Can a “Patriotic” Mob Take Over the Universities?
From the www.monabaker.com archive (legacy material)
Baruch Kimmerling | Dissident Voice | 29 March 2005
In the American academy, there is currently an organized campaign by some public figures to vilify prominent researchers and departments that are regarded as “anti-American” or even as “anti-Semitic” because their research and teaching are not in accordance with the views of the recent American administration. Universities are especially at risk if their faculty members are of Arab or — even “worse” — of Palestinian origin. The recent scandalous decision of the New York City Department of Education to bar Rashid Khalidi, one of Columbia University’s finest scholars, from instructing public school teachers is an example of this effort. Indeed Khalidi, a first-rate academic and a genuine intellectual, has often spoken of both the discriminatory laws within Israel that favor Jews and of the oppression of Palestinians in the occupied territories, facts that no honest and informed person would contest. One the other hand, he has consistently condemned suicide bombings as “war crimes,” while asserting the right of Palestinians to resist the occupation without harming Israeli civilians. Many Jewish intellectuals in Israel and around the world share these completely legitimate opinions.
The campaign against Khalidi was preceded by an attack against professors Joseph Massad, George Saliba, and Hamid Dabashi that came in the form of a short “documentary” film entitled Columbia Unbecoming, produced by a Bostonian Jewish rightwing group called the “David Project.” According to the group’s website, their film “raises significant questions about the misuse of academic freedom, insufficient academic integrity in teaching about the Middle East, student intimidation, and how professors use the classroom as a political platform.” Interestingly enough, their assault was directed against teachers of specific ethnic origin and as such resembled a form of inverse anti-Semitism.
What for example was Saliba’s “guilt”, except for his Arab origin? According to his own words, his aim was “to demonstrate to the student the futility of looking back for justification to land ownership based on religious claims instead of looking at the real political problems in the present Middle East that can be resolved if we stop romanticizing them in terms of whose God was more generous with land grants than the other” — an approach that I would completely support. A student interviewed in the film argued that Saliba acted prejudicially against her, following a dispute which they had on this subject outside of the confines of the classroom. The grade that she received on the course does not, however, seem to indicate any such “prejudice” (Columbia Spectator, November 3, 2004). In general, all the charges made against the other professors, by six students’ firsthand complaints, seems similarly substantiated. They said of being “silenced,” “intimidated,” and “denied,” however none of them argued that their grades were unfair. I myself conducted during years fervent debates with my students in and off the classes about hot issues, and none considered themselves intimidated. This is a part and parcel of healthy campus life.
What is more serious in this affair is that Columbia’s President, Lee C. Bollinger, chose not to defend the autonomy of the university and its faculty. Instead, the President of Columbia appointed an ad hoc committee to investigate these allegations of “intimidations” — allegations that were made by persons whose ideological motivations were clear and who may not have even been students at the university, or students of the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures Department. One wonders whether Bollinger himself was intimidated by donors, or whether he was merely being influenced by the Anti-Arab mood ruling America.
An additional prominent instigator of the current campaign is David Horowitz, the editor of the right wing FrontPage Magazine. Recently, he wrote that Ball State University in Indiana (November 8, 2004) teaches students to identify with America’s terrorist enemies and to see America as a “Great Satan” that oppresses the world’s poor and causes them to go hungry. “The question,” he wrote, is “how long can a nation at war with ruthless enemies like bin Laden and Zarqawi survive if its educational institutions continue to be suborned in this way?”
Unfortunately, Horowitz’s crusade is only the tip of the iceberg. More severely damaging to academic freedom are some “principles” established by legislation of the House of Representatives that calls for the establishment of an “advisory board” to oversee area studies programs. Such provisions make it possible for elements outside the academy to intervene in the educational process. This bill is very similar to that which authorized official interference in the curriculum and management of university teaching and research. Based on the Indiana case, Horowitz won a considerable victory when the Indiana state legislature declared that the principles have become ‘the educational policy of the state of Indiana and have been adopted as model legislation by the Association of Legislative Exchange Commissions. In October 2003, the House of Representatives introduced a federal version of the resolution that was not (yet?) adopted by the US Senate.
This assault on academic freedom by a coalition of necons and zealous Jewish students supported by some Jewish “mainstream” organizations (like the ZOA) may have effects on American higher education that are similar to the purges conducted by the Rapp-Coudert Committee of the 1940s and later by officials during the McCarthy era. Another instructive example is the dramatic fall in the quality of teaching and research that occurred when rebellious students took over some excellent European universities in the sixties. There is no difference between “leftwing” or “rightwing” mobs and cynical politicians who try to interfere with genuine academic freedom. However, there is no doubt that universities have to allow freedom of speech and association to students without allowing popular pressures to interfere with the hiring and promotion of faculty or with curricula.
The groundwork was laid long ago for the present situation. For several years, a pseudo-academic neo-conservative think tank operating the pompously-named website “Campus Watch,” denounced academics who are deemed to have shown “hatred of Israel,” or “anti-Americanism.” Many of the prominent professors dealing with Middle Eastern issues are listed there and are accused of the unpardonable sin of of supporting the “Palestinian cause,” or, even worse, of encouraging terrorism. The site wants students — in an act reminiscent of Nazi and Communist regimes — to inform on professors who are guilty of “campus anti-Semitism.” The main initiators of this campaign are Martin Kramer and Daniel Pipes who was, in a bit of unintentional irony, appointed in 2003 by President Bush to the board of governors the US Peace Institute. Moreover, this think tank has encouraged students to “monitor” lecturers in some of the nation’s most prestigious universities—such as Princeton, Yale, and Stanford. Reports of their “unpatriotic bias” are published on the website which aims —in the best of Orwellian language—to “debunk” the abuse of academic freedom. Students are also encouraged to write complaints to their institution’s newspaper.
Campus Watch (also known as the “Israeli-Academia Monitor”) did not rest on its laurels and even crossed the ocean to join the struggle over the Israeli universities “soul” by listing the so-called “post-Zionist” or “anti-Zionist” faculty members and by calling on donors to stop giving money until the “traitors” have been fired. In the interest of full disclosure, the author of the present column must mention that he is a “star” on this list. While the people behind of the American website are well-known, the operators of the Israeli twin-list are anonymous. This is not surprising because one of the suspected operators of the site is facing a libel suit filed by a young faculty member at Ben Gurion University who was accused of being a “Holocaust denier.” In fact every faculty member who appears in the public sphere and doesn’t adopt an ultra-nationalist stance has an excellent chance of having his or her words taken out of context or reinterpreted and of being labeled a “self-hating Jew” or a “traitor.” There is an even more vulgar American Jewish list that includes about 7,000 names (in addition to email addresses and even photos) of many Jewish-American and Israeli academics and Reform Rabbis who are described as “traitors” and “non-Jewish”. The list’s preferred technique is to tar dissenters with labels like Communist, leftist or to equate them with Jewish collaborators of the Nazis (like Judenrats or kapos). Some of my good friends who are not listed there consider their omission to be a grave insult. I encourage them to bear this slight with patience. They still may be honored by inclusion on this list because its managers encourage the general public to add more names, promising the contributors full anonymity.
Interestingly this enterprise in Israel is also operated and probably funded by American Jews, most of them outside the academy. The majority of my Israeli rightwing colleagues keep their distance from such activities, understanding that they contradict basic academic principles. These principles include the heterogeneity of the campus, intellectual diversity and openness, the imperative of free dialogues among persons holding different views in the framework of a common public space, and an understanding that dialogues and debates on public issues are a part and parcel of academic education and freedom.
Genuine academic freedom can continue only if universities refuse to let the mobs overrun them. No single institution or professional organization (even not The American Association of University Professors) can fight this intellectual totalitarianism alone and the university leadership carries a special responsibility to stand up to those who would let ideology trump scholarship. As such, I wonder for instance why that Khalidi’s colleagues at Columbia and at New York City’s other fine universities, failed, regardless of their own political orientations, to declare non-cooperation with the Department of Education in solidarity with their discriminated colleague.
* This article was submitted to “Chronicle for Higher Education” and rejected.
Baruch Kimmerling is a professor of sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Among his recent books are Politicide: Ariel Sharon’s War Against the Palestinians (Verso, 2003), Immigrants, Settlers and Natives (Alma and Am Oved, Hebrew, 2003), and The Palestinian People (Harvard University Press, 2003) with Joel S. Migdal.