A month ago, I posted about David Kang, International Studies Professor at the University of Southern California (USC), who seemed to suggest in an October lecture that Israeli Zionists are terrorists. He had presented a slide entitled “Who are terrorists?” listing “Israeli Zionists” along with the likes of Kim Jong-Il and Mao Zedong. Following the expose, a petition to have him disciplined was created, which at the time of this post has over 8,000 signatures.
Now Kang has finally released a statement, following a meeting between Kang, the executive director of Chabad at USC, the Dean of Religious Life, and a representative of USC Hillel.
Many of you have been posting about the professor at USC who appeared to be making an anti-Israel statement in the slides from one of his classes, and the apparent lack of a response from the university administration.
I shared the same concern. There is a real problem with anti-Semitic and anti Israel sentiments expressed in many campus environments that often go unanswered. Thankfully, though, this does not appear to be one of them. USC’s administration to the very top has been hands-on in quietly but thoroughly addressing our every concern. Today, our Dean of Religious Life Varun Soni facilitated a meeting between Professor Kang, Bailey London of USC Hillel, and me. I am happy to share with you Professor Kang’s statement in its entirety….
If you have any questions or concerns, please feel free to reach out to me directly through private message or at firstname.lastname@example.org
David C. Kang
A student from my IR 210 class this past Fall ’17 did not understand a particular slide from a lecture in October. Months later, the student went to a newspaper and made claims that were inaccurate.
I never made the statements that are attributed to me.
I am pro-Israel. The slide in question was intended to point out that national heroes of all types are called terrorists by their opponents. Every group listed is a hero to some people and criticized by others.
I could have gone on: Sam Adams and the Sons of Liberty in the American revolution were considered terrorists; Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress were considered terrorists; some Catalan independence groups have been called terrorists…
The point of the lecture? For us to be careful and understand the political uses of the term terrorism, to realize the causes and effects of political violence, especially when it is against civilians, and to think more carefully about how easily we throw around emotionally laden terms. My point in the lecture was fundamentally a point that supports the Israel position, not denigrates it. That was a real, not rhetorical question: are these terrorists? Who thinks so and why?
Universities exist to foster critical thinking
It has been disappointing to see the amount of misunderstanding and anger that has surrounded the point I was trying to make to my students. Disappointing, because universities exist precisely to be safe harbors for discussion of complex and important issues. Disappointing, because I explicitly do not take political positions in my class. Week after week I have said to my students “I don’t care what you think, my job is to teach you how to think.”
It has been disappointing, because there are so many avenues for the student to discuss this issue, and I would have welcomed it: in class, raise your hand. Come to office hours and talk about the issue. Ask a TA. That’s precisely what a class is for! If something is confusing, ask! If the student felt so uncomfortable, and so convinced this was a violation, there are protocols set up to file a complaint. One reason universities exist is for the rational discussion of issues.
This controversy is so misguided – if I said something, I would stand up and defend it. I have a long, extensive record of engaging important issues in East Asian security, US-China relations, and North Korea. What I have never, ever done is take a stand on Israel or the Mideast. That is not my expertise.
There are real racists out there. To be attacked by “friendly fire” is really missing the target. I find it surreal that I am being attacked for something I didn’t say and don’t believe. Universities exist to teach the next generation how to think; to deal with the complexity of the world.
What can we learn from this?
Perhaps the most important lesson we can learn is to be careful of jumping to conclusions. It is important that we as a community learn to deal honestly and with integrity about sensitive issues. To interpret every issue in its most extreme form will not only overreach, but cause many misunderstandings and make complex issues even worse.
A second lesson is that USC has done a wonderful job of dealing with this issue. The rights of the student were protected, the university did a thorough job investigating the issue, as a professor I was never pressured in any way.
Perhaps most importantly, however, is to note that USC is a safe place to express unique identities of students from all parts of the world. USC prides itself on its diversity, it is one of our strengths, and I am proud of way that we as a community have handled this potentially divisive issue. I am proud to be at USC – there are few universities that could have handled the issue with as much sensitivity and integrity as USC.
I am glad Dov Wagner feels this was a misunderstanding, but I am not so convinced, based on Kang’s statement.
Firstly, Kang claims “I never made the statements that are attributed to me.” The issue does not seem to be regarding any statements he made – just slides he presented. In fact, it seems to be the absence of any explanatory statements that forms part of the problem.
One of the students who was in the class, who wished to remain anonymous, told the Journal that he was disturbed by the slides, especially since they seemed to be “legimitizing” Hamas and gave the impression that Israeli Zionists should be associated with the likes of Mao Zedong and Kim Jong Il.
“He didn’t really talk about the issue any further, which… I think is the problem here,” the student said.
“His class was critical thinking based but in this case he did not make that clear when presenting the slide nor gave any explanation to the historical context as to why Zionists would be a labeled a ‘terrorist’ organization,”
He seems to be disingenuous in trying to maintain that he innocuously included Israeli Zionists as one of five examples of those groups who have been “called” terrorists by “opponents” and “others”. For a start, identifying Israeli Zionists is highly provocative and incendiary, especially considering the antisemitism directed at Jews, especially on university campuses.
Furthermore, the slide names individuals and specific groups with a given membership – except “Israeli Zionists.” Why is this one example on the slide the exception to the rule?
Kang also claims he is pro-Israel (something he did not claim in his initial denial to the Jewish Journal). I was not able to find anything confirming or denying that from his social media feed – only this ambiguous retweet.
But what we do know is his controversial lecture also included slides like the following, which seemed to minimize the dangers of terrorism.
It is rare (although not impossible) that someone who minimize the dangers of terrorism would also hold pro-Israel views. And it is does not support his contention that “my point in the lecture was fundamentally a point that supports the Israel position, not denigrates it.”
Kang’s statement rubs me the wrong way also in that he takes no responsibility for the backlash. He seems to blame the student not only for objecting publicly in the way he did but also for his interpretation of the slide. Nowhere does Kang accept that perhaps he needs to express himself clearer, especially when using such incendiary slides.
His reaction to the controversy also strikes me as odd. You’d think he would have strenuously protested his innocence after having such accusations of antisemitism leveled against him. But besides his statement to the Jewish Journal, I did not see any other denials – until the one following this latest meeting. When I tweeted to him a link to my post, as well as the petition, he never responded, even though he has been active on Twitter during this time frame. I dunno – if I was confronted with such serious accusations, I would certainly be more active in trying to clear my name.
For all of these reasons, I am still skeptical regarding Kang’s intentions in presenting what we did.
True, none of this is proof he is lying, and there is a chance his only crime here is unbelievable arrogance. So for this reason, I would be interested in hearing from any readers who were either in his class or know anyone who was.
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