Two open letters penned by the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) and Native American and Indigenous Studies scholars have been published this week in defense of UCLA professor David Shorter, who was recently the target of an attack by Israel lobby groups.
Professor Shorter was recently accused of “misusing” campus resources “for the purpose of promoting the academic and cultural boycott of Israel” by the California-based Amcha Initiative — an Israel lobby whose founders have targeted other academics in recent months, such as Dr. David Klein at CSU-Northridge and Dr. Lisa Rofel at UC Santa Cruz because of their political activism and endorsement of the BDS movement.
USACBI’s letter states, in part:
In March 2012, Tammi Rossman-Benjamin and Leila Beckwith, the co-founders of an anti-Palestinian organization known as the “Amcha Initiative,” emailed a letter to California politicians and administrators of the University of California that accused UCLA Professor David Shorter of misusing campus resources for “the purpose of promoting the academic and cultural boycott of Israel” to students in his course, “Tribal Worldviews.” That course, which was offered in winter 2012, explores indigenous struggles around the world and the use of global media and arts to mobilize for indigenous rights. Dr. Shorter’s course site included dozens of links to websites, articles, petitions, and videos, as examples of indigenous and activist campaigns, including a link to the website of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI), a campaign which Professor Shorter himself has endorsed along with hundreds of other faculty members from universities across the country.
Without directly communicating with Dr. Shorter, or speaking with his students or Teaching Assistants, the chair of UCLA’s Academic Senate, Dr. Andrew Leuchter, reviewed the course materials at the behest of Amcha. He then conveyed to Prof. Shorter, through his department chair, that he should not repeat the “mistake” of providing the USACBI weblink, making no mention of the other dozens of sources on the course site. As the sole reviewer of Dr. Shorter’s teaching, Dr. Leuchter did not involve the Academic Senate’s Committee on Academic Freedom, nor did he account for the larger collection of materials on the course site offering a diverse range of perspectives. Among these were United Nations documents that framed the Palestinian struggle as an indigenous struggle, and thus clearly within the scope of the course, as Dr. Shorter explained to his students. In an informal conversation, Dr. Shorter expressed to his chair that he understood the larger social context of the accusations and that the matter deserved further discussion.
Relying on one sentence from Dr. Shorter’s chair that described him as “understanding the situation,” Dr. Leuchter falsely communicated to Amcha, UC and UCLA administrators, and California politicians that Professor Shorter understood “his serious error in judgment has said that he will not make this mistake again.” Responding to a subsequent press release from Amcha the next day, newspapers started calling Dr. Shorter asking for a comment on his recent disciplinary action and stance on Israel. In response to this assault on academic freedom, Dr. Shorter has been joined by departments, colleagues, Deans and California Scholars for Academic Freedom in asking for an official review of the inappropriate way in which this matter was handled at UCLA.
Additionally, a letter signed by Native American and Indigenous Studies scholars was published this week. Their letter states, in part:
As Native American and Indigenous Studies scholars who endorse the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI), we write in defense of our colleague Professor David Shorter. … In its rhetoric, AMCHA equates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, a spurious equation wielded by those who seek to suppress open discussion of Israel and its state policies.
… In response to these multiple violations of academic freedom, we join the California Scholars for Academic Freedom in insisting upon an official review of the inappropriate way in which UCLA’s academic leaders handled this matter. We reject the singling out and censoring of criticism of the Israeli state by AMCHA as well as the collusion of university administrators with this position. We strongly support Shorter’s academic freedom and support all scholarly efforts that enable critical analysis of every sort, including consideration of the Palestinian people’s resistance to Israeli occupation, settler colonialism, and apartheid.
The attack on Shorter is not an isolated incident; faculty and students on campuses across the country have been attacked for supporting the rights of Palestinian people and for providing a critical analysis of Israeli policies. By persistently labeling all scholars, non-Jewish and Jewish alike, who provide information about Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights as anti-Semitic purveyors of “hate speech,” the pro-Israel lobby has sought to stifle public debate on campuses and in the media across the country. It is essential to prevent reactionary groups from using tactics of intimidation to silence the vitality and possibility for critical discussions on the policies of Israel.
In this attempt to control what can and cannot be taught within a university classroom AMCHA has demonstrated its adherents’ lack of respect for free academic inquiry, and UCLA’s leaders have demonstrated their willingness to sacrifice that same freedom for the sake of political expediency.