Joseph Massad on the witch-hunt at Columbia University
Source Louis Proyect
Date 05/06/04/03:16

Counterpunch, June 3, 2005
Witch Hunt at Columbia
Targeting the University


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 work.

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 "guilty" professors.

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.

Joseph Massad is assistant professor of modern Arab politics and
intellectual history at Columbia University.

This article originally appeared in Al-Ahram.

[View the list]

InternetBoard v1.0
Copyright (c) 1998, Joongpil Cho