Weinberg’s Claim of Moral High Ground Rings Hollow in Face of Bigoted Remark

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 professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin and and board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center in Austin. His latest book is We Are All Apocalyptic Now: On the Responsibilities of Teaching, Preaching, Reporting, Writing, and Speaking Out (Monkey Wrench Books). Jensen is also co-producer of the documentary film Abe Osheroff: One Foot in the Grave, the Other Still Dancing (Media Education Foundation, 2009), which chronicles the life and philosophy of the longtime radical activist. An extended interview Jensen conducted with Osheroff is online. He can be reached at: rjensen@austin.utexas.edu. Twitter: @jensenrobertw. Read other articles by Robert, or visit Robert's website.

6 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. gerald spezio said on June 1st, 2007 at 7:12am #

    As usual, you cut right to the heart. Weinberg’s claims of anti-Semitism concerning the boycott are especially troubling to scientists who respect Weinberg. More standard Israeli peeyar , and absolutely devoid of scientific objectivity.

    What would Feynman’s position be? Or Einstein’s? Weinberg’s clearly stated Israel first bigotry shows how pervasive Israel’s murderous influence has been in the Israeli engineered slaughter of the untermenschen.

  2. Max Shields said on June 1st, 2007 at 9:18am #

    Much of this appears to be a kind of racism – conflating Arabs with Islamophobic inclinations.

    I say “kind of” because like you, I don’t know what’s in people’s hearts but it seems that racism (I know you were kinder by using “bigot”) is a means by which to dehumanize, and that is clearly the case when calling a people primitive.

    I’ve noted, and Robert I say this because you mentioned a series on faith and reason, a movement of “non-believers” which has turned into an indictment against Isam on the one hand, but on the other, on atheism, itself. Of note is the recent “debate” between Chris Hedges and Sam Harris. The latter has used “reason” as cover for justifying (with some ducking and hiding) Western dominance in various parts of the world – Middle East is one example. And his exploitation of fundamentalists actions – 9/11 – to sanctify torture has been used to conflate his ideology with the legacy of non-believers (such as Bertrand Russell who no doubt would be rolling in his grave at the thought). And all of this in the superior posturing of one claiming human reason above all else. We can throw Christopher Hitchens in for good measure – he comes by his Islamophobia by way of a contorted polity and polemic ranting.

  3. Al Giddens said on June 1st, 2007 at 1:30pm #

    Israel is a racist state funded by my hard earned tax dollars . I am for stoping aid to Israel and only then will there be peace there .With no aid money Israel will be forced to make peace its that simple But I worry that its too late after 60 years of a policy like this the people have become to EXTREAM to do any good .

  4. Kim Petersen said on June 1st, 2007 at 7:07pm #

    Jensen is usually so right on many matters, but I find his reasoning for not supporting a boycott of Israel superficial and dead wrong. Jensen’s logic that a boycott must target all criminal entities runs cover for major criminal entities. The same reasoning could be applied to almost any instance where there is, or has been, a boycott. Following this reasoning, the apartheid South African regime would never have been targeted perhaps extending the duration of apartheid. Walmart would never be boycotted for anti-unionism or its general exploitation of labor because so many other businesses would have to be targeted. Coke could go on stealing a community’s water in India and assassinating union leaders in Columbia because so many soft drink corporations would have to be targeted for their crimes. One key non-violent plank from activists’ arsenal would be removed.
    What then is the solution?
    It is doubtful that people are capable of large-scale boycotting. What is wrong about targeting the criminal entities at the apex and working down the ladder of criminal entities? Since a boycott is credited with helping bring down the apartheid regime in South Africa that would seem to argue in favor of selective boycotts. If it defeated apartheid in South Africa, then why not Israel? Taking down one criminal offender is better than taking down none, yes?
    British academics seem to agree.
    And why should academics be deciding what is the best action on behalf of Palestinians? Palestinians are the victims, so ask them.

  5. sk said on June 2nd, 2007 at 4:01pm #

    There is a long history of European secular critique of religion in which Judaism served as Christianity’s stand-in because of dominance of the latter. George Mosse (http://mosseprogram.wisc.edu/index.html) covered well the politics of this kind of “enlightened” onslaught. He also discussed response of Western European Jewry against this brand of vituperation–ad-hoc tactics ranging from self-hating assimilationism to messianic religious nationalism. It looks like Islam is serving the same kind of proxy role for the so-called “rational humanists” of our age like Sam Harris and Steven Weinberg.

    btw, I went to the University of Texas as well and remember Weinberg had a reputation for being impatient and arrogant, qualities amply displayed in Jensen’s account. For anyone who doesn’t want to be bamboozled by the glamor of the Nobel Prize and it’s laureates, this (http://tinyurl.com/324rge) book is an excellent antidote.

  6. matt said on June 22nd, 2007 at 11:11pm #

    as far as i know Einstein was almost a zionist, so it’s not unlikely he would support Weinberg.
    Too bad the author didn’t feel like speaking at the right time (why? lack of courage?). -Primitive- doesn’t sound like a compliment, still he doesn’t know himself exactly what W. meant, he didn’t even ask, he woke up today, at least he did though.
    Nobel prize, especially for technical areas, is note assigned on moral grounds(it’s so pathetic to see people still don’t get that), although, as far as i indirectly know, Weinberg is a beautiful person.
    At the end, by not very successfully criticizing something unclear Weinberg said the author misses the very point of the situation, is that boycott something wrong or not? I think it’s wrong, one simple reason being science is supposed to go beyond nations, scientists know it.
    What does a weird Israeli mathematician working on a weird problem have to do with Olmert ‘s decisions?
    That would not change if also US and UK were under a boycott(no mention of a boycott proposal for PA or Hamas though, should they just be funded to keep killing in Israel and among themselves?)
    The thing gets ridiculous if you notice that the more pro-Palestinian part of the Jewish population is probably employed in the academia.