Critics of pro-Israel lobby hold parley

Former DePaul professor Norman Finkelstein speaks at conference on academic freedom on Oct. 12, 2007. The gathering at the University of Chicago was sponsored by DePaul University's Academic Freedom Committee. (Chris Salata)

Former DePaul professor Norman Finkelstein speaks at conference on academic freedom on Oct. 12, 2007. The gathering at the University of Chicago was sponsored by DePaul University’s Academic Freedom Committee. (Chris Salata)

CHICAGO (JTA) – Collectively they have published more than a hundred books and countless articles. Four are tenured professors at elite American universities. Internet searches reveal them to be widely cited experts on international affairs and American foreign policy.

In short, it’s difficult to imagine a collection of academics more secure in their posts or more prominent.

But there they were – Noam Chomsky, John Mearsheimer, Tony Judt and fellow travelers – at a conference last week hosted by the University of Chicago warning that pressure from American Jewish groups is having a chilling effect on unpopular scholarship and free-wheeling debate on university campuses.

“Universities are the one place in the United States where Israel tends to get treated like a normal country,” said Mearsheimer, the University of Chicago professor and co-author of “The Israel Lobby,” which asserts that the pro-Israel community stifles debate over U.S. policy in the Middle East.

“Some find this situation intolerable,” he told a nearly packed 1,500-seat auditorium, “which causes them to work hard to stifle criticism of Israel and to instead promote a positive image of Israel on campuses.”

Barely a month into the academic year, university campuses are beset by controversies related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the related issue of American policy in the Middle East.

Last week, anti-Muslim posters were found at George Washington University in an apparent promotion for Islamo-Fascism Week, a week of events across the country that organizers are billing as the largest conservative campus protest ever.

The week before, the cancellation of an appearance by Archbishop Desmond Tutu at a Minnesota university caused an uproar, leading the university to reverse itself and reinvite Tutu to campus.

To many in the pro-Israel community, the Chicago conference featured a rogue’s gallery of Israel’s most vehement critics, a group that opponents say lavishes attention on the supposed crimes of the Jewish state while ignoring the terrorism directed at its citizens.

That many of the speakers are Jewish themselves hasn’t muted criticisms of their writings as anti-Semitic, self-hating and Nazi-sympathizing.

On Sunday, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, a pro-Israel media watchdog, will host a daylong conference on the subject titled “Israel’s Jewish Defamers.”

The Oct. 12 conference, titled “In Defense of Academic Freedom,” brought together not only Jews and non-Jews, but professors whose ideological differences are so vast they likely agree on little else than the notion that Jewish groups have degraded the quality and breadth of discussion in the media and in Washington.

Mearsheimer is a proponent of the realist school of international relations, which resists the intrusion of moral considerations into cold calculations of national interest. Chomsky’s belief that American policy in the Middle East is motivated solely by imperialist aggression is greatly informed by the moral consequences of American behavior.

Nevertheless, they came together around the view that universities are the final redoubts of robust criticism of Israel. Naturally, they added, these institutions are now coming under assault.

“It’s a reversal of the real situation,” said Daniel Pipes, director of Campus Watch, an academic watchdog group that was cited several times by conference speakers as one of the forces allegedly suppressing academic freedom.

Pipes noted that when he speaks at universities, he does so under intense police protection and is frequently interrupted by hecklers.

“When I go on universities, I can barely give a talk,” Pipes told JTA. “Whose academic freedom is being infringed? Noam Chomsky doesn’t have this problem, I do. David Horowitz does. Ann Coulter does. Benjamin Netanyahu does.”

The Chicago parley was most immediately inspired by the case of Norman Finkelstein, a vigorous critic of Israeli policy and the author of the controversial books “The Holocaust Industry” and “Image and Reality of the Israel-Palestine Conflict.”

Finkelstein was recommended for tenure at DePaul University by his department and the college-level tenure committee, but the school’s dean overruled them following a concerted campaign against him led by prominent Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz.

Mearsheimer professed to not always seeing eye to eye with Finkelstein on Israel, but nevertheless supported his application for tenure and delivered an impassioned defense of his scholarly credentials. Denial of tenure, Mearsheimer claimed in his speech last week, only has one possible explanation: outside pressure from the pro-Israel community.

“There’s no other plausible explanation for the top administrator’s decision to override the recommendations of the political science department and the college-wide tenure committee,” Mearsheimer said.

For those at the conference, Finkelstein has become Exhibit A in the case against what they see as the pernicious effect of Jewish pressure on universities. Speakers mentioned other tenure battles, including the one now being fought over Nadia Abu El-Haj at Barnard College in New York City, and plenty of instances of failed attempts to have controversial professors fired.

No other examples were presented, however, to buttress the claim that pro-Israel groups had made any significant headway in blocking professorial appointments.

Akeel Bilgrami, a tenured professor of philosophy at Columbia, reviewed the furor that descended upon his university a few years ago when Jewish students and “McCarthyite” groups accused several professors of intimidating and harassing pro-Israel students. A committee concluded there was no evidence of anti-Semitism, and the accused professors continue to teach at Columbia.

Neve Gordon, a tenured professor of politics at Ben Gurion University in Israel, said professors in his country enjoyed much greater freedom to discuss Middle East issues than their counterparts in the United States. He further observed that had Finkelstein been teaching at Ben Gurion, he would have received tenure.

Gordon said the main pressure involving his own controversial words came from outside Israel. In a letter to the university’s president at the time, the Zionist Organization of America urged Avishay Braverman to withdraw support for Gordon, citing several examples of his writings, including those in which he called Israel’s separation barrier an “apartheid wall.”

The ZOA warned that it intends “to make our members – many of whom are supporters of Ben-Gurion University – aware of Neve Gordon’s activities and of his position on the faculty of the university.”

Gordon is a visiting professor this academic year at the University of Michigan.

“Academic freedom does not mean a physicist can say E=mc3,” the president of the ZOA, Morton Klein, told JTA.

Mearsheimer and Judt both said their universities generally have been supportive and not caved to outside pressures.

Chomsky, a tenured professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was unable to attend in person because of his wife’s illness. In videotaped remarks to open the conference, Chomsky offered his own explanation for what he described as efforts to suppress Middle East and peace studies departments.

“State power is focused on the war in the Middle East, so impediments have to be removed and conformist subservience to those in power has to be ensured in these areas,” Chomsky said. Middle East and peace studies departments are targets since they are “inherently subversive if they’re at all serious.”

Judt, a tenured professor at New York University and author of the controversial essay “Israel: The Alternative”– it called the idea of a Jewish state an “anachronism” – cited two examples in which he was disinvited to speak at universities because of his views on the Middle East.

In one instance, Judt said he was asked not to mention Israel in his speech – he turned down the invitation rather than comply. In the other, the Jewish studies instructor who issued the invitation backed out, saying that if the event went forward, the instructor’s tenure might be at risk as a result of outside pressure on the the university.

“Universities are very vulnerable – that’s clear,” Judt said.

Judt also dismissed the argument made often by Israel’s defenders that the pro-Israel lobby is but one of many interest groups in Washington. The pro-Israel lobby is the only one, Judt suggested, that denies its own existence.

“That makes it a different kind of lobby,” he said. “It exists in part to silence as well as to voice. And it operates, of course, through a particularly unpleasant moral leverage – the leverage that comes out of being able to accuse someone of anti-Semitism.”

The conference, held inside the University of Chicago’s soaring Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, was sponsored by the DePaul Academic Freedom Committee, a group set up amid the controversy over Finkelstein. Its pews were filled nearly to capacity throughout the five-hour conference.

The Chicago chapter of Jewish Voices for Peace, listed as one of 10 other co-sponsors, was given a special mention by Tariq Ali, the conference chair.

Finkelstein, who spoke last and received a standing ovation as he approached the podium, chose not to discuss the conference topic but to defend his occasional recourse to uncivil speech – a transgression of which he has often been accused and one that even his regular defenders acknowledge sometimes gets him in trouble.

Finkelstein said there is never an excuse for incivility in the classroom; professors should seek to teach, not argue for a position. But outside the university they have the same rights as anyone else, including the right to outraged expression.

“My own experience has been that young people in particular, they yearn for persons in authority to speak the unvarnished truth and give expression to the moral indignation warranted by the occasion,” Finkelstein said. “There are moments that require breaking out of constraints of polite discourse to sound the alarm that innocent people are being butchered while we speak due to the actions of our government.”

Still, Finkelstein called the whole argument over civility a “red herring,” considering “indubitable war criminals” like Henry Kissinger and Donald Rumsfeld have been offered posts at prestigious universities.

Focusing on civility is a “meaningless sideshow, or just a transparent pretext for denying a person the right to teach on account of his political beliefs.”

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