Campus Watch in the Media
Confronting Anti-Israel Attitudes on Contemporary College Campuses
by Robert David (KC) Johnson
In spring 2003, I attended a conference at the U.S. Senate that brought together the Washington representatives of most major pro-Israel organizations in the United States. On the positive side, conference attendees noted that openly anti-Semitic acts have grown increasingly rare at universities, and when they do occur, they usually meet with strong condemnation from administrators and students alike. On the negative side, however, most participants presented evidence of growing anti-Israel bias in the classroom, especially from professors who seemed more interested in promoting a pro-Palestinian agenda or in criticizing contemporary Israeli policies than in teaching the subject matter of the course.
An unusual confluence of events accounts for increased anti-Israel attitudes in the nation's classrooms; addressing the issue therefore will require a multi-faceted response. While not the chief explanation for this problem, anti-Semitism-to the extent that it involves demands to treat Israel distinctly from all other nations in a way that harms Jews-does play some role. As my colleague David Berger has argued, anti-Semitism lurks behind calls of (mostly European) academics to deny Israeli scholars permission to attend scholarly conferences, or for the more general demands that colleges divest from businesses operating in Israel as a way of expressing opposition to Israeli foreign policy. Both initiatives seek to deny Israel and Israel alone the right of national self-defense.
The Middle East-related faculty of several major institutions, moreover, has a troubling record of anti-Semitic comments. For instance, Hamid Dabashi, chair of Columbia University's Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, has termed Zionism a "ghastly racist ideology" and contended that "the so-called pro-Israeli lobby is an integral component of the imperial designs of the Bush administration for savage and predatory globalization." Rashid Khalidi, the university's first Edward Said professor of Middle Eastern Studies, has argued that the United States went to war in Iraq because neoconservative thinkers desired "to make the Middle East safe not for democracy, but for Israeli hegemony" by using the 9/11 attacks "to draft the United States to help fight Israel's enemies." The syllabus for Professor Joseph Massad's class on Palestinian and Israeli politics and society stated, "The purpose of the course is not to provide a 'balanced' coverage of the views of both sides"; Massad's writings have dismissed Arab anti-Semitism as "a Zionist-inspired propagandistic claim" while terming Israel "a racist state that does not have the right to exist."
To his credit, Columbia president Lee Bollinger has acknowledged the problem and pledged to take remedial action. In a recent interview, Bollinger agreed that "everybody in the academy knows Middle Eastern studies have had trouble over the years developing great scholars and teachers." He noted that Khalidi "has a particular point of view, pro-Palestinian nationalism" and lamented how at Columbia, "within the mix of people who are teaching about this area, we are not as comprehensive as we should be."
Two factors more strictly related to the academic world join anti-Semitism in explaining the growth of anti-Israel attitudes on contemporary campuses. The first, illuminated most passionately by Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, is the increasing tendency of professors to use Israel (which is, after all, the most faithful American ally in the world) as a proxy for their criticizing U.S. foreign policy. At first glance, Dershowitz's charge seems overstated: since few offerings appropriately deal with Israeli public policy in an academic fashion, any conflation of views toward Israel and a faculty member's opinion of U.S. foreign policy should have relatively little effect on course content. Broader developments within the academy, however, have opened the way for professors to use the pulpit of the classroom to communicate anti-Israel views.
The most significant such change centers on a movement that urges colleges and universities to redesign their courses to focus on teaching "democratic citizenship," a scheme most clearly associated with the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). This national organization possesses an imposing name, but a small group of ideologues dominate its initiatives. Through a variety of programs put in place at around 20 colleges and universities nationwide, the AAC&U has championed restructuring curricula to "provide students with the knowledge and commitments to be socially responsible citizens."
This agenda, which has come under increasing critical scrutiny, received an especially penetrating critique from University of Illinois-Chicago dean Stanley Fish-certainly a figure no one could paint as outspokenly pro-Israel-who cautioned academics against crossing "the boundary between academic work and partisan advocacy." As Fish correctly noted, "Universities could engage in moral and civic education only by deciding in advance which of the competing views of morality and citizenship is the right one, and then devoting academic resources and energy to the task of realizing it."
A generation ago, few would have disagreed with Fish's conception of academics' basic task as "the search for truth and the dissemination of it through teaching." Today, however, this view has come under strong challenge. For instance, Roberta S. Matthews, the chief academic officer of my own institution, Brooklyn College, has written that "teaching is a political act"; and over the last three years, Matthews has aggressively managed the school according to principles and policies laid down by the AAC&U.
In a college structured around traditional academic offerings, the partisan or ideological makeup of the faculty would have little or no relevance-presumably pro-Israel and anti-Israel, radical and conservative, or Democratic and Republican professors would teach courses in, say, 19th century British history, macroeconomics, or Kantian philosophy in comparable ways. But in calling for professors to teach their own conceptions of "democratic citizenship"-in other words, their personal political beliefs-the AAC&U approach highlights the ideological biases of today's college faculty, where surveys suggest disproportionate percentages of self-described liberals or radicals and critics of U.S. and Israeli foreign policy. In most social sciences and humanities departments, registered Democrats overwhelmingly outnumber registered Republicans; in an extreme example, Duke's History Department contains 32 Democrats and zero Republicans.
An almost comical hostility to perceived conservatives heightens the impact of this imbalance. To cite a few examples from the 2003-2004 academic year alone, the nation's leading academic journal, the Chronicle of Higher Education, published an essay by Penn State English professor Michael Bérubé advising professors to treat conservative students as they would students with learning disabilities or who exhibited aberrant behavior. A few months later, responding to press criticism of ideological imbalance among his university's faculty, the chairman of Duke's philosophy department observed, "We try to hire the best, smartest people available. If, as John Stuart Mill said, stupid people are generally conservative, then there are lots of conservatives we will never hire." This interpretation of Mill, to put it mildly, seems rather skewed.
This ideological imbalance, when accompanied by calls from organizations such as the AAC&U that professors should teach not courses relating to their academic discipline but instead the principles of "democratic citizenship," explains the concern of many leading Jewish organizations that Israel, especially in its position as a proxy target for faculty members critical of U.S. foreign policy, has come under classroom condemnation. Most academic institutions, of course, do not consciously impose ideological litmus tests in personnel matters. But departments that begin the hiring process with the kind of ideological bias evident in Penn State's English Department or Duke's Philosophy Department seem all but certain to extend job offers to professors whose viewpoints cluster at one end of the political spectrum-including on contemporary matters relating to the Middle East. To the extent that these professors are then invited, in the name of teaching "democratic citizenship," to bring their political beliefs into the classroom, anti-Israel viewpoints will receive prominent play.
These academic currents have affected campus attitudes toward Israel primarily in an indirect fashion. If most humanities and social science departments exhibited more intellectual balance; or if more academic administrators did not believe that "teaching is a political act"; or if support for Israeli self-defense were not perceived as a "conservative" cause, Israel likely would receive far fewer gratuitous attacks in courses having little or nothing to do with Middle Eastern affairs. The structure of classes and scholarship dealing directly with the Middle East, on the other hand, more directly links to the anti-Israel atmosphere on contemporary college campuses. In the late 1950s, after the Soviet Union launched the Sputnik satellite, Congress passed the National Defense Education Act, designed to enhance the U.S. educational system's response to the needs of the Cold War. The NDEA's Title VI, which provided funding for area studies programs, paved the way for the explosion of Middle East studies programs, 17 of which are currently funded by Washington.
As Martin Kramer and others have observed, the NDEA has not worked as intended: disciples of Edward Said, a Palestinian-born professor of literature who seemed mostly interested in promoting his own ideology rather than creating a scholarly interpretation of the Middle East, now dominate the field of Middle East Studies. As is the case with any discipline, the dominant interpretive approach has a ripple effect. The NDEA requires participating organizations to convene workshops for K-12 teachers, to bring the knowledge created by federal funds to the nation's public schools. Georgetown's 2003 event, which featured only anti-war professors, was capped off by a presentation from a professor of Arab politics labeling UN sanctions against Saddam Hussein a "weapon of mass destruction" and contending that the 9/11 attacks were "directed at the United States . . . because our policies in the Middle East stink." Central Connecticut State University, meanwhile, kept the syllabus of its outreach course secret and prohibited participants from recording the proceedings, but news of the gathering's content nonetheless leaked out. One participant recalled that Professor Norton Mezvinsky, who coordinated the event, "said over and over again is that Israel is a terrorist state"; Ronald Kiener, head of Jewish Studies at Trinity College, termed the program "disastrously one-sided." In response to demands from state and federal officials that the institution promote appropriate intellectual balance in future government-funded programs on the Middle East, the university's vice president replied, "We as a university do not set up a criterion of balance."
Even more alarmingly, devotees of the Said approach have started to extend their curricular approach more broadly in the social sciences. The 2003 annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the field's major national academic organization, offered a featured panel urging member institutions to establish "global studies" programs. This faddish curricular approach seems uncontroversial, even laudable: who, after all, could oppose students receiving such instruction in our increasingly globalized world? All but the most primitive colleges and universities, however, provide extensive coverage of the world beyond the United States-in their history, political science, economics, anthropology, and area studies departments. Why, then, would the MESA promote separate "global studies" programs?
The answer comes in examining the ideological tenor of the few formal "global studies" majors or minors that exist. Virtually all institutions that have such programs (an exception here is the University of California, Santa Barbara) have general curricular structures strongly influenced by the AAC&U. In turn, these institutions' Middle East offerings either reflect an anti-Israel viewpoint or exclude coverage of Israel altogether. For instance, one prominent "global studies"/AAC&U school, California State-Monterey Bay, has no courses at all that deal with Israel; apparently "the diverse people of California, especially the working class and historically undereducated and low-income populations," which Monterey Bay's mission statement cites as the target for its curriculum, do not need to learn about the topic. Even worse, students at Washington's Evergreen College learn about Israel exclusively through transparently one-sided courses. "Seeking Justice: Reclamation, Equality, and Restitution" contrasts Palestinian sources with what the syllabus terms "Zionist" or "Zionist/Israeli" documents; Israel, in this sense, is recognized not as a sovereign state but merely a "Zionist" entity. The second Evergreen offering requires students to embrace "the experiential/ideological frameworks in which each perspective 'makes sense'"-leaving no place for students who do not believe, for example, that Arab terrorism "makes sense." Both courses also feature wildly one-sided readings on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.
The "global studies" movement is spreading nationally: Miami University (Ohio) has called for expanding its "global studies" offerings; in spring 2004, Brooklyn College's academic administration became the first in New York, at a private or public institution, to advocate creating a "global studies" minor. Such a move would mark the first step to establishing a full-fledged department, with the power to hire new faculty and offer courses.
Evergreen College's roster of "global studies" students included Rachel Corrie, who died in 2003 while serving as a "human shield" in Gaza. (An Israeli bulldozer hit a boulder, which then rolled and crushed her.) After her death, Corrie's parents released some of the E-mails that she had sent home. In one, she denounced the Israelis for committing "genocide" in Gaza-and then asked her mother to "look up the definition of genocide according to international law," which she admitted that she did not know. Perhaps it is unsurprising that in a "global studies" curriculum whose own documents describe as designed to teach "activism and political movements," students would be encouraged to employ against Israeli policies what Corrie herself termed "charged words," even without knowing the meaning of the terms. In 2003, Evergreen established a Corrie memorial fund, which one faculty member hoped would "carry on her legacy by doing a little more to oppose the U.S. war against Iraq, support a Palestinian state, and further justice, equality and peace in the Middle East."
Overt anti-Semitism, the unintended consequences of the NDEA's funding of area studies programs, and curricular innovations designed to give professors free reign to teach their political viewpoints, therefore, have combined to produce a campus climate that too often tolerates an anti-Israel agenda. Stanley Fish, among others, has argued that the faculty itself needs to remedy the problem, and in an ideal world, Fish's recommendation would have merit. Unfortunately, little reason exists to believe that professors acting alone will correct the ideological and programmatic balances that have created anti-Israel sentiments on campus; it seems more likely that the faculty, if unchecked, will allow the problem to deteriorate.
For instance, in 2002, the University of California's English Department scheduled a course designed to teach writing skills, "The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance," taught by a graduate student named Shenal Shingavi. The course's description advised conservative students not to enroll; after an outcry, Berkeley's administration forced Shingavi to remove the prohibition, although the course's overtly pro-Palestinian content remained unchanged. Rather than expressing outrage at a professorial ideologue applying a political litmus test to a basic skills course, the Berkeley faculty, as Penn philosophy professor Erin O'Connor observed, believed that what went wrong "was not Shingavi's arrogantly partisan approach to teaching freshman composition, but the school's inability to point to an academic freedom statement that anticipated and justified his actions." Accordingly, the faculty senate revised the university's statement on academic freedom, which had required professors to "play to intellect rather than to passion" based on scholarship concerned with "the logic of the facts." The new policy, which the university's chancellor described as "academic freedom for the 21st century," explicitly allows professors to bring their political opinions into the classroom.
If the examples of Berkeley, Monterey Bay, and Evergreen provide any guide, the faculty alone will not solve the problem of anti-Israel bias on campus. The federal government, however, has started to address the issue: in 2003, the House passed a bill sponsored by Peter Hoekstra (R-Michigan) to reform Title VI. The Hoekstra measure stressed that given Title VI's purpose-the need to educate those Americans "willing to serve their nation"-its funds should forward "the national effort to educate and train citizens to participate in the efforts of homeland security." The new bill also held that academic programs supported by Title VI should "reflect diverse perspectives and represent the full range of views" on international affairs and "foster debate on American foreign policy from diverse perspectives." Finally, the bill created a seven-member advisory board "to study, monitor, apprise, and evaluate" activities supported under Title VI. The measure, which unanimously passed the House, currently is before the Senate.The Hoekstra bill generated strong criticism from faculty in area studies programs and some academic organizations. The Clarion, the official publication of CUNY's faculty union, attributed the measure to the desire of the government, prodded by the "conservative right," to silence "criticisms of Israel made in the academic community." David Leonard, dean of Berkeley's International Areas Studies program, said that Washington had no business trying "to ensure that the public receives a diversity of views presented in our classes"; the Coalition for International Education, meanwhile, promised to do everything possible to eliminate the bill's "language about diverse perspectives, debate and range of views." To hear prominent academic officials and organizations so vehemently denounce diversity in higher education is a rare event indeed.
Hoekstra's critics have contended that the measure threatens academic freedom, suggesting that they apparently labor under the illusion that the doctrine leaves professors free to accept government funding without any accompanying oversight. In fact, academic freedom has no bearing on this issue: academic institutions or professors are not compelled to take federal dollars, and if the Hoekstra bill becomes law, those programs that wish to study the Middle East solely from an anti-Israel perspective simply can decline Title VI funds.
Beyond the needed alterations to Title VI, grassroots activism from concerned students, professors, and academic administrators can help ensure that anti-Israel bias in the classroom receives the condemnation that it deserves. In The Shadow University, Alan Charles Kors and Harvey Silverglate properly argued that "sunlight is the best disinfectant" to deal with academic improprieties. Few institutions can publicly defend faculty ideologues using their classrooms to denounce Israel. And so students, whether working through groups such as Students for Academic Freedom or contributing to websites such as No Indoctrination or Campus Watch, can have enormous influence, by exposing in-class bias that otherwise never would see the light of day. Faculty members, in turn, need to support students in these efforts. Finally, academic administrators should add intellectual diversity-an especially needed element in Middle East Studies programs-to the panoply of diversity-related measures that they regularly support.
Even with all of these changes, however, this issue will require constant, vigorous oversight, as events at Hofstra University's 2004 commencement suggested. The commencement speaker, author E.L. Doctorow, bitterly condemned the war in Iraq and effectively called President George Bush a liar, drawing vigorous boos from the crowd and many students. In a stark illustration, however, of the ideological gap between today's professoriate and the undergraduates that they teach, most of the faculty gave Doctorow a standing ovation. As Alan Dershowitz cautioned, as long as many professors see Israel as a proxy for their opposition to U.S. foreign policy, faculty members like those who applauded Doctorow are likely to contribute to rather than resolve the problem of anti-Israel attitudes on contemporary college campuses.Note: Postings in "Campus Watch in the Media" do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch.
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