As yet more evidence that academics are regularly able to engage in what George Orwell sardonically referred to as “doublethink,” “the power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them,” this month 40 professors of Jewish studies published a denunciation of a study that named professors who have been identified as expressing “anti-Israel bias, or possibly even antisemitic rhetoric.”
While the 40 academic “heavyweights” claim they, of course, reject anti-Semitism totally as part of teaching, they were equally repelled by the tactics and possible effects of the AMCHA Initiative report, a comprehensive review of the attitudes about Israel of some 200 professors who signed an online petition during the latest Gaza incursion that called for an academic boycott against Israeli scholars—academics the petitioners claimed were complicit in the “latest humanitarian catastrophe caused by Israel’s new military assault on the Gaza Strip.”
“We believe the professors who have signed this petition may be so biased against the Jewish state that they are unable to teach accurately or fairly about Israel or the Arab-Israel conflict, and may even inject antisemitic tropes into their lectures or class discussion,” wrote Tammi Rossman-Benjamin and Leila Beckwith, co-founders of the AMCHA Initiative and authors of the report.
Calling “the actions of AMCHA deplorable,” the indignant professors were insulted by the organization’s “technique of monitoring lectures, symposia and conferences,” something which, they believe, “strains the basic principle of academic freedom on which the American university is built.” That is a rather breathtaking assertion by academics; namely, that it is contrary to the core mission of higher education that ideas and instruction being publicly expressed by professors cannot be examined and judged, and that by even applying some standards of objectivity on a body of teaching by a particular professor “AMCHA’s approach closes off all but the most narrow intellectual directions and,” as academics who do not want the content of their output to actually be examined for the quality of its scholarship are always fond of saying, “has a chilling effect on research and teaching.”
Only in the inverted reality of academia could a group of largely Jewish professors denounce a study which had as its core purpose to alert students to professors who have demonstrated, publicly and seemingly proudly, that they harbor anti-Israel attitudes, attitudes which unfortunately frequently morph into anti-Semitic thought and speech as part of discussions about Israel and the Middle East. Since the individuals named in the report teach in the area of Middle East studies, they are also likely to bring that anti-Israel bias into the classroom with them, and students, therefore, would obviously benefit from AMCHA’s report.
Specifically, it shows which professors have demonstrated that they bring to their teaching a clear bias against the Jewish state, and in fact have gone even further with that enmity by mobilizing as part of the global BDS movement to turn Israeli academics in intellectual pariahs by excluding them from the intellectual marketplace of ideas. Not Syrian academics; not Iranian academics; not North Korean academics; not Saudi Arabian academics; not the scholars of many other countries with despotic regimes and a prevailing absence of human and civil rights, not to mention academic freedom. Only Israeli academics.
Can anyone believe that had the AMCHA Initiative or other organization issued a report that revealed the existence of endemic racism, or homophobia, or sexism, or Islamophobia in university coursework, and had warned students who might be negatively impacted to steer clear of courses taught by those offending professors, that these same 40 feckless professors would have denounced such reports as potentially having a negative effect on teaching and learning? That they would question the motives of the organization that published the report? That they would deem the research and publication of such reports as being “McCarthyesque” or somehow undermining the civility of higher education by actually holding academics responsible for some of the intellectually deficient or corrupt ideologies to which they adhere and which they are more than happy to hoist on others—including, of course, their students.
Why should a professor’s political attitudes not be known to students, especially, as in this case, when those anti-Israel attitudes are extremely germane to their area of teaching, namely Middle East studies? The AMCHA researchers did not furtively investigate the private lives of the 200 professors, nor did they delve through their association memberships, reading habits, or private writings without the professors’ knowledge or consent. They were not spied upon and their courses taped by students.
The findings were based on the public utterances and writings of the professors, behavior and attitudes they apparently had no problem with making public and for which they were not hesitant to take responsibility. In fact, as often happens when anti-Israel academics are called upon to defend their libels and intellectual assaults against the Jewish state, they wish to freely pontificate on the many predations of Israel but do not like to be inconvenienced by being challenged on those often biased, and intellectually dishonest, views by others with opposing viewpoints.
Instead of defending their assertions and ideologies, they retreat from the argument, contending, at least in the Israeli/Palestinian discussion, that when their views are challenged, it is not done in good faith—an actual scholarly debate—but only as a way of suppressing their opinions, derailing their pro-Palestinian activism, and sheltering Israel from what they believe is justifiable and necessary criticism.
And there is another, more psychologically interesting aspect to a group of Jewish professors opposing a study that attempted to protect Jewish students and others from the pernicious effects of anti-Semitism in coursework, an aspect that Harvard’s insightful Ruth Wisse dealt with in her book, If I Am Not For Myself: The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews: the professors attacked the AMCHA study specifically because it deals with Israel, and how academia reacts to the debate about the Jewish state and its surrounding Arab neighbors. Rather than confront the lies and distortions promulgated by the Arab world against Israel over its alleged racism, apartheid, settlements, and lack of a just solution to the occupation, anti-Israel liberal Jews completely accept the spurious new narrative of Israel being the sole villain, and in fact often abet it with their own condemnations of the Jewish state. For Wisse, this behavior could “more accurately be described as the desire to disassociate oneself from a people under attack by advertising one’s own goodness,” a psychological pattern that has manifested itself conspicuously on campuses and seems to be at play in the current instance with the Jewish Studies professors. So worried are the 40 professors that by defending a report exposing academic anti-Semitism they will somehow be seen to be complicit in defending Israel, they would rather denounce the report and expose Jewish students to potential harm than stand up for principles that might tarnish their liberal credentials.
The signatories were also skeptical about the guidelines used by AMCHA to gauge instances of anti-Semitism and an acceptable definition by which campus speech, teaching, publications, and events could be judged to include manifestations of anti-Semitism and not just vituperation and critique of Israel—as anti-Israel activists regularly claim. AMCHA’s “definition of antisemitism is so undiscriminating as to be meaningless,” the professors’ statement asserted, ignoring the fact that AMCHA based its own definition on earlier working definitions of anti-Semitism carefully developed by the U.S. State Department, the European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (now the Fundamental Rights Agency), and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under the Law, among others.
And the professors also claim, without bothering to support the accusation with any proof, that AMCHA’s report—intent on exposing anti-Semitism in speech and behavior that can and has created a hostile campus environment for Jewish students—will somehow contribute to contracting, rather than enlarging, scholarly debate. In their zeal to preempt the insulating force of their notion of “academic freedom,” they seek to deprive those with alternate views of the same rights and protection; that is, while they want their fellow academics to be able to utter any calumny against the Jewish state and suffer no recriminations for their speech, even when it crosses the line into anti-Semitic expression, these professors view any speech from those challenging their views to be oppressive, stifling, and unacceptable. In fact, the professors contend, “Instead of encouraging openness through its efforts, AMCHA’s approach . . . has a chilling effect on research and teaching,” absurdly suggesting that excluding anti-Semitism from pro-Palestinian activism and teaching constricts scholarship and debate to “all but the most narrow intellectual directions.”
It is not as if campuses are unaware of the prevailing sensitivities of groups who are normally considered to be protected classes—black students, gay students, Muslim students, Hispanics, among others. Just this month, in a breathtaking act of moral incoherence, Britain’s National Union of Students (NUS) voted against condemning ISIS after the Black Students Officer, Malia Bouattia, opposed the motion, not because students did not have sincere concern for Syrians and Kurds being slaughtered, but because “condemnation of ISIS appears to have become a justification for . . . blatant Islamophobia.” In April, the Fifth Annual Conference on Islamophobia was held at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Law School, organized by Hatem Bazian, a Palestinian activist, co-founder of Students for Justice in Palestine, and professor of a current Berkeley course called “De-Constructing Islamophobia and the History of Otherness,” with part of the course requirements being that students open a Twitter account and tweet at least once a week about “Islamophobia.”
None of the Jewish Studies professors seemed to be concerned with investigations of purported instances of Islamophobia on campus and elsewhere, and how exposing those occurrences might lead to a stifling of someone’s academic free speech or “chilling” of scholarly debate. In fact, FBI statistics indicate that acts of anti-Semitism occur with eight times the regularity of anti-Muslim incidents, and that between 2011 and 2012 alone, the number of anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses tripled.
So regardless of how significant the professors seem to think the problem of anti-Semitism actually is, and whether they wish to minimize the virulence of anti-Semitism because they insist on conflating it with, and making it part of, the furious academic debate about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the AMCHA report shows us that the “oldest hatred” is still with us, creeping noxiously up the ivy walls.