Mau-mauing the Middle East

Palestinians are the latest chic cause on campus. Now American Jews are trying to brand criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic -- and even un-American.


Michelle Goldberg
October 1, 2002 3:22AM (UTC)

On Sept. 18, the conservative Middle East Forum launched Campus Watch, a Web site designed to "monitor and gather information" on academics who are not sufficiently pro-Israel. There are "dossiers" on eight professors of Middle Eastern studies, six of them Arabs. Since appearing on the list, all have been deluged with hostile e-mail and one has been threatened by phone. There's also a page on Campus Watch for students to submit complaints about their teacher's pedagogical treason. The project is designed, says Middle East Forum director Daniel Pipes, to push ideas that are "outside the bounds of mainstream discourse" off college campuses. His message to professors of Middle East studies: "Be careful. You should behave yourself."

Pipes' enemies list is one of the latest firefights in the battle over the Middle East that's being waged with passionate intensity on campuses across North America, and it's further evidence of how nasty and polarized the debate has become. Colleges might be the ideal place to hash out the myriad entangled issues and competing narratives of the impossible Israeli situation, but all too often, the loudest voices belong to partisans on each side trying desperately to shut each other up. With depressing predictability, political tragedy abroad has metastasized into petty culture war in the schools.

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The human rights disaster in the occupied territories is the latest radical chic cause, and some college activists have mobilized against the Israeli occupation by setting up mock checkpoints and Palestinian graveyards on campus, donning kafiyehs with all the histrionic self-righteousness of '60s students draping themselves in the Viet Cong flag. Meanwhile, a few Jewish students and professors declare that critiquing Zionism is tantamount to bigotry, and neoconservatives have seized on Sept. 11 to excoriate tenured fifth columnists, their longtime bêtes noires. Speakers on both sides of the issue have been driven from campuses; partisans on both sides have gotten death threats. Anti-Semitic violence is up; so are baseless accusations of anti-Semitism. While Campus Watch claims that pro-Israel, pro-American voices are silenced by a professoriate steeped in p.c. Marxism, the most passionate critics of the Israeli occupation are also finding themselves unwelcome at some universities.

The day after Campus Watch was launched, Harvard president Lawrence Summers denounced calls for the university to divest from Israel as anti-Semitic. Following a Sept. 9 student riot that prevented former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu from speaking at Montreal's Concordia University, the administration imposed a moratorium on Middle East-related political activity, canceling a speech by the left-wing anti-Zionist Norman Finkelstein. At SUNY New Paltz, the administration has denied a women's studies conference funding for the first time in 15 years because of the politics of the keynote speakers: Dr. Ruchama Marton, president of Israel's Physicians for Human Rights and a passionate critic of Israeli policy, and Palestinian writer Nadia Hijab. The University of South Florida is trying to fire computer science professor Sami Al-Arian for his pro-Palestinian activities, claiming a think tank he headed fronted for terrorists.

It's a battle to make the political correctness standoffs of the 1990s seem positively decorous, and one that brings all sorts of volatile issues to the fore, including the meaning of anti-Semitism, the role of the university and the validity of the theoretical Third-Worldism that dominates much undergraduate education.

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Rashid Khalidi, an Oxford-trained University of Chicago professor who is one of Campus Watch's targets, calls Pipes and his associates "intellectual thugs." They're "bitter at the fact that their extreme views are not shared by most people in the field," Khalidi says, "and they're taking revenge ... They don't want to have certain things said. They want to make sure the people who try and say them are intimidated."

Khalidi is not wrong. To the people behind Campus Watch, the current conflagration in the Middle East is an opportunity to try to undo the trends that have dominated scholarship for the past three decades. Universities, Pipes believes, should be the helpmeet of the state, rather than its chief critic. "The university as a bastion of adversarial culture is something we take issue with," he says. Instead, he says, it should "be pulling its weight in helping the country."

Pipes has a Ph.D. from Harvard and is the author of 11 books, including the recent "Militant Islam Reaches America." Yet the professors he attacks say he's an outsider in the field. "The Middle East Forum is not really a forum. Somebody rich in the community has set [Pipes] up with a couple of offices and a fax machine and calls him a director," says Juan Cole, a Campus Watch target and professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Michigan. "They put out this Middle East Quarterly. It publishes scurrilous attacks on people. There's no scholarship. It's a put-up job. As for Pipes himself, let's just say that he's not a full professor at a major university." Indeed, aside from Pipes, the Middle East Forum has a single researcher, whose job, according to the Web site, extends into fundraising.

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Instead of the university, Pipes has made his home in the neoconservative movement. A veteran of Ronald Reagan's State Department, Pipes is a member of the Defense Department's Special Task Force on Terrorism and Technology and an adjunct scholar at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a hawkish think tank whose board of advisors includes Richard Perle and Jeanne Kirkpatrick.

He would like to see academia look more like the circles he travels in. According to the Campus Watch Web site, we should be worried that "American scholars of the Middle East, to varying degrees, reject the views of most Americans and the enduring policies of the U.S. government about the Middle East." Right now, he argues, the university should be "helpful in fighting the war. "Our premise is that there's a problem in the university. The primary cause of that problem is the Middle East studies faculty," Pipes says. "There are many manifestations of the problem, such as almost uniform point of view, an unwillingness to tolerate other points of view, a tendency towards extremism, alienation from the United States and American interests [and] abuse of power vis-a-vis students who don't share this point of view. They don't like being challenged. We're saying: 'Get used to it.'"

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Pipes' rhetoric and methods, with their deliberate echoes of past ideological witch hunts, are clearly meant to chill. Yet there's one thing that makes the issue more complicated than ordinary right-wing hysteria over intellectual decadence: Some of what Pipes says is true.

His rants against terrorist-loving tenured radicals are deceptive, but there's plenty of evidence behind his insistence that some pro-Israel Jewish students feel abused by teachers and peers fighting for the Palestinian cause.

According to Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, the intimidation is worldwide. "I'm one of the very, very few professors around the United States that vigorously speaks up on behalf of Israel, and I have gotten e-mails and calls from all over the world from students who feel chilled because no one speaks up for them."

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Campus Watch is dishonest to lump Khalidi, whose arguments are radical but also lucid, humane and erudite, with the demagogic Berkeley graduate student Snehal Shingavi, who warned: "Conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections" in the course description for his class, "The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance." (After a national outcry, the administration forced him to remove the notice). Unfortunately, though, Shingavi may be as representative as Khalidi is of pro-Palestinian activism on campus.

At least, that's what pro-Israel Berkeley student Oren Lazar thinks. "There are definitely times when it's hard to be Jewish on campus, when Students for Justice in Palestine has one of their angry rallies," he says.

Lazar, a senior in political science who teaches a class in modern Israeli history, defiantly signed up for Shingavi's course. According to Lazar, the only historical framework used in the class is a book by Palestinian activist and literary critic Edward Said. The teacher's refusal to introduce an Israeli perspective is "an example of bias and intolerance of different points of view," Lazar says. "It creates an atmosphere where anti-Semitism is tolerated."

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And, in fact, unambiguous anti-Semitism is cropping up nationwide. At Berkeley, Lazar says that a demonstrator at a campus Students for Justice in Palestine rally, held, tactfully, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, shouted, "Go Back to Germany!" at him. This spring, someone painted "Fuck the Jews" on Cal's Hillel building and threw a brick through the building's window. At San Francisco State in May, a flyer put out by a campus Muslim group had pictures of soup cans, with the slogan, "canned Palestinian children meat, slaughtered according to Jewish rites under American license." At the University of Colorado at Boulder, swastikas were recently sprayed on succah, wooden canopies built for the autumn Jewish holiday Succoth. Sam Peltzman, an economics professor at the University of Chicago who has been an informal liaison with aggrieved Jewish students, reports that when a yarmulke-wearing student stood up to ask a question at a lecture on the Middle East, someone shouted, "Jew, sit down!"

Lazar insists there's a link between such acts of hate and teaching that overemphasizes Palestinian suffering. "A great number of professors present the Middle East with a biased and misinformed perspective," Lazar says. "It creates an atmosphere that allows hate and anti-Semitism to rise. What we need now from our professors is an even-sided view of the conflict, rather than just to negate one side altogether."

Yet the link that Lazar speaks of -- and which forms the foundation of Pipes' argument -- raises the question of who is to decide what a fair view of the conflict is, since just about any view is going to leave someone feeling ostracized. Where is the line between a professor teaching the painful, contested facts of the occupation and being anti-Israel -- or anti-Jewish? After all, Jewish activists have accused a range of news media that show Israel in a bad light -- including CNN and the New York Times -- of being prejudiced. At the University of Chicago, a student cited the presence of Israeli new historian Benny Morris on a syllabus as an example of a professor's anti-Israel slant, while Lazar admires Morris and teaches him in his Israeli history class. So even students angry about anti-Israel bias can't agree on what that bias entails.

According to Dershowitz, anti-Semitism doesn't lie in what's said about Israel, but in the fact that campus radicals are obsessed with the country while ignoring the crimes of far worse regimes, from China to Iraq. "I want to divest in order of how bad a country's human rights record is," says Dershowitz. "These people don't want to divest from Cuba, they want to invest. They don't want to divest from Libya, they want to invest in Libya. They don't care about human rights. They have countries they support and countries they despise."

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In some cases, that's undoubtedly true -- but even that isn't evidence of anti-Semitism. More likely, it derives from the fact that Israel is a first-world Western country intimately connected to the United States. "What's driving it is a very naive version of Marxism which says that if you see somebody who is down, its because somebody who is up has pushed him down," says Peltzman. "In the case of the Middle East, the Israelis are an arm of Western global capitalism, pushing down the downtrodden Palestinians."

Whether the view Peltzman mocks is indeed naive Marxism or a truth obscured by the blinkered mainstream media is exactly the kind of thing that should be debated at universities. Unfortunately, that debate gets more fraught by the week, as official condemnations make far-reaching critiques of Israel professionally perilous.

Speaking at Memorial Church last week, Lawrence Summers, Harvard's president, said that some protests against Israel are "anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent." Some of the acts he singled out were indeed indefensible, like the firing of Israeli scholars from European journals taking part in an ill-conceived academic boycott. But he went further, defining the campaign to divest from Israel as anti-Semitic, regardless of the motivations of the people behind it.

Such a definition comforts students like Lazar, but it stigmatizes a position that many rational, tolerant people hold. The comparison between Israel and South Africa -- implicit in discussion of divestment -- might not be correct, but it's not crazy.

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A May report from the Israeli Human Rights group B'tslem says: "Israel has created in the Occupied Territories a regime of separation based on discrimination, applying two separate systems of law in the same area and basing the rights of individuals on their nationality. This regime is the only one of its kind in the world, and is reminiscent of distasteful regimes from the past, such as the Apartheid regime in South Africa."

Similarly, in an April speech in Boston, Nobel Prize-winning Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who knows a thing or two about apartheid, said: "I've been very deeply distressed in my visit to the Holy Land; it reminded me so much of what happened to us black people in South Africa."

It's perfectly fair for Summers to argue that Tutu, like the 59 Harvard professors who signed the divestment petition, is misguided, even stupid, that Israel is nothing like racist South Africa. But to charge Tutu with anti-Semitism -- to assume that his criticism of Israeli policy can be motivated by nothing but bigotry -- is to say such ideas don't belong in a civilized institution.

Which, in the end, is exactly what Pipes is saying. "I want Noam Chomsky to be taught at universities about as much as I want Hitler's writing or Stalin's writing," he says. "These are wild and extremist ideas that I believe have no place in a university."

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Amid all this name-calling, though, hope for academic openness remains. Rather than responding to Pipes' animosity with escalating hysteria, many academics are simply laughing at Pipes' enemies list. "It's truly shameful ... that I'm not yet on the list," deadpans Finkelstein. Dozens of others have written to Pipes saying the same thing.

"In the last analysis, people don't like thought police," says Khalidi, explaining why he thinks Pipes' project is doomed. "The idea of un-Americanism has been discredited in American culture."


Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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