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Academic Freedom and the Debate Over Israel

This speech by Matthew Abraham, assistant professor in the Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse Department at DePaul University, was delivered at the Illinois AAUP annual meeting on April 14, 2007

In the last two years, I have learned more about academic freedom, and the threats that real dissent, and critical thought pose to academic elites, than I ever could from reading of hundreds of books about the subject. Let me explain: In December of 2005, I wrote a positive review of Norman’s Finkelstein’s Beyond Chutzpah: The Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, a book that as many of you know, is a thorough rebuttal of Alan Dershowitz’s The Case for Israel, which scaled the heights of the New York Times Best Seller list, receiving praise from the likes of Henry Louis Gates Jr., Ariel Sharon, Elie Wiesel, and Mario Cuomo. Dershowitz wrote a complaint letter to the journaleditors about my review, dated November 29, 2005. The first few lines of that letter read as follows:
“It is difficult to write a rebuttal against a writer whose own article so readily discredits itself. Matthew Abraham, an English  professor, uses such outlandish and intemperate language, makes such wild historical fabrications, and parrots so many verifiably false accusations, that I cannot help but suspect that he has written his review of Norman Finkelstein’s Beyond Chutzpah as an example for his students on how not to write well. His article reads like a cheap agitprop parody. Before I begin, then, I will let Abraham, the Rachel Corrie Courage in Teaching Award winner, speak for himself.”
On December 6th, 2005 I was sitting in the office of my department chair at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where I was employed until last year. My chair had been alerted to the fact that I had written the review of Beyond Chutzpah through an email he had received from the university’s grants coach, who sent the link of my review to him with no subject line or message. Given that my chair mentioned this to me during my retention meeting when we were talking about my teaching, publications, service, and progress toward tenure, signified—in my mind—that the grant’s coach contact was noteworthy.  Otherwise why would my chair have bothered mentioning it to me? After telling me that he found the tone of my review essay too “polemical,” he nearly insisted that I stop writing on the Finkelstein-Dershowitz controversy altogether. The conversation that ensued was interesting: the chair stated that while he sympathized with the kind of work I was trying to do, he cautioned me, mentioning that if I persisted in “engaging in controversy,” I’d “activate the university’s immune system, triggering the production of the system’s antibodies, and be carried away like a foreign body.” When I asked, “Are you suggesting that I focus on less controversial and relevant issues in my scholarship?” he answered with an emphatic “Yes.”
I asked my chair if the grants coach might be circulating the review among upper-level UT administrators in an attempt to catch their attention, alerting to them that I was a renegade faculty who might hurt the university’s interests in the long run. The head assured me that the grants coach was not that kind of person. As Scott Sherman’s Nation article, entitled “Target Ford,” recently documented: the grant making world has been corrupted by the power politics governing understandings of the Middle East conflict in the United States. For example, Ford Foundation grant recipients now must sign an agreement pledging not to engage in research or activities that would result in the destruction of any state—a clear reference to one state in particular, Israel. This change in grant making language has had a chilling effect on the types of research activities scholars can pursue. To argue, for example, that Israel should become a bi-national state, which would disturb its Jewish character, would technically exclude someone from receiving a Ford Foundation grant because one would in effect be arguing that Israel does not have a right to exist as a state devoted to the preservation of a Jewish majority.
Well, I was concerned about what my chair had told me about grants coach cryptic contact about my review, so I contacted the Associate Dean of academic personnel, with whom I made an appointment to discuss the matter. When I met with this associate dean in early December 2006, she noted that, while the grants coach had every right to alert my department chair about my review, I also had every right to “test my thesis,” no matter how controversial. Unfortunately, that proved not to be the case. Six months later, not only was a substantial grant devoted to writing a book on the Dershowitz-Finkelstein case rescinded, but I was actively encouraged to take a job elsewhere. Remember, I simply wrote a positive review of Finkelstein’s book; I was not advancing a particularly provocative thesis of my own.  As I’ve learned, academic and intellectual freedom are frequently invoked but rarely taken seriously when it comes to protecting faculty in pursuing controversial scholarship.
While it pains me to have to point this out, it appears that the weak link in the battle to protect academic freedom and critical thinking may in fact be our faculty colleagues, many of whom are scared of the professional and very real material consequences that will ensue if they speak up and take a position to defend those doing controversial work; we must confront this painful reality for what it is. I do not want to discount the consequences that attend speaking up for colleagues doing controversial work. However, the penalties we face are quite small in comparison to the grave risks that our colleagues in Israel, the Occupied Territories, and Iraq face in not only telling the truth about the desperate conditions under which ordinary Palestinian and Iraqi citizens live, but to do the very research their academic institutions have hired them to do and what their professional training requires them to do. Indeed, Illan Pappe (The Israeli Historian) recently announced, he will be leaving his academic position in Haifa, Israel for Exeter University because of the daily death threats he and his family receive.
Regrettably, the temptation to become quiescent and docile within the academy is all too real.  The developing situation at DePaul with Norman Finkelstein’s tenure case highlights this problem in a very troubling way. For those of you who are unaware of the case, let me re-cap it briefly. In November, the tenured members of DePaul’s Political Science Department voted 9-3 in favor of Finkelstein’s tenure and promotion. In March, the College Personnel Committee voted 5-0, unanimously supporting the majority view of the Political Science Department. The Dean of the College, however, did not support Finkelstein’s tenure application because Finkelstein’s scholarship is, in his words, at odds with “Vincentian values and DePaul’s institutional mission.” Vincentian “personalism,” whereby individuals are able to respect those hold opposing views and respect the dignity of the individual, was specifically invoked to place Finkelstein’s scholarship beyond the pale. AAUP guidelines expressly prohibit the use of such elastic and vague criteria in tenure and promotion decisions. According to the AAUP, “limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims of the institution should be clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment.”
A letter protesting the Dean’s decision to withhold support for Finkelstein’s tenure was created by a group of academics from DePaul and other universities; the letter was circulated internationally, signed by over 700 people, and then sent to the provost and president of DePaul. Of the 17 DePaul faculty members who signed this letter, 9 were untenured. In other words, only eight tenured professors at DePaul signed a letter of protest in support of an embattled colleague whose academic freedom is under attack. How does one explain that? It often seems that those with the most protection and privilege are the least likely to speak out against injustices in their midst. Some of the excuses among those withholding support ranged from “I’m not familiar with Finkelstein’s scholarship” to “I don’t want to get involved.” This strikes me as a inadequate excuse in the context of this high-profile case since one does not have to be familiar with Finkelstein’s scholarship to protest against the serious breaches of protocol that have occurred to date. So, before attacking David Horowitz and Alan Dershowitz for attempting to influence the tenure process of embattled academics, I think we need to confront our faculty colleagues, asking them why they won’t uphold the importance of respecting faculty autonomy and academic freedom at this crucial historical moment, when critical thinking is under attack by the state and the mainstream media.
Derrick Bell, in his book Confronting Authority: Reflections of an Ardent Protester, writes:
“I have seen otherwise honorable faculty members engage in the most unscrupulous, underhanded conduct to avoid hiring or promoting individuals they did not wish to see admitted to their ranks. They have lied, maligned character, altered rules, manufactured precedents, and distorted policies. I am talking here about candidates for admission or tenure who are white, not minorities, candidates with impressive academic credentials, and the author of traditional scholarly work.
When the candidate is not a white man, and either has non-traditional
qualifications or departs from the traditional in scholarly subject matter and approach, the opposition can be as fierce as it is illogical and unfair. Relying on the presumption generally held by the public—and, alas, by most courts—that universities judge candidates fairly and certainly would not discriminate on the basis of race or gender, faculties unfurl the banners of merit, take the stands on the righteous ground of academic freedom, and make decisions that, however rationalized, serve to preserve those in power.”(76).
While race and gender are protected classes under state and federal law, political perspective or ideology is not considered a protected category. The case of Joseph Massad illustrates just how precarious academic freedom protections are when ethnic difference and a controversial political perspective become entwined.
Over the last three years, Massad, a Jordanian Palestinian and an untenured professor in Columbia’s MEALAC department, has defended himself against accusations of “pro-Palestinian” bias, which have been made by Columbia faculty and students, media pundits, and New York congressman Anthony Weiner. An ad hoc grievance committee was formed by Columbia President Lee Bollinger in 2003 to look into these allegations against Massad by the David Project, a Boston-based pro-Israel advocacy organization claiming to want to bring “balance” to discussions of the Middle East on college campuses. The grievances against Massad included: intimidation of students, bias in the presentation of material in his most controversial course, “Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies,” and intolerance of viewpoints different than his own. Many of the students who made these allegations, in the David Project film “Columbia Unbecoming,” were never enrolled in any of Massad’s courses; they were recruited by the David Project to make false allegations or to disrupt Massad’s classes as auditors. After a tumultuous three years, the ad hoc grievance committee found no basis for any of the accusations the David Project leveled against Massad. Just as a small example of the slanderous abuse Massad received from a faculty member at Columbia, consider this e-mail message from Dr. Moshe Rubin at Columbia’s medical school: “Go back to Arab land where Jew hating is condoned. Get the hell out of America. You are a disgrace and a pathetic Arab liar. Moshe Rubin.” Also, an e-mail message was sent to all Jewish students in the Middle East Languages and Asian Culture’s program at Columbia from an Israeli group called “United Trial Group—People’s Rights International” It read as follows:
“We advise you to immediately dismiss/kick ass of Joseph Goebbels, aka Joseph Massad based on the President Bush bill on anti-Semitism and according with the
US anti-terrorism law, describing Nazi propaganda and incitement to terror. If you and the administration won’t immediately dismiss the fascist bastard, you and the administration will be personally liable and accountable for aiding, abetting, and harboring this Muslim criminal, and subject to criminal prosecution in damages…. You have thirty days to comply and inform us.” (See: http://www.columbia.edu/cu/mealac/faculty/massad.)
Congressman Anthony Weiner led the charge against Massad in newspapers such as the New York Post, where he demanded that Bollinger immediately fire Massad for his alleged anti-Israel activism in the classroom. Massad rightly feared that his standing within the Columbia university community as a faculty member was being jeopardized due to the political interference emanating from outside of the university due the likes of Alan Dershowitz. As Massad claimed: “[he] was concerned that Bollinger may [have] well been making an academic judgment about him that [wa]s based not on [his] scholarship or pedagogy but on [his] politics and even [his] nationality.”
While the campaigners against me off this campus do not have the direct power to influence my future employment at Columbia, [Massad claimed] Bollinger clearly does, and therefore his failure to defend academic freedom is detrimental to my career and my job. I am further chilled in this regard by reports that at the recent general meeting of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, Bollinger sought to change the fifty-year tradition regarding how tenure cases are decided at Columbia when he stated that he and the trustees, in accordance with the statutes but in contravention of a fifty-year tradition, would want to have the final say in tenure cases in the future.
Imagine what would happen if a Jewish scholar’s views on the Israel-Palestine conflict were disqualified because, in the opinion of outside experts, he or she was too close to the conflict due to his or her ethnic-religious identity. Naturally, the outside interest group making the accusation would rightly be denounced for “anti-Semitism”. This accusation, however, has been leveled at Palestinian scholars of the Middle East, with little or no public outcry. Daniel Pipes, one of the creators of Campus Watch, claims that  “Middle East studies in the United States has become the preserve of Middle Eastern Arabs, who have brought their views with them. Membership in the Middle East Studies (MESA), the main scholarly association, is now 50 percent of Middle Eastern origin. Though American citizens, many of these scholars actively dissociate themselves from the United States, sometimes even in public.”(“The War on Academic Freedom” from The Nation, www.thenation.com/docprint.mhtml?i=20021125&s=mcneil).
What is the real crime of these scholars, many of whom are of Middle Eastern descent? They are teaching well-established scholarship on the Israel-Palestine conflict, which is at radical odds with popular and media knowledge that is upheld by the Israeli government and the Israel Lobby. As Columbia University’s Joseph Massad has identified, Israel’s apologists are attempting to substitute popular and media knowledge for academic scholarship under the guise of “balance,” while turning “the university into a mouthpiece of Israeli propaganda.”  For example, academic appointments at ivy league universities such as Yale and Columbia have been blocked or significantly interfered with by interest groups such as the ZOA, the David Project, and Campus Watch.
The recent controversy surrounding the publication of former President Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid represents an important moment in U.S. public discourse. By publicly addressing the Israeli government’s oppression of the Palestinian population in the Occupied Territories Carter has violated a taboo that has silenced most U.S. journalists, and much of American academia, for nearly thirty-eight years.
By using the word “apartheid” in the title of his book, Carter is drawing a clear comparison between how the Israeli government for nearly thirty-nine years with crucial U.S. support has enacted, through legal, economic, social, and military means a clear separation between its settler population in the West Bank and the indigenous Palestinian population and the legal, economic, social, and military means white South Africans employed to separate themselves from the indigenous Black population into the 1990s.
The public outcry against Carter in response to this comparison, which has extended from Hollywood to the inner corridors of power in Washington, is quite telling on a number of different levels: 1) This is the first time any president, either in office or out, has taken such a visible and strong public stand on the conflict; 2) Quite expectedly, organizations such as the ZOA, American Jewish Committee, and the Anti-Defamation League have furiously attacked Carter since the book’s publication, highlighting the fact that no U.S. citizen—even the mild-mannered Jimmy Carter—can speak out against the Israeli government’s criminal policies without facing a deafening chorus of allegations that one is an “anti-Semite,” a racist, or some sort of bigot; this issue is, as Edward Said argued toward the end of his life, the last remaining taboo in American life; 3) The reaction of the Democratic Party, which has distanced itself from Carter, tells us a lot about how U.S. political elites will fall over themselves to avoid being even remotely connected to anyone who shows even the slightest interest in addressing the issue.
Carter’s use of the word “apartheid” in the title of the book suggests that there is a racial component to the Israel-Palestine conflict that remains un-addressed. In numerous interviews, Carter has claimed that he used the word “apartheid” in the title to be provocative, provoke a debate, and facilitate a much-needed discussion about what is openly discussed in Israel and the rest of the world: Israel’s continued seizure of Palestinian land in the West Bank with tacit U.S support, which—rightly or wrongly—the Arab world uses a continued political grievance against the United States.
Why, Carter seems to ask, is there a veritable taboo on discussion of such issues in the United States? To compare the Palestinians struggle against Israeli occupation to the Black South African struggle against white colons creates an “epistemological vertigo” for American understandings of the conflict.  Given that American understandings of Israel’s founding do not normally extend beyond Leon Uris’s Exodus, it is unsurprising that a lynch-mob has formed to denounce and silence Jimmy Carter.
Unfortunately, since my work touches upon the Israel-Palestine conflict,  I have found myself in the last five years caught in this web of orientalist discourses I’ve briefly described in this talk. Because of these discourses, I am often asked if I am Palestinian or Jewish, implying that only someone who is Palestinian or Jewish would make the Israel-Palestine conflict a centerpiece of their scholarship and public intellectualism. Popular, and even academic categories for understanding even intellectual participants in discussions of the conflict have become so impoverished that sides must be drawn and partisanship immediately identified.
Advocating for a just resolution of the Israel-Palestine conflict does not have to entail a choice between being pro-Israel, pro-Jewish, or pro-Palestinian. As the PLO and Palestinian intellectuals have repeatedly expressed their solidarity with the victims of the Holocaust and the brave fighters of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, while denouncing the criminal logic of Zionism and Zionism’s deal, which seeks to make Zionist history and Jewish history one through Israeli history, critical scholars should seek to differentiate where popular discourse seeks to confuse. The only way that can happen is if we refuse to be intimidated by the antics of those who wish to shut down exchanges and conversations within the academy and beyond through silencing and intimidation.
Strong defense of academic freedom might well be the last form of resistance against the suppression of intellectual exchanges advocated by cultural commissars such as Daniel Pipes, Martin Kramer, Alan Dershowitz, David Horowitz, and other fellow travelers. Our success in counteracting the attacks on academic freedom very well depends upon the efforts of all of us.