Spying by Zionist group “stifles” academic debate, say Jewish Studies scholars

Several dozen Jewish Studies professors from universities and colleges in the United States and Canada have condemned the Amcha Initiative’s program of “investigation” of students and academics.

Amcha, a right-wing Zionist organization which claims to “investigate, educate about and combat anti-Semitism” at higher education institutions in North America, has previously been exposed by The Electronic Intifada as having spied on students.

This included observing and recording their interactions on an educational tour in Palestine, and monitoring and copying personal social media activity.

The organization has also been involved in several unsuccessful attempts to silence academics in California by intimidating those who publicly support Palestinian rights and who express agreement with the Palestinian call for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

And, most recently, Amcha published a list of US academics which it considered to be “anti-Israel.”

The Amcha website states that “what drives us is the desire to protect Jewish students from both direct and indirect assault and fear while attending colleges and universities.”

However, according to the statement signed by over forty professors of Jewish Studies and initially published by The Jewish Daily Forward, Amcha’s “technique of monitoring lectures, symposia and conferences strains the basic principle of academic freedom on which the American university is built.”

“Moreover, its definition of anti-Semitism is so undiscriminating as to be meaningless,” the statement continues. “Instead of encouraging openness through its efforts, Amcha’s approach closes off all but the most narrow intellectual directions and has a chilling effect on research and teaching.”

What is unusual – and significant – about this challenge to the Amcha Initiative is that the signatories to the statement are not necessarily critics of Israel. The statement asserts that Amcha’s “methods lend little support to Israel, whose very survival depends on free, open, and vigorous debate about its future,” suggesting that the signatories are committed to supporting Israel.

Indeed, several of the professors named in the statement teach at the Hebrew Union Colleges, which call themselves “the academic leader in placing Israel at the center of Jewish studies” and “the first seminary to inaugurate the required Year-In-Israel Program for all rabbinical and cantorial students… and the first institution to require the Year-In-Israel for full-time students in our MA in Jewish Education/Religious Education programs.”

Far from being “usual suspects” in arguing for an academic boycott of Israel, the voicing of concern from such mainstream Jewish Studies scholars highlights the extremism of Amcha’s positions and techniques, and concern from within the Jewish community that this discredits those whom Amcha claims to represent.

But, the open statement insists, programs of study on the Middle East, “whether supportive or critical of Israeli policy,” should not “be monitored for content or political orientation. We find it regrettable that Amcha, so intent on combatting the boycott of Israel, has launched a boycott initiative of its own. This further degrades the currency of academic freedom.”


Sarah Irving

Sarah Irving's picture

Sarah is a freelance writer and editor, author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine, co-editor of A Bird is Not a Stone (a volume of Palestinian poetry translated into the languages of Scotland), and a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. She has worked and traveled in Palestine since 2001.