Even before Daniel Pipes arrived at the University of Oklahoma for a speech this week, his opponents were waiting for him.
The Oklahoma Daily campus paper carried two letters to the editor on Tuesday blasting Campus Watch, a Web site Pipes created that monitors professors and institutions it deems anti-Israeli or anti-American.
A college campus in an uproar over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nothing new. What is new is the furor created by last month’s launch of Campus Watch and, the next day, a speech by Harvard President Lawrence Summers warning that anti-Israel movements on university campuses smacked of anti-Semitism.
Opponents of Israel on campus say Israel backers are trying to limit their free speech.
“The organizational campaign to silence academic criticism of Israel is incompatible with the cherished American values of free speech and inquiry,” the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said in a statement last week.
In the Oklahoma Daily, a letter to the editor signed by 19 history professors — out of 26 in the department — echoed the sentiment.
Groups like Campus Watch inhibit the “free and open exchange of ideas and beliefs,” the writers said. “Indeed, compiling dossiers on professors and universities threatens to poison the climate of intellectual engagement at a time when we urgently need measured discussion and debate.”
Another letter — signed by just one member of the history department, who helped coordinate Pipes’ visit — applauded Campus Watch for fighting “false speech.”
According to Norman Stillman, director of Jewish studies at the University of Oklahoma, critics who protested Tuesday’s speech by Pipes — director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum — were in fact the ones guilty of “intellectual fascism.”
Their criticism of Pipes, in the name of free speech, “has this ‘1984’ quality, that war is peace and hate is love and so on. Things are turned on their heads,” Stillman said. “By blacklisting or shunning anyone who holds different views, they put a complete damper on free speech.”
One Jewish studies professor who asked to remain anonymous, said universities’ Arab-dominated Middle Eastern studies departments routinely blacklist Jewish or pro-Israel scholars.
“Most students know that given the nature of the field, they have very little chance if they don’t hold certain views,” the professor said.
Pipes and a few other scholars heightened their critique of Middle East studies in America after Sept. 11, arguing that political correctness led many scholars to apologize for Muslim antagonism toward the West or justify violence against America and Israel.
Since the intifada began two years ago, a number of faculty members have joined campus protests against Israel or used their classrooms to blast the Jewish state.
In one notorious case, a graduate student at the University of California at Berkeley offered a course glorifying the Palestinian cause and made it clear that students with opposing views were not welcome.
Anti-Israel protests on campus have grown increasingly ugly, with Israel routinely compared to Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa and anti-Jewish blood libels revived.
It was in that context that Summers lashed out at the anti-Israel movement on college campuses.
“Where anti-Semitism and views that are profoundly anti-Israeli have traditionally been the primary preserve of poorly educated right-wing populists, profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities,” he said. “Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti- Semitic in their effect if not their intent.”
He singled out the movement to force universities to divest their holdings in Israel — similar to an effort against South Africa’s apartheid government in the 1980s — while raising no objections to investments in countries with far worse human rights records.
While Summers’ speech drew criticism from many — The Harvard Crimson called it “disingenuous and divisive” — it also had many supporters.
It even has had a small ripple effect among other university presidents.
Lawrence Bacow, president of Tufts University, praised Summers.
“University presidents ought to raise important questions, and I think he has,” Bacow was quoted as saying in The New York Times.
“You’ll see more debate as a result of Summers’ remarks than you would have otherwise. It’s catalytic,” agreed Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, president of George Washington University.
“It is possible to criticize” Israeli “Prime Minister Sharon without hating Israel or hating Jews,” he added, but “I think there is much truth” to Summers’ charge that the anti-Israel movement verges on the anti-Semitic.
At the University of Michigan, a major Palestinian solidarity conference is planned for Oct. 12-14 that calls for divestment from Israel, equates Zionism with racism and refuses to condemn Palestinian terrorism.
University President Mary Sue Coleman issued a statement last week rejecting the divestment call.
Summers “speaking out has made it easier for other college presidents to speak out as well,” said Jeffrey Ross, director of campus and higher education affairs at the Anti-Defamation League.
“What’s happened is that a major voice has appeared on the side of reason,” Ross said. “The fact that it comes from the president of Harvard University” makes it “a voice that can’t be ignored.”
The argument that criticism from the likes of Summers and Pipes is designed to stifle free speech might sway some students and faculty.
But “when things are perceived as hate speech, free speech doesn’t apply to the same degree,” Ross said.
“The fact that anti-Israel forces are howling about this is indicative of their concern that this is having a real effect,” he said.
Jeff Rubin, communications director for Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, agreed that Summers’ speech effectively “raised the issue of anti-Semitism on the campus to a national audience.”
But, he said, “regardless of whether divestment is anti-Semitic or not, it’s part of a whole web of anti-Israel activities that are unsettling the campuses and that we are working to oppose.”
The professor who helped start the divestment petition at Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said Summers’ remarks have helped his efforts.
The divestment effort “might have died on the vine,” said Ken Nakayama, a Harvard psychology professor. “Thanks to president Summers, we are now gaining more attention.”
Nakayama modeled the divestment petition after one at Princeton University, one of about 40 circulating at universities nationwide.
Summers’ office declined to comment on the reaction to his speech.
For his part, Pipes has grown used to being branded a fascist and a dupe of the Sharon government. He gives a speech about every two days, Pipes said, and the only the times he needs security is at his university engagements.
“I go through back doors and loading docks,” and in “some cases those wanting to attend my talks go through airplane style metal detectors. That is a sign for me of how badly things have degenerated” on campus, Pipes said. “These are islands of repression in a sea of tolerance.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.