflate Israel’s government with its people is to twist any criticism of the Israeli government’s policies into an attack on the whole of the country, with is highly disingenuous in and of itself.

Conservatives don’t stop there, though, because they not only conflate Israel with its government, but also the Jewish population of the entire world with right-wing Israeli politicians. Thus, not only do they claim that criticizing the Israeli government or its policies is an “attack on Israel,” but also deeply anti-Semitic in nature. The weight of that last term goes without saying, and anyone who knows anything about the last century of world history cannot hear that term without the horrors of the Holocaust leaping immediately to mind, and for very good reason. That is one of the last terms that should be thrown out without due cause, but that precise action has been a staple of American conservative politics for decades.

Again, the particular actors here do not matter for the sake of this argument; the principles would be no different if conservatives (or any other group) were using these tactics to frame support of a Palestinian government and its treatment of Israeli people. Substitute any other countries in there if you like; while there is much to be said about Israeli-Palestinian relationships in particular, it is the idea that one country’s government is synonymous with its people, and the deliberate conflation of criticism of a government and its policies on the one hand, with the spectre of genocide on the other, that are deeply  disturbing.

Much like they have tried to make the identity of Jewish people and the nation of Israel synonymous with those right-wing politicians and their policies they love so much, American conservatives have long tried to redefine “America” as a nation of explicitly right-wing policies and people, habitually attacking those who disagree with them, and their policies, as explicitly “un-American.” This is the real danger with all the recent attempts by conservative Republicans to arrest criticism of Israel’s government and its policies, because if they succeed in legally framing that criticism as anti-Semitic, then they are an infinitesimally short step away from changing America’s laws to criminalize all criticism of not just conservatives, but conservative ideology as well. Some conservatives, like Newt Gingrich, have already spoken about wanting to ban “anti-American” speech on college and university campuses, and it’s no accident that these current efforts to silence criticism of Israel’s government are focused on those same campuses. Without exposure to opinions that challenge the actions of any government — Israel’s, America’s, or any other country’s — students will never gain the knowledge and skills necessary to form their own opinions, and will be essentially bullied by their schools into absorbing an ideology as unflinching “fact.” That is not education. That is indoctrination, pure and  simple.

It should be no surprise that the current Department of Education would leap into the current wave of debates about the Israeli government and its actions, happening every day on college and university campuses from coast to coast , in such a domineering manner. Even as so many crises rage around us, nothing short of the future of Americans’ ability to think for themselves is at stake here. Regardless of feelings about Israel and Palestine, or their people and leaders, the fact that the Department of Education would go to such extreme measures to try to silence criticism of any government should be deeply chilling to anyone who cares about freedom of speech, let alone freedom of thought. No students should be forced, either by their school or their government, to accept any ideology uncritically. Without the ability to think for themselves, no country’s people can ever be free, and no country that forces its people to think a certain way about any issue has any right to claim it is “the land of the free.”

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