By Marc Abizeid
For the last several years, many U.S. scholars teaching in fields related to the Middle East believe that they have been targets of a systematic campaign to keep them silent.
The campaign is largely led by a handful of pro-Israeli groups such as Stand with Us, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, the David Project, and Campus Watch.
Noam Chomsky, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, claims that these pro-Israeli organizations engage in dirty tactics to threaten and harass scholars, who fear that their academic freedoms are being jeopardized in light of vigorous campaigns to censure them.
“The tactics are straightforward: vilification, slander, defamation, lies, and there are people who are masters at this,” Chomsky said.
In 2002, Joseph Massad, professor of Arab politics at Columbia University and supporter of the Palestinian cause, was targeted by Campus Watch, a Philadelphia-based pro-Israeli organization founded in 2002. Campus Watch posted a dossier of Massad on its website and urged students to monitor him after he allegedly made anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic remarks in one of his classes.
“Following the launch of Campus Watch, my e-mail was spammed for months with over 4,000 e-mails daily, which I had to sift through until finally Columbia was able to install an anti-spamming program,” Massad wrote on his Columbia webpage. “I also received tons of racist e-mails and phone messages including death threats.”
When asked to comment, Campus Watch denied any responsibility. Cinnamon Stillwell, a representative of Campus Watch in Northern California, wrote in an e-mail to City on a Hill Press (CHP), “Campus Watch has no role whatsoever [in] such actions and we condemn anyone who would behave in this way, which is clearly unacceptable.”
But in 2004, Massad was again the target of these pro-Israeli interest groups. A student claimed that Massad angrily shouted at her in class after she asked him if it was true that Israel gives prior warning before launching strikes in Palestinian Arab territories.
Massad denied the student’s claims as “outright lies,” but the incident quickly erupted after pro-Israeli group the David Project produced a documentary titled Columbia Unbecoming in an attempt to discredit Massad.
“In the aftermath of [the film], I have received, and still receive, a barrage of hate mail and racist e-mails and voicemail messages,” Massad wrote on his webpage. One such e-mail was from a medical school professor, telling Massad to “Go back to Arab land where Jew hating is condoned.”
Massad wrote on his web page that he was the victim of a “coordinated campaign from inside and outside the university targeting me, my job, and my chances for tenure, based on my political views, my political writings, and my nationality.”
As attacks on Massad mounted and the campaign to dismiss him grew, the administration offered little support. Massad wrote on his web page that “the Columbia University administration acted as a collaborator with the witch-hunters instead of defending me and offering itself as a refuge from right-wing McCarthyism.”
Another highly controversial case unfolded in June 2007 when Norman Finkelstein, a well-known scholar, political scientist, and critic of Israel, was denied tenure at DePaul University in Chicago. Finkelstein spent six years teaching at DePaul and despite a 9-3 vote by his department supporting his tenure, the University Board on Promotion and Tenure (UBPT) voted 4-3 to deny him tenure.
Finkelstein said to CHP that he believes a number of factors led to the decision to deny him tenure, including the influence of pro-Israeli groups and individuals. The most prominent among them was Alan Dershowitz, Harvard University professor of law.
Dershowitz, an active supporter of Israel and favored scholar of many pro-Israeli groups, published an op/ed piece in the Wall Street Journal titled “Finkelstein’s Bigotry,” in which he labels Finkelstein an “anti-Semite” and states that, “Whether or not he receives tenure, Mr. Finkelstein will persist in his unscholarly ad hominems against supporters of Israel, Holocaust survivors and the U.S.”
According to Chomsky, who is familiar with the case, “[Dershowitz] went as far as claiming that Finkelstein’s mother, who was a survivor of an extermination camp, was able to survive because she was a Nazi collaborator. This really is reminiscent of old-fashioned Stalinism.”
In a letter sent to Finkelstein affirming the decision by the UBPT, president of DePaul University Dennis Holtschneider cited reasons related to Finkelstein’s “ad hominem attacks on scholars with whom [he disagrees].”
But Finkelstein doubts the reasons given by the UBPT and Holtschneider.
“I’ve had annual evaluations for six years. None of these evaluations ever mention any problems with my scholarship, so to bring them up last-minute is not credible,” he said in an interview with CHP.
Finkelstein believes that the campaign against him succeeded in destroying his career.
“I’m 53 and now I’m pretty much unemployed for life,” Finkelstein said. “There’s no way I’ll get a job — No school would want to go through what DePaul went through.”
Although UC Santa Cruz does not have a Middle Eastern Studies department, academics on this campus are no more shielded from harassment by pro-Israeli groups than professors within that discipline. A conference held last March titled “Alternative Histories Within and Beyond Zionism” generated hundreds of angry e-mails and a severe uproar from radical pro-Israeli groups. The event was organized by Lisa Rofel, UCSC anthropology professor, and co-sponsored by several campus departments.
Rofel claimed that the aim of the event was to revive discussions about Zionism that had been lost in the ensuing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Five speakers were invited and each presented his or her interpretation of the situation in occupied Palestine.
The event prompted Los Angeles-based pro-Israeli group Stand with Us, which is heavily active in Santa Cruz, to write a concerned letter to UCSC Chancellor George Blumenthal. They also issued a statement on their website stating, “the conference speakers promoted anti-Israel, anti-Jewish prejudice by distorting facts and history.”
The UCSC chapter of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) also contacted the administration with complaints encouraging an investigation. SPME demanded that the organizers of the event reimburse the university for the money used to fund the conference and warned them against punitive actions if they failed to do so.
Ronnie Lipschutz — UCSC politics professor and co-director of the Center for Global, International, and Regional Studies (CGIRS), which co-sponsored the conference — believes that SPME acted with hypocrisy. According to Lipschutz, SPME and other pro-Israeli groups have organized politicized events on campus featuring radical right-wing speakers.
One such speaker was ultra-conservative British journalist Melanie Philips, who spoke on campus last January cautioning against the threat of radical Islam while contending that Israel is “the litmus test for civilization.”
According to Ilan Benjamin, UCSC chemistry professor and the head of SPME’s UCSC chapter, the pivotal difference between events organized by SPME and campus departments lies in the funding. SPME collect their funds through private donors, while campus departments use university money.
Benjamin justified targeting Rofel and other organizers because he believes that they violated Article IX of the state constitution forbidding the use of public funds to finance events with political agendas.
“When [SPME] use[s] private funds and the name of our faculty organization to bring a speaker to campus, we are exercising our constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech,” Benjamin wrote in an e-mail to CHP. “However, when professors use university money — they have the obligation to the students and to their profession to be educational and not engage in political advocacy or indoctrination.”
The ambiguity for many then becomes what constitutes political advocacy.
“If you stand in front of the classroom and you advocate for a particular political candidate, that violates certain state laws,” Lipschutz said. “My reading is that people like — [Ilan Benjamin] think of politics as standing in front of some forum and issuing critiques.”
For many scholars who criticize Israeli policy, accusations of anti-Semitism soon follow.
“I think the charges of anti-Semitism detract from the ability to have dialogue and debate. They are simplistic, meaningless, and ultimately a red herring,” Rofel said. “These charges are attempts at censorship.”
Finkelstein believes that many pro-Israeli groups fail to distinguish charges of anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism, and argued that the term has lost its significance.
“These [radical pro-Israeli groups] simply throw around the term anti-Semitism to anyone who disagrees with them,” he said. “For a time they were quite effective; now I don’t think they have much effectiveness. Once you start calling Jimmy Carter an anti-Semite and a Holocaust denier, you can see that the term is losing all of its potency.”
Edmund Burke III, UCSC professor of history, recently helped organize the Ad Hoc Committee to Defend the University, which drafted a petition “condemning the recent attacks on academic freedom.”
Among other things, the petition charges pro-Israeli groups with forming “unfounded insinuations and allegations, in the media and on websites, of anti-Semitism.”
The petition also states, “In recent years, universities across the country have been targeted by outside groups seeking to influence what is taught and who can teach,” and as a result, “faculty have been denied jobs or tenure, and scholars have been denied public platforms from which to share their viewpoints.”
Burke said that the idea for the petition arose because of “something that has been emerging over the last several years as a number of scholars began to look around the country at the systematic effort to silence scholars who either teach about the Middle East in their courses, or who are in other ways linked to the study of the Middle East and Islam.”
“Over the 40 years that I’ve been teaching modern Middle Eastern history at UCSC, I have seen a gradual shift towards the shutting down of people’s ability to hear criticisms — or to hear historical facts that are at variance with what they have been raised with,” Burke said. “[The shift] was accelerated with 9/11.”
He worries that the success of those who defamed Massad and Finkelstein “creates a precedent such that other scholars will be targeted,” and he fears that healthy discussions are being jeopardized through the efforts of “groups portraying themselves as defenders of Israel.”
Burke continued, “Conversation, even painful conversations, are far more productive than just trying to silence people.”
After drafting the petition, Burke found himself targeted on the home page of the Campus Watch website, which posted his photograph supplemented with a ridiculing description of the petition’s purpose.
Still, pro-Israeli groups strongly deny a role in attempting to silence scholars.
Stillwell, representative of Campus Watch in Northern California, wrote in an e-mail to CHP that “Campus Watch holds no authority that would allow us to silence anyone — nor would we silence anyone even if we could.”
Nonetheless, the petition’s signatories vow to speak out against those who attack colleagues and universities in order to achieve political goals.
Finkelstein claimed that academics can be very cowardly because of the lengthy and grueling process it takes to establish oneself in a teaching position.
“Most of the battles that come up have to do with tenure — and people are nervous because they devote an entire life to something which is financially very unrewarding,” Finkelstein said. “And once they get their position, they are so internalized of all the timidity of having gone through the process of becoming professors.”
Lipschutz believes that most people are susceptible to intimidation, leading many scholars to remain quiet concerning the conflict in Palestine out of fear of repercussions.
“I don’t want to spend my life, or most of my time, fighting off these people who I think are making baseless or crazy accusations,” Lipschutz said. “Do you take up the shield and the sword and go out and do battle against windmills, or do you just simply say, ‘I’m just going to keep my nose clean and my head down’? For most people it’s easier to do the latter.”