Middle East studies in the News
Profs Petition for Greater Academic Freedom [incl. Nadia Abu El-Haj, Majid Mohammadi]
by Jonathan Zebrowski
Several Princeton professors have signed a petition supporting academic freedom for scholars regardless of their political beliefs and condemning alleged encroachments on free speech by college administrators, scholars and members of the media.
More than 400 individuals from a wide range of institutions — including every Ivy League school except Dartmouth — have joined them, according to the website of the Ad Hoc Committee to Defend the University, which wrote the petition. Princeton history department chair Jeremy Adelman and Institute for Advanced Study professor Joan Scott are both members of the five-person committee.
The petition alleges that "universities around the country have been targeted by outside groups seeking to influence what is taught and who can teach" and that "unfortunately and ironically, many of the most vociferous campaigns targeting universities and their faculty have been launched by groups portraying themselves as defenders of Israel."
These groups, the petition claims, have attacked scholars whose opinions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict differ from their own, and have employed tactics including "unfounded insinuations and allegations ... of anti-Semitism," campaigns against public presentation of certain scholarly work and "pressures on university administrations by threatening to withhold donations."
Though the petition does not cite any specific violations of academic freedom, it comes on the heels of prominent tenure controversies involving scholars critical of the United States and Israel.
Political scientist Norman Finkelstein GS '88 — who has contended that Jews in Israel and the United States have conspired to use the Holocaust to oppress Palestinians and extract compensation money from Europe — was denied tenure by DePaul University in June. Meanwhile, after a year of controversy over her work on Israel, Barnard College anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj was granted tenure earlier this month. Her work had been criticized as "faulty, misleading and dangerous," one scholar told the New York Sun last year.
Those battles and others, Scott said, sparked growing frustration with the academic climate on college campuses and served as inspiration for the petition. "Several of us were just really fed up with the way in which outside groups, but particularly so-called 'defenders of Israel,' were trying to intervene in a number of tenure or hiring decisions at major universities," she said. "Many of us felt there were unfounded attempts to intervene in the ordinary processes of the university, and we thought it was time to stand up to them."
The overall goal of the petition, Scott said, is to draw attention to violations of academic freedom and to "give people all over the country the courage to resist the pressure that these groups exert."
Fundamentally, the petition argues that outside groups do not understand how tenure is granted and attempt to intervene in what is meant to be a critical evaluation of an individual's academic work, trying instead to force a political agenda into the decision-making process.
Adelman said the tenure process should take into account candidates' "scholarship and not their ideologies."
"Scholarship is not reducible to ideological posturing," he added. "For those critics who see the things we do as being about ideology, they're missing the point. We don't interrogate bankers on their ideological positions; we ask if they're good bankers."
The petition has not been received without criticism. Political groups "probably think that we are using an academic veneer to cover up something that is political," Adelman said. "[Harvard Law School professor] Alan Dershowitz thinks we are ultra-radicals. That's the knee-jerk reaction that we want to discuss."
Dershowitz, who campaigned against giving Finkelstein tenure, said in an interview with The Daily Princetonian earlier this year that "[Finkelstein] has no basis for getting tenure, [since] he writes these outrageous things." Dershowitz could not be reached for comment regarding the petition.
David Levit '10, president of the Princeton Israel Public Affairs Committee, said he thinks opposition to Finkelstein's tenure stemmed from his "lack of scholarship."
"None of his papers have been published in academic journals," Levit said, "and he admits to using biased sources." He added that he thinks the "petition is very dangerous [and] almost puts people who have controversial views into a safe zone just because they have a controversial view," regardless of the quality of their scholarship.
History professor Anthony Grafton said he signed the petition "because I believe the pressures against academic freedom in this country are growing."
Grafton, who is also a columnist for the 'Prince,' added that as vice president of the professional division of the American Historical Association, he has "been involved in many attempts to counter the government's zealous efforts to conceal official documents from scholars."
Other University professors who signed the petition include history professor emerita Natalie Davis and English professors Valerie Smith and Michael Wood.
Majid Mohammadi, a postdoctoral researcher with the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, who also signed the petition, said in an email that he believes "scholars should feel free to express their ideas in academia as well as discussing alternative options, and they should not pay a very high price, such as losing their jobs and tenureship, just because of doing their jobs."
Mohammadi added that certain stances on Middle East policy can spell trouble for members of the academic world.
"Almost all scholars who have been targeted by partisan politics in their career are specialists in the Middle East" and have a "critical approach to American foreign policy," he said. "I do not believe that the job of a researcher or professor is to serve the State, any administration and any national, ethnic or religious cause."
— Princetonian staff writer Rachel Dunn contributed reporting to this article.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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