When I read Steven Weinberg’s assertion that those supporting a boycott of Israel suffer from a "moral blindness" that could only be explained by anti-Semitism, I wondered how he squared that claim to the moral high ground with a comment he once made to me that smacked of anti-Palestinian bigotry.
I don’t use the term "bigotry" lightly; it’s an accurate description of a remark Weinberg made some months ago in Austin. I had never spoken of that conversation publicly — until I read last week that he had canceled a talk at a London university, citing what he called "a widespread anti-Israel and anti-Semitic current in British opinion."
Weinberg and I are both employed at the University of Texas at Austin. He’s one of the university’s most celebrated faculty members, a highly touted Nobel laureate in physics, a professor who is often spotlighted by administrators to bolster UT’s claim to being a "world-class" university. I’m a professor of journalism who is, to say the least, not quite as accomplished or celebrated.
Last year I invited Weinberg to speak in a lecture series at my church. Though we had never met, I knew of his interest in questions concerning faith and reason, and he kindly agreed to give a talk on "Science and/or Religion" in September 2006 to kick off the series.
At one point in that talk, in the context of questioning the importance of religion to morality, Weinberg attacked the Presbyterian Church USA for its past criticism of Israeli policy and suggested that we should be supporting, not condemning, Israel.
Many were taken aback when a discussion about science and religion veered off into a broadside about the Israel/Palestine conflict, and several members of the congregation argued with him about his historical and moral claims during the Q&A.
After the event, I told Weinberg that I thought his account of the conflict was distorted and explained that I was a critic not only of Israeli policy but — more importantly because I was a U.S. citizen — of U.S. support for Israel’s crimes. Israel is, of course, not the only nation violating international law or exploiting people, which is why I don’t support a boycott of Israel unless it were to expand to a boycott of all rogue states that ignore international law, including the United States and Great Britain. I explained that the focus of my political work on the issue was this unconditional U.S. support — including billions of dollars annually in U.S. "aid" — which has made possible Israeli defiance, which is a part of U.S. attempts to dominate the politics of the Middle East.
He was unmoved by that analysis. As we parted he said to me, with what I took to be a condescending smirk, "Don’t romanticize Palestinians just because they are primitive."
Primitive? What could he mean by that? Was he just being provocative, to see how I would react? Whatever the answer, I had a hard time believing that a Nobel Prize winner would — for whatever reason — say something so ugly.
So, when I read in the British press that Weinberg was lecturing Brits about morality and prejudice, my mind went back not only to his comment but to my decision for nearly nine months to not speak about his comment. Why had I not written about this immediately, contrasting his moral critique of the Presbyterian Church’s policy with his own bigoted comment? Without recognizing it, had I internalized a fear of being targeted? I have written and spoken in favor of the application of international law and moral principle to redress Israeli crimes, but was I reluctant to tangle with a well-known figure because I didn’t want to be called anti-Semitic myself?
This is the insidious nature of the campaign to conflate legitimate criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism. Of course there are anti-Semites in the world, and anti-Semites often criticize Israel. Just as obvious is that such anti-Jewish bigotry doesn’t undermine the principled critique of Israeli policy made by many decent people.
There is much about the conflict that sparks intense debate. But some things are clear: Hundreds of thousands of indigenous Palestinians were displaced when the settler state of Israel was created. Millions have suffered for decades because of Israel’s expansionist policies. None of this could continue if not for U.S. support of Israel. Any solution to the conflict has to recognize not only the humanity of people on both sides but an honest accounting of the injustice perpetrated by Israel.
I cannot know what was, or is, in Weinberg’s heart when he called Palestinians primitive. I don’t know what he believes about Arab people more generally.
Here’s what I do know: Someone who refers to a group of people as "primitive" is on shaky ground when he makes judgments about the alleged prejudice or religious bigotry of others.
ROBERT JENSEN is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the board of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity. He can be reached at email@example.com.