Campus Watch in the Media
Interview with Professor Joshua Schreier – Unedited Transcript
Fringes Blog (publication at Vassar College)
Elizabeth London: Okay. So we're first interested to hear how you got into the field of study that you're in, in particular where your interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict arose out of.
Joshua Schreier: Okay. Well, that's actually a long history, and I'll try to be brief. When I graduated from college – I majored in history in college, with a concentration in Jewish history, which is what you do in the University of College, which is you have a specialty. And after I graduated from college I spent a year in Israel, so I didn't do any junior year thing, but afterwards I studied in a program to learn Hebrew. I saw it as a continuation of my Jewish Studies / Jewish history degree. And it's from there, although I didn't go directly into graduate school, but it's kind of out of that interest and that background that I decided to go into Middle Eastern history – into Middle Eastern Studies, I should say, because I wasn't decided on history yet. And so from there I went to NYU, and I never thought I would specialize as an academic, as an area of research in Israel, or Israel-Palestine, or anything like that. But I became very interested, even though I went in there kind of interested because of my time in Israel, I didn't think necessarily that would be my area of concentration in graduate school. And it wasn't. So that wasn't a big surprise necessarily, but I did end up studying Jews in Algeria and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa and the Muslim world. But I mean, I was interested – or, I didn't stop being interested, and it was part of our concentration in terms of learning the literature of the field. If you go into graduate school in Middle Eastern history now, you're necessarily going to have to get reasonably familiar with a certain number of the works that have been done on Israel-Palestine. So I became interested in that, and when I was coming out of graduate school, and looking for work, I always considered it would be a natural place, kind of an area of interest for teaching. So even if it wasn't going to be the research, it was going to be an area of teaching. So that's the kind of academic side of it. I don't know if you're interested in also – obviously, there's a personal history, where you –
EL: Yeah, we're quite interested in that.
JS: Okay! A big section – I shouldn't say a big section, but – a section of our family moved to Israel in the 60's. My grandma's brother, my great-uncle, moved there, and his kids moved there. I guess it was the late 60's, I think it was after the '67 war if I remember right, and so their successive generations were there, and so as a kid I think we visited – I know I only visited once, growing up. But they visited us a couple times. So there was always the family there, kind of a general interest. My family would not be described as particularly activist, you know Jewish or Zionist, you know it was reasonably secular, aside from big holidays. I was always the most interested, in my family, or more interested in things Jewish and then successively things Israeli. So I became really interested in that, and spending a year there was a real eye-opening experience. Not necessarily in the way that's predictable, though. I became very attached. Of the American side of the family, I was one of the more involved/interested young people at the time. So that's how I became interested in it, and I have to say that it was always a very personal attachment, and graduate school really made me reconsider a lot of… Well, I don't know. I always think about it as shuffling – you have different elements of your person, and your interests, and your sets of convictions, and it kind of forced a certain reconsideration of everything. Not necessarily eliminating things, at all, but kind of blending and trying to make things make sense. Does that help?
EL: Yeah, that's what we're interested in.
Jessica Belasco: Can you say a little more about what you just said, at the very end, about the shuffling?
JS: Well, you know in terms of my own personal interest, I never saw – and I guess it's embarrassing, but it shouldn't be embarrassing, because I don't think I'm perfectly alone in this – a contradiction between a nationalist ideology and a general commitment to human and civic and political rights for everyone. And while Israel has its own obviously unique experience, and every given political process and political situation does, it's certainly not the only nationalist project. And when you try to marry a general sense of what's right that's been largely formed on the political left side of the spectrum, which I consider myself very much the inheritor of, both grew up with but also – haven't really parted with at all. I mean, it's obviously changed, we're always changing, always changing, we're always agreeing and disagreeing, with parents, and previously held ideologies and ideas, etc. etc., we come under the spells and the influences… And that's good, that's change. But I never really saw that as ultimately a contradiction, that you would, let's say, oppose apartheid and oppose segregation in the United States, and you'd be in support of protected equal rights for women, which was an issue when I was younger, much more [it was an era of the ERA, etc.]. Maybe later on for gay rights, etc. Just a general sense that people shouldn't be deprived of rights for some sort of non-victimizing, basic quality of who they are, whether that be their gender, sexuality, race religion, national origin, etc. And when you contrast that with an ideology that accords rights according to one of these, that accord rights or privileges etc. etc. – I don't want to just emphasize rights, it's not just a question of rights. That's not the only way that privilege or exclusion is measured. Israel very much has held to that, I'm not saying it always will. But the Zionist project has been of emancipation, but for a very specific group of people, or certain groups of people I should say, and the way in which it has had to, given that general mission, it's been necessarily exclusive towards others. Murderously exclusive, at certain points. So there's a contradiction there. So when I talk about blending, I'm talking about – not necessarily, all of a sudden realizing, I have to change my basic opinions. It means adjusting the contingent of opinions. If you have basic opinions, and contingent opinions, it had to do with adjusting certain contingent opinions. In this case, how you can support a certain kind of political ideology. And I want to emphasize here – and I don't want to monopolize because you have other questions here – but to emphasize that there are opinions here that aren't specifically – Zionism has no monopology on these things. I think that there's a lot of ways in which you can say, well, if you have a critique of Zionism as a society that certainly just privileges certain ethnic/religious groups over others within one political polity, you know there's a similar critique you can make of certain policies in the United States, policies in France, policies in lots of other countries. So it's not a question – that Zionism has come up in an ingenious way with a brand new form of exclusion. It's a new brand, but it's not genius in the sense that it's brand new, or something. And there are ways that – my other – since I spend lots of time in Europe, I see this a lot, where you have critiques of Zionism expressed in terms that aren't necessarily mindful of the forms of exclusion that they're supporting.
EL: So, we're interested to hear your first recollections of critical response to your scholarly work. And we don't mean critical – I mean – negative.
JS: Negative? Okay. I think I know, but…. Let me just paraphrase for you, and tell me if you accept my paraphrasing. It's that there are helpful and unhelpful forms of criticism. There's criticism that's saying, I think you're not paying attention to this, this doesn't make sense. And then, there's, you're a terrorist.
EL: So it'd be the latter. The unhelpful.
JS: Okay, the unhelpful form. Well look, I mean, I've gotten certain students who didn't necessarily – vary rare, I'd have to say. I would say my experience at Vassar has been blessed in terms of general support, not only by – I don't have tenure yet, so I shouldn't! But you know, very much support by my colleagues, with certain kind of not very easy quantifiable exceptions, where you get, you know… We won't go into that. But generally very supportive. And students, including students who didn't at all agree with me coming into the class, and probably don't agree with me going out of the class either, have just been extremely open-minded and have managed to work through the materials in just very good-faith ways, what I can I say. I would just say that if there's one thing I've considered myself very fortunate here at Vassar, it's the abundance of good faith among students. And by good faith, again, not pretending to agree with me necessarily. Then again, not spending huge amounts of time just being disruptive or anything. I've had people who were very, very consistently, oh you're wrong you're wrong in class, oh you're forgetting this…which has generally been a good – usually, not all students would agree with this – but it's generally been a positive element. Other people at times thought it became monopolized by certain things. Which is normal. I think these are both legitimate responses, both it being helpful and it being not helpful. In terms of a really negative… It first came out, it happened in December of last year, 2008. So it was a little more than a year ago. When I apparently – this is something I didn't really cover – but apparently there was a bit of a debate going on in the Misc between some folks here, who are students, and someone who graduated a while back, about a decade ago. I think he was class of 2000 or so. Some student, who had been writing back and forth, and apparently one student who was here, who hadn't my class, but knew something about me or whatever, said, Well, perhaps you would have benefited from taking a class on the Israel-Palestine conflict from Professor Schreier, or something like that. I don't know the details of this, this is what you shouldn't cite me on. But it was something, I don't know, because I was not part of this. And then this person, who again, I can only assume, who disagreed, who was very critical of critics of Israel, contacted me by email and asked me a couple questions and asked for a syllabus. And I can only assume, again, in reasonably good faith wanted to know what was going on.
EL: Can I ask what sort of questions they were?
JS: They were just saying, well… That's a great question. Wha tkind of questions… I could probably dig them up. I think they were extremely broad, and I think it was focused on – it was basically focused on getting the syllabus. Let me hold off on that, because I don't want to give you the wrong…
EL: That's fine, no worries.
JS: But I think that the main essence was – I'm curious, what do you think about this – maybe it had to do so far as, Would you consider Israel a racist state, or something like that, but I'm not even sure it went that far. So I said, you know, I mean he's a former student at Vassar. I mean, he was clearly disagreeing with me, clearly, he was – I think he probably would have considered himself progressive, he mentioned at one point that he was a strong supporter of Obama, so this was not someone who was particularly a right-wing guy. But he got my email, and sent it to a friend – he got my syllabus – and within three days, or something, it was posted on a number of extremely right-wing websites, saying, Here's how history's being taught at Vassar. And they took particular issue with an admittedly vaguely phrased introduction at the beginning of the syllabus that you probably still have if you have the syllabus, which is this isn't supposed to be an objective course between two different sides, in the same sense that if you do a history you're not obligated that every act are equally good and equally bad. But they took that, and I think this was actually quite bad faith on the part of the publishers, the ones who managed these websites, of saying he's trying to be, he's just saying he's going to be, as they put it, pro-Arab. In this case, pro-Palestinian, or whatever. Which of course wasn't the intention at all in the syllabus, it was just to say, let's not think about, you know, when you study history, it's not trying to broker an agreement between two fighting four-year-olds. Well, I'm sure you want some of the cracker and you want some of the cracker, and so let's put it in half. That's not exactly how you do history. You do history to try to figure out the best way, the most convincing way in which, the most balanced way in order to understand conflict. That was the job of this history class. And to understand conflict, you don't necessarily have to say, well there are two identities and they both have to be equally right and equally wrong, but they took exception to this. They thought this was really problematic. So, there was a website called, I forget what it was like – like Atlas Shrugged, or something, some play on the Ayn Rand book. You know, the right-wing objectivist text of whatever it was, the '50s, or whenever it was it came out. Which is extremely – you know, this is 2008. And I looked at the postings – this was after the election – but a lot of the postings were from before, and it was Obama being a Muslim, and his being of [??????], these were kind of fringe groups. But then it got onto Campus Watch, by December. Yeah, it was all beginning of December, I think. And Campus Watch is kind of the Mona Lisa of right-wing, neo-conservative websites. It's dealing with the Middle East. It was started by a bunch of people who've been active for some time, taking a really critical look of academia's approach towards Israel-Palestine conflict, thinking that academia has had a real kind of soft spot for Islam, and militant Islam, and been either duped or willingly trying to hide the negative aspects of terrorism, or the negative aspects of militant Islam. That kind of vague theme – being clueless about it, I guess. And it was started, among others, by Daniel Pipes, Martin Cramer, I believe, who were these two lions of the… Let's just put it, the very conservative, very pro-Israel – I say pro-Israel without quotation marks around it, in the sense that, if Israel's doing it, then it's probably the right and necessary thing to do, is their attitude. And they've been active for some time in this kind of, the conservative side of American policy towards the Middle East. And so I became quote of the month, I guess, for their website. They also got a lot of – they had a picture of me, one of Vassar's picture of me, and saying something about how I don't support objectivity. Or, it was a quote of me, it quoted me, but it was clearly meant to give the impression that I don't support objectivity in scholarship. And so I got a lot of nasty emails, because they encourage people to email the President, email the Dean of Faculty, email the chair of the department, in order to encourage – you know, they don't say, don't give them tenure necessarily, but they say, are you aware of what's going on in your department, this kind of naked…anti-Israel bias. And then I got lots of emails calling me anti-Semite, I think I gave you, I gave the students some of them, I made it a part of the final exam. You know, give a critical reading of one of these. But those weren't very doctored, you know. I think there were certain dot-dot-dots, but they were essentially – that's what the letters were. Now that was the first critical response to the scholarship stuff. Back when I first got here, I got an email from some dude who, I don't know exactly what his situation was, my Google searches of him haven't shown up. My understanding, he's a psychology professor in Pennsylvania somewhere, who wanted me to join a group called Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. And I said, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East? Hey, I'm a scholar, I'm for peace in the Middle East. And so I said, sounds interesting, and so I looked it up. And one of their descriptions, we don't want anti-Semitism to be mixed in with criticism of Israel, or confused… And I said, well that's one of my – I couldn't agree more! There shouldn't be this confusion between anti-Semitism and anti-Israel. What he of course meant was, he didn't want – well, the assumption was that most criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. And this was in the days of Ariel Sharon, and the building of the wall, and in a perhaps not very well-considered response, after I got a couple of emails, I said, I'm not going to join your group if you're supporting Ariel Sharon, was essentially as I put it, engaged in a low-octane – I said something that was unmeasured. You know, "low-octane genocide," or something like that, you know, or ethnic cleansing or something. And that was seized upon by them, but that wasn't part of a… This was one guy, and that didn't amount to anything. He posted it somewhere, you can still find it. This guy, Ed Beck. It was only later, this last 2008 episode, that I got a real – a dozen or two emails coming in, criticism, and emails going to Jonathan Chinette, and stuff like that.
EL: So how did you respond, and how did the school respond, to…?
JS: That's a great question. My first response was when, the first email I got, I responded to it. I thought it was one person who had gotten my email. I didn't realize it had been posted, actually, I thought it was just these guys, former Vassar graduates, who had sent them the syllabus. And so it was just some lawyer in New York City who wrote me this super angry, you know, incoherent letter. I think that was one of the ones I published, the one from [Name] something… So I just wrote him back an email saying, as polite as I could be, saying thank you for your email, but this is what we do, we also look at this, we read different things. If you have any advice on what other texts you think I should be using, please let me know. So she wrote back and got angrier. She didn't like that very much. And I said, thanks for your consideration, or whatever. But then I got more, and then I said, okay. Clearly this is posted somewhere, this isn't just one lawyer in New York. At which point, I didn't respond anymore. I just stopped emailing, and I spoke to the chair of the department, just saying – warning that you're going to be getting some emails, probably. And there were, and they talked to the Dean, and College Relations looked into it a little bit, but their advice was always just to keep it…you're not, going to convince anyone, by writing back, and they're not necessarily writing for you to write back. They're writing to blow off steam. So I didn't do anything, at all. And that was it. Eventually it started dying down. I still get – about a week or so ago, I got another one, which was meant to be – it was clearly from one of these guys, but it was meant to say – it was posed as, you're another person who's criticized Israel, like me. What do you think about this? But it was clearly sort of problematic, it was clearly from them trying to get me to talk about it, you know… I think the subject line was Go Palestine! or something. It was incredibly ham-handed. There was no grammar, no capitals, I don't know. It was clearly by someone who thought of and written an email in a 75-second period. But we'll see, you know. I don't know what else is going on. Campus Watch is recently well known, because they had a whole series – they got a lot of attention by basically encouraging lots of students to talk about their professors, get them to talk about the bias or the intimidation or the 'whatever' they feel with these left-wing professors.
JB: Did your Jewish background factor into any of the criticism that was going on, and if so, how?
JS: Definitely. Oh yeah. You know, they notice that I'm also part of the Jewish Studies, and my name isn't exactly…subtle. I don't know… You know, some of the commentaries was, it's clear this man is a Jew, and he… One of the websites that this went up on, or that somehow [???] went on, along with thousands of other people, is this self-hating…Israel…and – or Anti, the 'a' doesn't get into the acronym – Self-Hating anti-Israel Traitors list. So, the SHIT list, right? It was the self-hating – the assumption that everyone on the list is Jewish. So, yeah it definitely goes in. It showed up in different places, not all of them, but it's definitely included. You know, that – this guy's Jewish.
EL: Have there been any other incidents since that all exploded, or has it all been derivative?
JS: Mainly that. The Jerusalem Post tried to make a story out of it, afterwards, about these really "anti-Israel" professors. They didn't contact me, they contacted Marc Epstein. They wanted to talk to the Chair of Jewish Studies, hoping they'd get the "real facts." And so, Marc just talked to me and College Relations to try to deal with these people. But I don't think he responded at all. I mean, again, incredible support from Jewish Studies. But that was also at the point when Marc Epstein was the Chair and responsible for doing various things. Very encouraging, very supportive. I'm trying to think if there's been anything since then… You never know. You never know what you're not being contacted about. You never know why you're not getting a grant. Grants are really competitive. You google my name, and Campus Watch comes up before Vassar does, you know what I mean? So there's like, Josh Schreier is a racist, anti… He's a racist, war-mongering, blah blah blah. Sometimes, depending on the google search, depending on the date, before Vassar comes up! So you know, that's the joy and pain of the internet age. So you never know. Anyone who wants to know something about me, or try and figure out whether to include me on a panel or whatever, is going to see that. That being said, in Middle Eastern Studies, and this is not the case with Jewish Studies, but in Middle Eastern Studies in general, it is not necessarily – generally in this country it is no longer dominated by an Orientalist cadre of older academics who would be extremely negative towards criticism of Israel. I like to think that people have a reasonable filter on when they look at what's on Google. But it's a good question, I don't know.
EL: Has this changed anything for you in your professional or personal life?
JS: Yeah I guess so. It's made me more – and, I mean, I'm not whining, if anything it's a good thing – I'm more careful. I've always been telling my students to say what you mean. Be very clear in what they're writing. Don't say something if you mean something else. And, I have to do the same thing. Just to make sure that, if I'm going to write something down, I have to make sure that I'm really saying it. That I'm saying what I mean. So in that way, it's been a good thing, to make me more careful, to make me more…be sure that I'm taking the advice that I dish out so easily. It's made me very… I don't know. It's a really good question. These things sometimes work in ways that are under the radar, even for the person it's working on. So it hasn't been traumatizing, but you can't help but go into a room and wonder who are you friends a little bit more, and what would your natural group of friends be, and where you might be more likely to have a receptive audience. One of the things that it's really done is given me a sense of how angry certain people are. I don't know how much of this is an academic thing, but I was looking – I don't know if you've been following at all, there's no reason why you would be – but there's a scholar of European history named Tony Judd, who became well known. You read something by him. He's not a specialist in Israel-Palestine at all, he's mainly a French historian. But he's a Europeanist and he helped found the [Name] institute at NYU. And he's gotten very sick with Lou Gehrig's disease, and it's a degenerative disease, he's not going to last very much longer. And he's not old, he's like sixty-two, sixty-three years old. It's tragic, it's absolutely tragic. I remember reading something in the Chronicle of Higher Educaiton about him. He became well known for writing this essay for the New York Review of Books, about how – well, maybe the best way out isn't a two-state solution. Maybe that's actually impossible. Maybe the best thing to do is just have a democracy for everyone who's involved, and it means a one united Palestine, Arab Palestine, the Palestinians would have to give that up, Israel would obviously have to give the idea of a Jewish State that's defined legally as Jewish, that has Jewish privilege. If it's going to be a Jewish State it'd have to be something else, it's have to be a different way. And you see these people saying, what's the expression… They're saying… You know, people just writing in. Some people saying, there's a great [???], and other people just saying, well, it didn't happen soon enough. And he's dying, you know, people saying, may his name be blotted out. It's an expression, a Hebrew expression that's used for people like Hitler. Or Helnitski. These massive, these people who led these massive anti-Jewish pogroms. These very – just such anger… And some of those letters, as you saw, were just so… I don't want to characterize the Zionist scholarship – what's left of it – as all that, but you do get a sense that people wish death on you for nothing at all. You say one thing, and then people want you dead. Or at least that's what they express. I found that a little unsettling. And I guess it has affected the way in which you go about talking, presenting yourself, et cetera. But, again, I want to repeat that that's not going to necessarily prevent me from going to a conference, or [???] conferences I would go to. I don't necessarily have bizarre, radical ideas.
EL: I'm interested to know what your thoughts are about the perceived black-balling of allegedly anti-Israel, self-hating Jews, as a larger phenomenon in academia, and also with a mind towards – you know, is there a future, is this going to keep going, or is it something that people are pushing against, is it on a rise, is it on a fall?
JS: That's a great question. I mean that's obviously a key question. I don't know. I think depending on the institution, if you look at the big institutions, if you look at, you have… You have people who are very involved. If you look at people who have written about the Israel-Palestine conflict. You have Joel [Name] who's been a real Benny Morris for these guys, who's an activist, scholar. He doesn't just do Israel-Palestine, he's mainly scholared Egypt, actually. But he's spoken about it. And he's done a lot of Jews in the Middle East stuff. He's at Stanford, he's get tenure at Stanford. [Name] has tenure at NYU. Tim Mitchell, who doesn't do this specifically, but is definitely critical on Israel-Palestine, he's at Columbia. Who else has written… Ilon Pappe is at Oxford, I think. You've got all these critics, you've got these people that people have really helped. [Name]– he may be retired now, but I think he was at UCLA. So you have the – Benny Morris is a different category, kind of. Historical work actually isn't a different category. But there's so many people now who have these tenure positions. That being said, if I were going to apply at a smaller, more provincial school than, let's say, Vassar, you never know who happens to make up the hiring committee. And it's very easy to have people who aren't necessarily specialists in Middle East art, who aren't exactly up on the scholarship, chiming in or having a say as to who gets hired and who gets tenure. One of the things I was warned about by more senior professors, is that you never know what's going to turn up at the actual moment of the hiring committee. Because occasionally what they'll do is they'll produce information, they'll make sure that someone who will bring it up gets something on the very meeting. Like it doesn't show up at the beginning, but before it can go through any sort of vetting, someone says, well, do you realize this person supports hezbollah? This person is a partisan of Hamas? And it'll be in the meeting, it won't be part of – You know, this article, this article, this review, this review. The things that wouldn't normally necessarily go into a discussion about what this person merits in a hiring committee, or rather a tenure committee. So you never how these things work. But I think that one of the things that's actually happened recently, is there's been a new field that's been invented, in the last decade or so, called Israel Studies. And this has been an effort by people who want to give money to universities to hire people who they're going to agree with, because no longer is it going to be Middle Eastern Studies because that would be subject to what they would say is the anti-Israel bias, where other people would say, the critical standards of scholarship that would include all kinds of different perspectives. It's a way of subverting it, in a way. Who are we going to get on the Israel Studies hiring committee? Well, we'll get this person from Jewish Studies, this person from Psychology, or you know someone who happens to know something about Judaism, this person from literary studies, or something. Which doesn't necessarily not make sense, but these are ambiguous recently [???] UCLA. Where there's this kind of [???] a friend, a couple friends, in the California system, where the process was completely abnormal. It was a completely abormal process, where they were going to be hired in [???] Middle Eastern Studies department, or the History department, or something. He just got all these crazy people to be on the hiring committee, and then they hired this guy. Who may or may not be a serious scholar, I'm not impugning because I don't even know who it is. So I'm not impugning that, but it's just kind of a strange process, you know what I mean? So that's, I think, affected. I've been told, again it's by hearsay, that these people are not going to hire a guy like that because they just want some Zionist person. But, that's hearsay. I don't know how much you should make of that. You know, I think that in terms of the upper echelon of the American academic establishment, I don't know how much fighting over nationalism being a constructed, modern discourse is going on anymore. A lot of that has been generally accepted. So the Zionist discourse about unchanging Jewish nation from the beginning of time until now isn't going to get the same – or it being a particularly justified national ideology, different from, let's say, Soviet or Greek or French or British nationalism. I don't know how much play it's going to get that much more in America, at least in the top tier of American universities. But who knows what's going on in smaller places. I would not be surprised if this type of stuff could still have an affect on a lot of universities.
EL: Is there anything that you wanted to add… That was fantastic, that was really interesting.
JS: Oh good, I'm glad. No problem. My pleasure. Great to talk to you two. It's a pleasure and I mention this to the –Note: Postings in "Campus Watch in the Media" do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch.
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