Last Tuesday, Kent State University history professor Julio Pino brought the academic world to the barricades with three simple words: “Death to Israel.”
The vitriolic exchange took place at the sleepy Midwestern public university’s on-campus event with former Israeli deputy consul Ishmael Khalidi, who chronicled his path as the first (Muslim) Bedouin member of Israel’s foreign service. The talk was reportedly attended by about 60 students and faculty including Pino, who was initially spotted in the back of the auditorium handing out leaflets calling for a boycott of Israel. Things got hotter under the galabiya when Pino asked the first question of the evening, accusing the Israeli government of offering “blood money from the deaths of Palestinian children” to Turkey as earthquake aid and later charging the Israeli government with “killing people.”
Following heated words with Khalidi, Pino stormed out of the room shouting the now famous three words twice. When asked to comment on his actions to the Israeli daily Haaretz, he suggested, “what I spoke was for the sake of the children of Palestine, and no other reason. The only politics I have are, ‘There is no God but God, and Mohammed is His Messenger.’ Peace be upon you.”
Reaction to Pino’s outburst was swift. Kent State president Lester Lefton, himself a Jew, published a rounded condemnation on the university website (albeit under the euphemistic title “response to recent guest lecture”), suggesting that the speaker “was treated in a way which I find reprehensible, and an embarrassment to our university.” He further opined that while “it may have been Professor Pino’s right to do so, but it is my obligation, as the president of this university, to say that I find his words deplorable and his behavior deeply troubling,” and called Pino’s behavior a “grotesque failure to model these values,” of the university. Meanwhile, besieged with calls to fire the tenured professor, Lefton seemingly hid under his (publically-funded) desk for the past week.
This isn’t the first time that Pino, a Cuban-American convert to Islam, UCLA PhD, Fulbright fellow, Phi Beta Kappa member and professor of Latin America and Third World politics, has stirred the makloube pot. A popular target of the right-wing blogosphere, he has been accused of celebrating suicide bombing in the university student newspaper, writing for jihadi websites, and being investigated by the U.S. Secret Service for (terrorist?) activities. Pino himself does not hide his ideological orientation; a brief perusal of his public Facebook profile contains a self-description as an “enfant terrible” and “class agitator” (that is, when isn’t too busy watching favorite TV programs like the Jersey Shore or hobbies like “aerobics” ). Despite his radical leanings, student feedback on “Rate My Professor,” gave him a 3.0 out of possible four as a teacher who “respected all points of view” in what were described as “heated debates” in the classroom.
Unsuprisingly, Pino’s fellow academics have circled the Midwestern wagons around the First Amendment, as evidenced by the President of the Association of American University Professors (AAUP) Cary Nelson’s opinion that “calling out a political slogan during a question period falls well within the speech rights of any member of a university community.” However, he may have betrayed his true political colors by adding “President Lefton’s invention of an absurd form of hospitality: you must not question the moral legitimacy or the right to exist of a guest’s home country.” Nelson and other academics seemingly suggest that the issue was not in what you say but how you say it — if only Pino had asked nicely enough for Israel to go wipe itself off the map, it wouldn’t have been an issue.
While I in no way condone Pino’s outburst, it is worth considering how we got to the point. Over the past decade, the tenor of leftist conversation in the United States has shifted from a critique of Israel as colonialist oppressor to challenging its right to exist. While the leftwing bent of academia is well-known – and Kent State in particular has a tragic history of radical politics – I contend that this discourse is reflective of the increasingly narrow range of debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on both sides of the political spectrum in the United States. This outburst must not only be seen as the uncivil and unconstructive voice of one scholar — it signals a kind of polarization where only the most provocative views can mobilize interest and support. When American academics consider the best or only way to express their criticism of Israel is to threaten violence or call for Israel’s destruction (a trend sadly spreading to Israel as well ), it is time for a proliferation of moderate voices in all corners of the playground. Next time, it will be harder to hear the bullying shouts of Julio down by the schoolyard.