Zionism vs. Intellectual Freedoms on American College Campuses

From the www.monabaker.com archive (legacy material)

David Green | Znet | 15 May 2005

It has become obvious during the course of this academic year (2004-05)—if it was not already—that campus advocacy of Zionist ideology and Israeli state interests is shamelessly repressive of open and respectful discourse based on high standards of evidence, argument, and morality. This repression targets basic 1st Amendment freedoms of speech, assembly, and press; academic and more general intellectual freedoms; and—most crucially—the political freedom to translate well-documented truths and carefully considered moral judgments into advocacy and activism. Like the struggle in Israel and Palestine, conflict on college campuses has an asymmetrical quality. On one side is a vigilant, proactive, and well-funded campaign by Israeli and Jewish-American organizations in support of the policies of the Israeli government, and the funding of those policies by the U.S. government. On the other side is a campaign to disseminate information regarding the history and reality of the Israel/Palestine conflict that has rightfully been incorporated into the conventional wisdom of scholarship, international law, and the reports of major human rights organizations. But unlike the struggle in the Middle East, supporters of Israel cannot use violence with impunity, and thus—in spite of blatant political intimidation by advocates for Israel—the struggle is a spirited and hopeful one for advocates of Palestinian rights, who have the much greater part of truth and conscience on their side.
Before considering this phenomenon, I would offer a few observations about the larger political context. First, U.S. policies toward the Middle East, including Israel, are driven by American priorities; albeit these priorities have over the past 40 years increasingly coincided with those of Israel, culminating in the current era of Neocon-Likud collaboration. Nevertheless, when there are conflicting interests, such as in the Jonathan Pollard case and the current investigation into AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee) spying, it becomes clear that the U.S. administration will put its foot down, and that both Israel and American Jewish leaders will comply, if not without disingenuous and face-saving complaint. Second, the power of AIPAC is directed not so much at the policies of the executive branch, which are largely determined by geopolitical and defense industry interests, but at the Congress. No member can be allowed to leave the reservation of long-running American/Israeli rejection of a just solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict without public punishment, including charges of anti-Semitism and extravagant funding of opposing candidates. Finally, suffice it to say that the mainstream media, for reasons both inherent in the “manufacture of consent” and specific to this problem, make it impossible for the average U.S. citizen to understand the blatant reality of Palestinian victimization. Thus relatively little effort has to be made by Jewish Zionist organizations to shape the views of Americans in general about Israel and Palestine, especially when one considers the strenuous efforts of Christian Zionists to this end.
It is in this context that college campuses have become the primary venue, such as it is, of honest and disruptive discourse about this conflict, and the primary focus of efforts by Zionist organizations to curtail the freedoms that are essential for debate, advocacy, and action by students, faculty, and activists for a just peace. It is only on college campuses that Palestinian rights advocates can be claimed to pose even an imagined threat to the hegemony of Zionist propaganda in mainstream American political culture. During the past year, supporters of the Palestinian cause have been faced with the gamut of organized efforts by Zionist organizations to deny basic freedoms: speech, press, academic, intellectual, and political. As cogently argued by Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Alexander Cockburn, and many others, the primary tactic employed in these efforts is to identify criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. At Harvard, this charge has been notably made by President Lawrence Summers and Law Professor Alan Dershowitz. This argument is supported with banal assertions of the “unique” nature of the Nazi holocaust, and by an evolving body of fraudulent scholarship and historical propaganda, including by Dershowitz in The Case for Israel in relation to the Zionist movement and the state of Israel.
The origins of the current assault on intellectual freedoms are in the most recent intifada of September 2000, the subsequent and bloody re-occupation of occupied areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority in the spring of 2002, and the need to challenge a narrative sympathetic to the Palestinians. By the end of 2002, Daniel Pipes’ and Martin Kramer’s Campus Watch was in full cry, posting “dossiers” on Middle East scholars critical of Israel . Concurrently, the high-minded tone of Israel’s claim to be on the front lines of western progress were articulated in 2003 by Israeli politician Natan Sharansky, with his spurious claim that Jewish students are being silenced on American campuses that have become “hot-houses of anti-Israel opinion.” . Since, then, Sharansky has become a favorite of George Bush and Condoleezza Rice.
Efforts by American Zionists to suppress expressions of support for Palestinian rights on college campuses operate at many levels. AIPAC has intensively organized and trained Zionist students as advocates for Israel, with all of the distortion and defamation that that entails . Campus Watch, a program of Pipes’ Middle East Forum, has targeted professors of Middle Eastern Studies around the country in McCarthyite fashion, and indeed the entire Middle East Studies Association (MESA).
Charles Jacobs of the David Project (and co-founder of CAMERA, Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) has produced a propagandistic “documentary,” “Columbia Unbecoming,” accusing professors of that University’s Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) department of intimidating students on the basis of political disagreement. The fraudulent nature of this film has been exposed by a Columbia graduate student, and in a recent article by Scott Sherman in The Nation . Another student has elaborated on the Orwellian assumption that Columbia is hostile to pro-Israel rather than pro-Palestinian students . The climax of this campaign occurred in an astonishing display of racist hatred by Phyllis Chesler and others at an event that was titled, “The Middle East and Academic Integrity on the American Campus.” Of the 21 listed speakers, only four work on an American campus. In a corollary incident, respected Palestinian-American historian Rashid Khalidi has been prevented from speaking to seminars for New York City public school teachers. Ultimately, as in literally all cases of such lurid accusations of systemic discrimination in college campuses, a report commissioned by President Lee Bollinger has concluded that no such thing occurred . During the fall semester of 2004, plans by the Palestine Solidarity Movement (PSM) to hold their annual pro-divestment conference at Duke University were met with a massive e-mail campaign directed calling on President Richard Brodhead to prevent the meeting. The President did not cave in to this pressure, and to be fair, Jewish student organizations did not advocate that the conference be banned. Nevertheless, these organizations organized a concert that was clearly racist in its identification of terrorism with Palestinians and Arabs. Meanwhile, the conference of course proceeded peacefully, and not simply as a result of the exorbitant amount of money that was spent on campus security as a result of the campaign to prevent or counter it. Afterwards, the tension created by opposition to this conference reverberated in responses to a student columnist who provoked hysteria by stating that Jews are a privileged group in American society, and by mentioning Norman Finkelstein and his book The Holocaust Industry (). Three “minor” incidents of the current academic year (2004-05) are also worthy of note. A lecture by Norman Finkelstein at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh was met with an organized effort by Jewish students and community members to arrive early, fill the seats, and prevent those sympathetic to Finkelstein’s argument in Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History from gaining seats . Predictably, the account in the Post-Gazette covered the protest, but not the substance of the talk. Second, Yigal Carmon, founder of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), has threatened Professor Juan Cole of the University of Michigan with a lawsuit for critical comments Cole made on his popular blog . Finally, Daniel Pipes has recently settled a lawsuit brought by an Oregon professor who fought back against Pipes’ customary slanders . The latter incident is also a reminder of Pipes’ effort to prevent Palestinian human rights activist and feminist Hanan Ashrawi from speaking at Colorado College in September 0f 2002 .
Several more influential organizations are worthy of mention in relation to this campaign. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP, former Clinton diplomat Dennis Ross, mythmaker of the “generous offer”), provides a “respectable” Washington think tank image for those who regularly bring their arguments to a more official academic environment, albeit in campus venues that systematically exclude Palestinian voices. At a more vulgar level, David Horowitz’s frontpagemage.com website works to disseminate the latest in anti-Arab and anti-Muslim propaganda from himself, Pipes, Chesler, and others to Zionist students, including campus newspaper columnists. Horowitz’s website has its origins in his Center for the Study of Popular Culture, with its far right critique of “political correctness” of (liberal) campus culture.
Within the framework of the venerable B’nai B’rith, the Anti-Defamation League has since the early 1960s provided a “civil rights” cover for equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism . As an adjunct of the B’nai B’rith, the ADL has institutional access to B’nai B’rith Hillel, the Campus Center for Jewish Life. Hillel also provides a networking environment for Zionist Jewish students, connecting them to organizations like AIPAC, Campus Watch, and the Zionist Organization of America ; as well as ferrying them to Washington and Israel for indoctrination in “Israel advocacy.”
Local Jewish Federations provide a larger institutional and religious context for campus repression, disseminating Zionist propaganda, demonizing campus advocates for Palestinian rights, and advising alumni to withdraw financial support unless demands to repress criticism of Israel and U.S. support for Israel are met. In conjunction with Hillel through local Federations, the Reform movement (Union for Reform Judaism) advises students on “how to talk to critics of Israel” (Hamerman). Students are told not to seriously consider a variety of perspectives, but instead to learn to detect “anti-Semitism” among critics of Israel who may either “deny Israel’s right to exist,” or “hold Israel to a higher standard.” The implication, of course, is that critics of Israel are to be either vilified or dismissed as Jew haters.
It is in this context that I have intensively observed and thoroughly documented events at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus during the past year, with particular attention paid to the actions of the local Jewish Federation and pro-Israel student columnists, which have worked together to create an environment that is verbally intimidating to Muslim students. The response by the Interim Chancellor, under pressure by local and outside Jewish officials, has been to speak out against either trivial or non-existent anti-Semitism against Jews, but not against blatant racism against Arabs and Muslims. At UIUC, it is also instructive to note the relationship between Jewish Federation and the Program for Jewish Culture and Society on campus, with the resulting effort to legitimize charges of the “new anti-Semitism”. In this connection, it is important to note increased pressure to hire professors in Israel Studies.
The defamatory behavior of both non-academic organizations and students who claim to be victimized by the “anti-Israel” climate on campus is certainly the primary basis for this campaign of repression against intellectual freedoms in regard to the Israel/Palestine conflict. But my own experience has also brought me to a serious consideration of the role of local “moderate” officials: secular and religious, academic and administrative, employed either by the university or in institutions associated with it. There is a characteristic political posturing among those officials, who claim to be opposed to both Palestinian terrorism and Jewish settlement. But there is never a specific criticism that passes their lips of settlement expansion or settler violence, never a word of genuine compassion for the occupied Palestinians, and a hair-trigger readiness to quickly point the finger at the Arabs when the “peace process” breaks down, as it inevitably will once again in the near future. It is these “moderate” officials who provide a civil façade on campus that allows racism and extremism to flourish in the relationships between outside groups like AIPAC, ZOA, and Campus Watch, and right-wing student groups, whether of a specifically Zionist or more generically neoconservative nature.
On a tactical level for pro-Palestinian campus activists, it is has become apparent to me that the self-assumed exalted and detached status of local Jewish officials makes them particularly sensitive to public criticism, and unwilling or unable to counter it with the kind of overt nastiness that is customary in the more ruthless world of pro-Israel propaganda. This is a reality that can be exploited, especially by critical Jewish activists. Without the institutional facilitation, behind-the-scenes maneuvering, and passive consent of “respectable” campus Jewish organizations, the current campaign of repression against intellectual freedoms on campus could not be nearly as active and destructive. Those who pretend to be above the fray should be firmly, politely, and critically called to account for their politics and actions, especially if they purport to represent the local Jewish community, no less Jewish ethics and values.
David Green (davegreen84@yahoo.com ) is an employee of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He is a member of AWARE, the local Anti-war Anti-racism Effort (www.anti-war.net ), and is associated with Not In My Name (www.nimn.org ), a Chicago-based group comprised largely of Jews who are opposed to Israel’s occupation of Palestine.