Targeting the university is the latest mission of right-wing forces who have hijacked
not only political power and political discourse in the United States but also
the very vocabulary that can be used against them. The campaign of the last three
years or so to attack US universities as the last bastion where a measure of freedom
of thought is still protected is engineered to cancel out such freedom and ensure
that scholars will not subvert the received political wisdom of the day.
Some of the major tactics in this campaign have been the launching of witch
hunts against specific professors, calling for their dismissal from their jobs,
and, failing that, smear their reputation; target Middle East Studies as a scholarly
field more generally and cut federal funding to it and place it under governmental
supervision, and promote apologists for Israel in the guise of scholars as the
only adequate scholarly alternative. While shutting down the educational process
in favour of religious theories of creationism and the like has been around
for a while, the recent attack on scholars who disagree with US foreign policy
and the policies of the state of Israel are the main mobilisational issues of
the current campaign.
What is at stake in this assault is not only academic freedom, but scholarship
per se, and specifically scholarship on Palestine and Israel, which is the primary
target of the witch-hunters.
What makes these anti-scholarship attacks possible and popular is the existence
of a major discrepancy, even a radical disconnect, between popular knowledge
and media coverage about the Palestine/Israel conundrum and established scholarly
knowledge about the topic. It is this disconnect that the witch hunters mobilise
against scholarship as proof that it is not media and popular knowledge, which
defends Israeli policy and Zionism's axioms, that is ideological, but rather
academic scholarship which has largely uncovered unsavory facts about both.
Thus when young American students who come from ideologically charged homes,
schools, and environments, attend university classes about the subject, they
mistake established scholarship as pro- Palestinian propaganda, a conclusion
that is propped up by the likes of Campus Watch, the David Project, and the
Anti- Defamation League, all three organisations who make it part or all their
business to attack scholarly criticisms of Israeli policy.
Let me provide a few examples of what I mean. All respected scholars in the
field agree that most or all Palestinians who became refugees in 1948 were expelled
directly or indirectly by Israel. The debate that exists is about whether all
Palestinian refugees were physically expelled by the Israeli army or that the
Israeli army expelled the majority while a minority of refugees fled, not as
a direct result of physical force but as an indirect consequence of actions
taken by the Israeli army and government which might, or might not, have been
deliberately intended to expel them. In contrast, media and popular ideological
knowledge in the US still insists that the Palestinians fled on their own, or
worse, were called upon to do so by Arab leaders (despite Israeli false claims
that Arab leaders called on Palestinians to flee, research has shown that they
called upon them to remain steadfast in their homeland) while the Zionists begged
them to stay!
Established scholarship enumerates all the racist laws and institutional racist
practices in operation in Israel which discriminate between Jews and non-Jews,
granting Jews differential rights and privileges over non-Jews, and rendering
Israel a racist state by law. Popular and media knowledge, in contrast, depict
Israel as a democratic liberal state that treats all its citizens equally. It
is also established in scholarship that Israel discriminates against non-European
Jews (the majority of the country's Jewish population) and also against recent
Russian Jewish immigrants, and has engaged and continues to engage in a racist
discourse about them and in unofficial institutional discrimination against
them (witness the most recent case of discrimination against Ethiopian Jews
in admissions to Israeli universities). In contrast, popular and media knowledge
depicts Israel as a place where all Jews are equal. Scholarly knowledge addresses
the question of Israel as a quasi-theological state, where religious law governs
major aspects of Jewish life and that only Orthodox Judaism is allowed to have
religious authority over Jewish citizens to the exclusion of Reform and Conservative
Judaism, let alone other Jewish denominations. In contrast, media and popular
knowledge depict Israel as a secular state. These are only a few examples of
how scholarly knowledge is drastically different from and contradicts media
and popular knowledge about key issues regarding Israeli society and history.
Israel's apologists and right-wing witch- hunters aim to establish this popular
and media "knowledge", which echo the official positions of the State
of Israel and its US lobby, as "scholarly" and dismiss academic scholarship
as ideology. It is in this context that many of the organisations and individuals
attacking me are under the false impression that what I teach in my classes
is a "Palestinian" perspective or narrative. In fact, at the risk
of engaging my fanatical critics, whose outrageous claims and inventions should
not be given any legitimacy, I do no such thing. In my class on the topic, I
teach academic scholarship on Palestine and Israel, which is precisely why the
witch- hunters want Columbia to fire me.
As academic knowledge is of no interest to these ideologues, they have marshalled
all their resources to transform the university into a mouthpiece for Israeli
propaganda. They have recently been joined by The New York Times who, in an
editorial on 7 April, called on Columbia University to monitor the classroom
for "pro-Palestinian" bias. The Times ' editors asserted that the
(illegitimate) investigative panel that Columbia University convened as part
of its own intimidation of its own professors failed to examine the real allegations
of pro-Israel students who are allied with pro-Israeli lobbying groups outside
the university. These allegations speak of stridently pro- Palestinian, anti-Israeli
bias on the part of several professors. The panel had no mandate to examine
the quality and fairness of teaching. That leaves the university to follow up
on complaints about politicised courses and a lack of scholarly rigour as part
of its effort to upgrade the department. One can only hope that Columbia will
proceed with more determination and care than it has heretofore.
What the Times ' editors mean is that it is incumbent upon Columbia University
to bring scholarly knowledge transmitted in its classrooms in line with Israeli
propaganda, which the New York Times itself has never found too difficult to
disseminate as objective truth anyway. Indeed, Ethan Bronner, the Times' deputy
foreign editor, was quoted in an article on 24 April asserting that as far as
United Nations Security Council resolutions on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict
are concerned, the newspaper editors "view ourselves as neutral and unbound
by such judgements. We cite them, but we do not live by them." If the Times
can ignore so casually UN decisions as unbinding, why shouldn't scholars do
the same? Indeed why shouldn't Columbia University do the same? The fact that
for now at least, Columbia's administration has not taken steps to monitor the
politics of scholarship should not reassure us. Aside from his commitment to
the pro-Israeli and anti-Palestinian line espoused by the New York Times and
manifest in many of his own public statements, Columbia's president, Lee Bollinger,
has spoken about his concern of a lack of "balance" and the presence
of "bias" in some classes on the Palestinian/Israeli conflict taught
at Columbia, which he intends to rectify. He even expressed concern that Columbia
scholars of the Middle East do not seem to explain "the relationship...
between the environmental facts of life in the Middle East and Asia, or its
diseases, and the culture there?" Columbia may soon hire Middle East scholars
who will attempt to answer this important question!
The production of academic knowledge in American universities was never separable
from the overall social, political, and economic requirements of the American
state. Links between the university and state policy and the interests of the
private sector have a long history and are structurally built into the research
agenda of universities, most importantly through the mechanism of funding. I
still remember how as an undergraduate in the US, I was always baffled by political
scientists who would ridicule Soviet academic scholarship as lacking "independence"
due to its being beholden to an agenda set and funded by the Soviet state, while
being proud of their own scholarship and discipline, which was hardly "independent"
of US government funding as well as funding from the private sector which most
often drove US state interests. Despite these structural limitations, however,
there remained an important and crucial space in the university where serious
scholarship could be produced and which scholars have utilised to produce their
This is not to say that scholarship is unbiased. On the contrary, all respectable
scholarship about Nazi Germany and the holocaust, to take an important example,
is indeed biased against the Nazis, but no one except anti-Semites would dare
equate scholarly judgment of Nazi Germany and the holocaust as the "Jewish"
perspective or narrative. The same applies to scholarship about South Africa
under Apartheid, which is never described as the "Black" perspective
or narrative. Feminist scholarship is equally biased against sexism, but is
not labelled as "women's" narrative or perspective. Scholarship on
Stalin, on US slavery, on British colonialism, on American racism, on institutionalised
sexism and discrimination against women, etc, is always biased, and no amount
of lobbying from right-wing groups will force academics to teach the Nazi or
slavery perspectives in the interest of "balance." It is this scholarly
space that the university enshrines which the neo- conservative culture commissars
want to close off. To do so, what better place to create consensus than the
Palestine/Israel conflict on which there is total US cultural agreement echoed
by the mainstream and the right-wing and left-wing press. If Fox news and CNN
and ABC news can agree on the "facts" surrounding Israel and its policies,
as do the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Daily News, and the New
York Sun, then surely critical scholarship on this question will find little
popular support. In this regard you can have a civil libertarian Zionist like
the Village Voice 's Nat Hentoff, liberal Zionist apologists like the Nation
magazine, and the New York Sun and the New York Post, join hands to discredit
scholars on Palestine and Israel as "dogmatic", "uncompromising,"
"strident" and the like. Ostensible civil libertarian and Harvard
Law Professor Alan Dershowitz has not only joined the campaign in writing for
the press, but also by lecturing at Columbia University against "pro- Palestinian"
professors whom he accused of supporting terrorism. Luckily, Dershowitz did
not advise Columbia on the types of legal torture that it could mete out to
This is not to say that there is no disagreement among the members of this
unholy alliance. There is. Such disagreement revolves on the division between
"good" Arabs and "bad" Arabs. This is not new but harks
back to the emergence of Egyptian president Anwar El-Sadat as the first "good"
Arab to be rescued from the lot in the American media. Since then, while the
right-wing has had no truck with these divisions, as all Arabs are "bad,"
as far as it is concerned, the mainstream and the "left" very much
dabble in this division. Thus, Arabs who are seen as "moderate" and
who are seen as speaking a language that does not challenge all the received
wisdom on Israel are considered "good," while those who are seen as
exposing the hypocrisy of liberal apologists for Israel are "bad"
and are described as "extremists." This is an important strategy for
liberal Zionists, as it achieves two important goals: it avoids and pre-empts
the accusation of anti-Arab racism while encouraging "moderation"
among Arab scholars by offering them much needed public and media praise. Thus,
I was recently faulted by the reporter of the left- liberal Nation magazine
for daring to call Israel a racist state, even though I base my accurate description
of the country on its myriad racist laws that discriminate between Jews and
non-Jews, and that grant Jews rights and privileges that are denied to non-Jews.
Such laws include the law of return (1950), the law of absentee property (1950),
the law of the state's property (1951), the law of citizenship (1952), the status
law (1952), the Israel lands administration law (1960), the construction and
building law (1965), among others. What the Nation and Nat Hentoff find objectionable
in my characterisation of Israel as racist is that it contradicts media and
popular knowledge about Israel, which is the only acceptable measure of knowledge
of the country in the US media. Herein lies their complicity with the rightwing
on rejecting academic scholarship on Israel. The Nation and Hentoff, among others,
made sure to contrast me with other "moderate" Arab scholars whom
they praise and do not dismiss.
By using the popular and media consensus on Palestine/Israel as its entry point
for the dismantling of the university and its cardinal principle of academic
freedom, the pro-Israel lobbyists were able to find allies in the university
administration, among the faculty, and certainly among students. Even though
the main target of the witch-hunters is academic scholarship on Palestine and
Israel, which they want to delegitimise fully as a scholarly endeavour, in favour
of accepting the official Israeli government's representation of itself as academic
truth, their efforts have mushroomed into an all out attack on the concept of
academic freedom, and the very institution of the University. Their strategy,
however, has backfired, as faculty quickly realised that the attack would indeed
touch on the very nature of university pedagogy and the production of scholarly
knowledge. In this regard, Columbia's faculty and other faculties around the
country have begun to mobilise against these enemies of academic freedom. These
enemies of academic freedom do not only threaten junior faculty but all classroom
settings and all scholarship.
In light of the organised power and influence of the witch-hunters, the task
before academics is not only to continue to insist on writing and producing
scholarship about Palestine and Israel, which will continue to expose the true
nature of the Israeli state and its oppressive policies, but to defend the scholarly
endeavour itself, which can only be ensured if the institution of the university
is maintained as a space where academic freedom is upheld. The university, with
all its limitations, is one of the few remaining spaces, if not the only remaining
one, where critical intellectuals can still live the life of the mind. What
the witch- hunters want us to do is to live the life of servitude to state power,
as technocrats and as ideologues. This we refuse to do.
* The writer is assistant professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual
history at Columbia University.
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