LA professor “wakes up to hate mail” for linking to anti-Zionist material

1 August 2012

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A Zionist group claimed that Dr. David Delgado Shorter violated university policy by offering his students weblinks to information on the Palestine solidarity movement.

(Ken Scott Photography)

The fight for academic freedom and freedom of speech on US campuses continues as Zionist groups attempt to intimidate university officials into censoring faculty and students who criticize Israeli policies.

Dr. David Delgado Shorter, a University of California, Los Angeles professor of world arts and cultures/dance, was recently accused by the Amcha Initiative — an outside Zionist group which has filed numerous complaints against professors who hold discussions on Israeli policies — that his course included reading materials which “seek to demonize and delegitimize the Jewish state.” Unbeknownst to Shorter, a faculty colleague began an investigation of Shorter’s course material based on Amcha’s complaint. 

However, despite the unprecendented review, the Zionist censors failed to prove that their claims hold any merit.

After learning about the investigation into his course, Shorter himself asked for a review of Amcha’s complaint by the UCLA’s Academic Senate Committee on Academic Freedom. The committee found that “no evidence was provided” in which principles of professional standards and university policy were violated, and that “no complaint by a member of the course was received.”

The Amcha Initiative has a history of vitriolic intimidation and legal threats against faculty who lead discussions on Israeli policy (or who simply link to websites with information on the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions movement) in the University of California and the California State University systems. The group accused Shorter of “using his official UCLA class website for the purpose of promoting the academic and cultural boycott of Israel” (“A question about academic freedom,” 29 March 2012).

These claims revolved around a class Shorter taught in the Winter 2012 quarter entitled “Tribal Worldviews.” Shorter told The Electronic Intifada that the class incorporates “how indigenous people use media and technology to engage with or combat globalization.”

On the course’s website, Shorter included pages of non-required links and background material that students were free to peruse if they found the information helpful in their research. Included amongst the dozens of links were the website for the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) and a book review published on The Electronic Intifada.

Unprecedented review

After the course had ended, Shorter told The Electronic Intifada that he was called by his department chair and informed that a faculty colleague, Dr. Andrew Leuchter, was reviewing his course material “due to concerns that I was requiring or teaching a boycott of Israel.” It was then revealed that it was neither students nor department administration who had complained, but the Amcha Initiative who demanded the unprecedented review.

Amcha sent the complaint directly to Leuchter (who is UCLA’s Academic Senate Chairman and a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences), as well as various California state senators and assembly members, UC President Mark Yudof, university chancellors and other administrators of universities across California.

Yudof has been an ally to Zionist groups who seek to clamp down on Palestine solidarity activism. Earlier this summer, Yudof had ordered a “Campus Climate” report in order to address “challenges and positive campus experiences” for Jewish students across the University of California system. The report — available for download from the University of California’s website — was issued on 9 July by two members of Yudof’s advisory council on campus climate, culture and inclusion, one of whom is the national education chair of the Anti-Defamation League, a Zionist organization which has attempted to undermine Palestine solidarity activism on California campuses.

Amcha’s accusations echo similar attacks against Dr. David Klein, a mathematics professor at California State University Northridge, who was attacked for having links to information on boycott, divestment and sanctions on his faculty website. As The Electronic Intifada reported, Klein was found not to have misused state resources, as Amcha claimed. Afterwards, Klein praised the strong support he received from university administrators, especially the university’s Interim President Harry Hellenbrand, who publicly stood by Klein’s right to free speech.

Baseless claims

Additionally, California’s Attorney General dismissed Amcha’s demand to sue Klein, rejecting the organization’s claims as “baseless.”

On 9 July, the Academic Senate Committee on Academic Freedom found that Amcha’s claims against Shorter were baseless as well. Furthermore, the committee also brought up concerns about Leuchter’s behavior.

Leuchter had responded directly to Amcha’s original letter by conducting his own “review” of Shorter’s course materials without any knowledge from Shorter himself, and sent his findings back to Amcha and the state and university officials. In his reply to Amcha’s co-founder, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, Leuchter said that Shorter had made a “serious error in judgment” for posting the link to USACBI, and thanked Rossman-Benjamin for “bringing this matter to our attention.”

In its review, the committee on academic freedom expressed serious concern that Leuchter “initiated an investigation at the behest of an outside group.”

The committee added, “We think that faculty members should be free of such scrutiny and should not have to answer to interest groups outside the university … This lent the appearance that an outside organization had standing to complain about course content and, thereby, threatened the academic freedom of all faculty members.”

The Electronic Intifada’s Nora Barrows-Friedman interviewed David Delgado Shorter by phone and email.

Nora Barrows-Friedman: Tell us about the class that you taught, and how this debacle began.

David Delgado Shorter: [In the class,] I ask students to evaluate not just how indigenous peoples are thriving on public scale but how they’re using media and technology to do it. So [websites] like The Electronic Intifada and web-based petitions and boycotts are obviously something that I’d want to cover, since they’re a primary means by which people raise consciousness in the contemporary moment. For that reason, there was a link to the USACBI [US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel] website.

There was also a link to The Electronic Intifada, because you did a review of the book Overcoming Zionism. And what’s so interesting about that is that it was not part of the original resources — I added it halfway through, because I had Jewish students who were coming to my office and saying, “I’m a devout Jew, I go to Israel, my parents are from Israel, and even I’m starting to question Zionism in the way in which it is ideological.” So when I saw that book review, I said I would post it to the course website because I’ve got students who are really asking themselves if they can be really solid, family-based Jewish kids while at the same time wondering about the nationalist relationships between saying that and being a Zionist.

It wasn’t until the next quarter started, in early April, that my department chair called to tell me that my class material was being reviewed by this other faculty member on campus, due to concerns that I was requiring or teaching a boycott of Israel.

At the time, my chair had the impression it was because a student complained that I was teaching about Palestinian rights, or that a student had complained that I was a supporter of the USACBI. We now know that no student ever complained. We now know that Amcha just wrote a letter to UCLA about me teaching about USACBI.

I had never heard of Amcha until the Los Angeles Times called me for a comment about me being disciplined by the Academic Senate. That phrasing ended up not being true, of course, so I was also getting a crash course in how reporters get stories.

Since the “complaint” was about my teaching, [Amcha] sent the original letter over to the Academic Senate, who was being chaired by Andrew Leuchter. Rather than giving the letter to a committee, which probably would have not done anything about it since the university doesn’t have to respond to letters from political organizations about course content, Dr. Leuchter decided he would simply personally review my course and teaching without ever talking with me. He then wrote back to Amcha and everyone on their original letter, including campus administrators, university administrators and state senators. He essentially played right into their hands.

NBF: Do you know if this is an unprecedented action? Have faculty members always had the right, or assume that they have the right, to review course materials by another faculty member?

DDS: That’s absolutely right. In those early years of teaching at the academy, even as far back as when I was a graduate student, teaching my own college classes, no one ever asked for your syllabi. Sometimes you submit a syllabus for original approval, and for sure you can’t have a class on a book at UCLA unless it’s been vetted by three or four committees — but that being said, generally even in those committees, no one gets into arguments about content. They may help you think about your assignments and your reading load, and they ask you to consider other sources that might be more contemporary, but rarely does anyone ever assume to have a say in someone else’s content.

That’s pedagogy. That’s what’s so personal and what’s so inherent to the terms of academic freedom — that when I build a class, I build it based on how I think the students should engage in various materials.

Why Leuchter gave attention to [Amcha’s letter] in the first place is the most underlying question of this whole entire situation.

We have to be concerned when something that seems illogical is combined with something that seems so calculated. So I worry a little bit about why someone would single-handedly decide to personally review someone else’s teaching; and that [teaching] happens to be about Israel. And then he happens to write to US senators and academic administrators about his review, which was not necessarily supposed to have happened.

Why did he do that, I don’t know. It’s a very good question. And I don’t know him personally, because I’ve never spoke with him, and he did his review without ever trying to talk to me. We can only guesstimate at this point that he may have a personal interest in the content matter, but I don’t know.

NBF: What was your reaction to the academic freedom committee’s strong rejection of Amcha’s accusations, and condemnation of Leuchter’s behavior?

DDS: When the Academic Senate’s Committee on Academic Freedom completed their review, it was a bit anti-climatic for a couple of reasons. First, I know that I’m an excellent teacher when it comes to teaching students how to think, not what to think. I never doubted my own pedagogy. I never required students to even go to that USACBI link; it was literally just one of dozens provided as resources to them in case they wanted to do a final paper on the topic of boycotts, or websites, or on Israel’s policies of continued apartheid and colonization.

There were also links on that course website that were critical of boycott tactics and critical of certain Palestinian actions, but that never gets mentioned in any of these news stories about my situation. It’s all black and white. So to get the review stating I had not crossed any procedures or policies led to a sort of “but of course” response. Second, I was confused about the process and thought they would issue some statement of recourse. So I was a bit upset that they did not make suggestions on how to rectify the situation. In other words, I get slandered and nothing happens to the guy responsible for a huge change in my life. I get hate email and calls for my being fired by crazed right-wing groups; meanwhile the guy who caused this is probably having a lovely summer.

But then, the next day, I read the report and recognized just how important its findings were: not only did they find Leuchter had acted outside of his role of a faculty member, but they also noted that they could not see why a review was done at all. No student nor TA [teacher’s assistant] had ever complained.

This explained why when this whole mess started, my own students from that class — even the Jewish students — were shocked and giving me their support. Anyone in my classes knows that I grade on research and intellectual rigor, not political positions. I even require my students to yell out, “David, you’re wrong” on the second day of class simply to get them in the role of challenging me. So to read the report and see that a review was not even required since the original complaint was from an outside political organization was interesting to say the least. Understandably then, I was frustrated even more with how [Leuchter] handled everything.

NBF: Obviously, this took a lot of time away from teaching, from discussion, from feeling free to have normal critical analysis in an academic environment. Some say that this is a deliberate tactic by Amcha and other Israel lobby groups on campus to mask the reality of Israeli policy: not to debate the facts, but apply an emotional response to conversations, turn discussions on Israeli policy into an issue of personal attacks in which Israeli policy and Jewish identity are perversely conflated. What’s your reaction as a professor to this tactic?

DDS: How you just framed that is incredibly insightful, because it’s only just now coming to my consciousness, and because I wake up to hate mail. It’s never about the actual details of anything. It’s always separated from what the boycott [movement] actually seeks to achieve, it’s always separated from actual international law, it’s always separated from historical facts on the ground, and it’s always framed as “I’m anti-Israel,” and by saying that, I’m “anti-Semitic.” So we never actually get to talk about the [reality] in its complexity, where the meat of the matter is at — we have to constantly defend ourselves on either the most base fundamental charges of racism, or historical ignorance for the Jewish plight in the world.

And that shuts down the conversation, just as any kind of race-baiting shuts down the conversation. The problem about identity politics is that they often stop us from getting into more important conversations that are waiting there right under the surface. So, as a teacher, I’m not new to this, because I’ve been teaching religious studies classes and classes on worldview for twenty years. I know how a student should be walked through materials that help them slowly come to harder and harder questions.

NBF: And to the Zionist groups, campuses are the battleground, because this is where analysis and questioning of ideologies happen.

DDS: I think this gets to the core — linking Palestinian rights to indigenous rights is particularly threatening to people who are pro-Israel, because they know that in some ways indigenous rights have an audience in the world and in the international community, it specifically relies on some of the more difficult facts to ignore. The international courts and United Nations’ opinions that have come out and have repeatedly shown that Israel is breaking international law — it actually cuts at their own perception of a tribal community, the Jews themselves as a tribal community.

What’s fascinating is that some of the hate mail that I’m getting is saying to me, “how can you frame this as an indigenous issue? Don’t you know that the Jews are indigenous to that area as well?” And it’s as if I’m a tenth-grader, and I didn’t actually read the documents, but I have, and I know how the United Nations has framed Palestinians, Bedouins and Jewish people to a limited extent as indigenous to the area. But I never made the claim that the Palestinians are the only indigenous people, I’m simply pointing to the United Nations’ own documents that show that they’re indigenous to the area from where they’re being pushed off.

People are relying on a very limited and perhaps conscientious, or unconscientious, ignorance of all the facts to make their one claim, that we’re anti-Semitic for having this conversation.

NBF: Can you assess the atmosphere across UC campuses and, for that matter, across the country, when it comes to faculty and students addressing Israeli policies against Palestinians? How can students openly engage in in-class discussions at a time when professors and student groups are being defamed and threatened with lawsuits backed by well-funded Zionist organizations?

DDS: Well, this has been the most depressing aspect of my last few months, to be honest. I spent my life wanting to be a professor. I know the power of showing up and learning together, asking difficult questions, research and writing. I have spent the last four years thinking that I was in heaven, working for the UC system. UCLA was my dream job. Having tenure meant that I could pursue very challenging problems in the world and not feel harassed or unsupported. Then, this happens.

Let’s be clear here, I had pages of links to websites. A handful of those websites include links to petitions or political statements. But only one gets attention. No one is writing me and saying they politically disagree with my teaching about the raping of the Amazonian forest. No one complains that I care about the environment and signed a petition to stop oil drilling in Chile and then had the audacity to teach students about native rights in Chile. No outside organization is wondering why I am teaching about the effects of hydroelectric power coming at the expense of indigenous peoples’ lifeways in Brazil.

I mean, think about this, I teach about how the United States disregards its own treaties with native Americans all the time and no one ever complains. But the moment I provide a link to a website that is critical of Israel’s policies, I cross the line. Why is that the line? Why has one topic been taken off the table for conversation? This sort of rabid reaction actually looks more suspicious and hints at the importance of the discussion. If I told you that you could do everything but one thing, what would you think is oddly different and worthy of exploration? Criticizing Israel is analogous to the forbidden fruit now. Talk about anything — except Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

I am mostly a positive person and so I try not to let it get me down. I do think the review of my case by the Committee for Academic Freedom here at UCLA helps us know that critical thinking is not only allowed, it’s the expected norm at some schools. My heart goes out to those who are not as fortunate as I am and have found themselves at colleges or universities where they feel threatened into silence about these issues.

NBF: Is this going to have an impact on how you teach indigenous politics from now on?

DDS: I believe that we will see the review process continue on my campus. Now that we have the report from two weeks back, I’ve now moved ahead to file a formal grievance against the chair of the Academic Senate. So we have to wait to see that play out and I believe that in the future, the way in which this process has taken place will help conversations at UCLA [in the long run], because it gives some substance to the passion of both the Jewish students and the Palestinian students.

I was shocked at how many people came out of the woodwork and came to my office and said thank you, I’m a Palestinian student, or, I’m a Muslim student and have felt like I could never speak up because of the campus climate. You don’t hear their voices in the California climate report from the UC president [Mark Yudof]. And there were other faculty who came to me who were not tenured, and said that they were afraid about what this situation says about where they just accepted this job. And that was really shocking to me, to have what I consider fully-functioning adults in their professional careers suggesting to me that they now have some fear about their environment.

This situation brings to the surface conversations that we need to have.

Nora Barrows-Friedman is an associate editor of The Electronic Intifada.