Propaganda disguised as academic inquiry at the University of Illinois

4 December 2009

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Former University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Richard Herman

Chancellor Richard Herman of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently resigned due to his cooperation with political influence-peddlers seeking to gain admission for less qualified but privileged applicants. But Herman also participated in a more acceptable form of political corruption — publicly displayed with the invocation of high principle — in his cooperation with the Israel lobby in opposition to the British boycott of Israeli academics, and in the funding of the Israel Studies Project at the Urbana campus.

The Israel Studies Project, jointly funded since 2005 by the chancellor’s office and the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago, has had nothing to do with the serious study of Israel, and everything to do with promoting support for its criminal political behavior. Its guests, in residence for two weeks during the fall or spring of each year, have included propagandists Yossi Klein Halevi and Hillel Halkin; and, most recently, writer and talk show host Irit Linur, described below. There have been no invitations to Israeli dissidents, and none to Palestinian citizens of Israel. The unquestioned assumption that the study of Israel excludes the voices of 20 percent of its citizens is consistent with the state-sponsored racism of the Israel Studies Project, implicit and explicit.

Under what ethical code should a partisan political interest group (no less a venal one) be permitted to buy its own program at a public university with which to promote its agenda?

A 26 July 2007 letter to Herman captures the flavor of Herman’s relationship with the Israel lobby. It was signed by Jay Tcath, Executive Director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, and Joel Schwitzer, Executive Director of Hillel at the Urbana Campus, with a copy to Michael Kotzin, Executive Vice President of Jewish United Fund and the promoter with Herman of the Israel Studies Project. In it they profusely thanked Herman for his opposition to the academic boycott promoted by the UK’s University and College Union, and for declaring himself, “in effect, an Israeli academic.” They also thanked him for exploring a resumption of study abroad programs between the University of Illinois and Israel.

After a visit to Israel sponsored by the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange, Herman stated in a letter published on 16 August 2007 in the St. Louis Post Dispatch that the Israel Studies Project “promotes and supports the academic study of Jewish culture and society in the spirit of free and open inquiry.” He referred both to Israeli and Palestinian higher education in asserting that “change will only come through collaborations.”

Referring to the UK University and College Union boycott, Herman concluded: “The irony is hardly lost on me.”

Indeed there is abundant irony not to be lost in considering the Israel Studies Project in light of Herman’s effort to occupy the high moral ground — even barring the admissions scandal that was his downfall. Needless to say, Herman never lifted a finger during his tenure to either criticize any Israeli action, or to ensure that Palestinian perspectives be represented on campus. He said nothing in response to Israel’s invasion of Gaza last winter nor has he criticized Israel’s blatant and repeated violations of the right of Palestinians to an education and academic freedom.

Instead, the Israel Studies Project and Herman’s advocacy for it point to the ironies of racism and corruption rather than the principles of academic freedom. Its purpose is the promotion of Israeli policies (as well as American support for those policies) and the sanitization of Israeli culture. Appropriately, Israeli writer Irit Linur spoke about “Making TV Drama in Israel” on 17 November.

Linur has a well-known political reputation in Israel. In 2002, Linur used her radio program to call for a boycott of Israel’s Haaretz newspaper “until it fires journalists Amira Hass and Gideon Levy.” Hass and Levy are the most courageous and incisive Jewish Israeli journalists critical of the Israeli occupation, and it is therefore inconceivable that either would receive an invitation from the Israel Studies Project, as did the (ironically) boycott-advocating Linur.

Earlier this year, after the organization Breaking the Silence in Israel published soldier testimonies about Israeli military crimes in Gaza, the Israeli director of the New Israel Fund released a statement critical of Linur and her co-host for threats to “break the bones” of Breaking the Silence. Israeli commentator Itay Ziv subsequently wrote in the local Tel Aviv paper Ha’Ir: “Irit Linur is a dangerous person. She behaves on her program like a quick thinking intellectual to give the impression of intellectual integrity. She gives violence an aesthetic wrapping.”

During Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon, Keshev, the Center for the Protection of Democracy in Israel, accused Linur of “racist messages and comments, which often turn into an all-out incitement, urging the killing of innocent civilians.” They quote Linur: “I say, let us bomb Ramallah [the demonstrators there] … and before [Hizballah leader Hassan Nasrallah] fires a stray rocket at them, we can already declare them martyrs. They are the enemy.”

Prior to Linur’s presentation, members of the Urbana chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine distributed a flier based on Keshev’s documentation of Linur’s incitements to violence. In its 18 November story on the event, the student newspaper emphasized these complaints. However, any such discussion was absent from the talk itself, which centered on Linur’s anecdotal tales of TV writing in Israel.

The Israel Studies Project is administered by the Program for Jewish Culture and Society (PJCS). The Director and Assistant Director of the PJCS expressed their obliviousness to Linur’s political background, as well as to the existence of Students for Justice in Palestine on campus to the Daily Illini.

In sharp contrast, on 10 November, the distinguished Israeli historian Ilan Pappe spoke to a packed hall of 250 to 300 at Illinois State University in Normal (50 miles west of Urbana) on “Palestine: The Historical Lessons for Our Time.” In 45 minutes, Pappe summarized what has been his life’s work, research into the Zionist movement’s and Israel’s colonization of Palestine, resulting in the expulsion of the Palestinian people. Pappe’s The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine is a seminal work. But as a dissident, he lives and works in the United Kingdom rather than Israel, where severe pressure is placed on academics who challenge Israel’s policies — by people like Irit Linur. One must finally acknowledge that as the ironies mount, the pattern of blatant hypocrisy is revealed.

Yet the topic of the Linur event indicates that even for the Israel Studies Project, pro-Israeli political rhetoric/propaganda is perhaps no longer routinely acceptable in official venues on the Urbana campus. It is to be hoped that in the near future, cultural sanitization will give way to a serious consideration of historical and political truths.

David Green is a 59-year-old Jewish-American who lives in Champaign, Illinois, and works for the University of Illinois. He has been writing about Israel/Palestine for the past 12 years. He can be reached at davegreen84 A T yahoo D O T com.