California professor under attack for opposing “study in Israel” scheme

Palestine solidarity activism on US campuses continues to grow despite attacks by Israel lobby groups.

Maureen Clare Murphy

A mathematics professor at the California State University at Northridge is the target of an attack campaign by various pro-Israel lobby groups and individuals because he maintains a website that supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, and for his outspoken criticism of Israeli policies.

Recently, Dr. David Klein has come under fire for organizing in opposition to the 23-campus-wide California State University (CSU) system’s resumption of a study abroad program in Israel, which was discontinued in 2002 because of a US State Department warning on travel to the region during the second Palestinian intifada.

In an open letter delivered to to CSU Chancellor Charles Reed last month, Klein — along with the signatures of more than 80 CSU faculty and staff members, and dozens of students statewide — urged the CSU administration to not reinstate the study abroad program.

In addition to an explanation of the historic injuring and killing of US citizens — including university students — by Israeli soldiers during unarmed protests in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, the letter states that CSU students interested in this study abroad program “could face discriminatory treatment, based on race and ethnicity” (“An open letter to CSU Chancellor Charles Reed regarding the CSU-Israel study abroad program”).

It is well-known that at border crossings and the airport, Israel discriminates against — as well as regularly detains and deports — US citizens with Middle Eastern ancestry, or Arabic or Muslim names.

The US State Department’s travel warning explicitly states that Palestinian-American dual citizens — persons who were born in the West Bank or Gaza Strip and have become naturalized US citizens — “are considered by the Israeli government to retain their Palestinian nationality, and Israeli authorities will view them as Palestinians.”

The travel warning adds, “Palestinian-Americans whom the Government of Israel considers residents of the West Bank or Gaza may face certain travel restrictions. These individuals are subject to restrictions on movement between Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, and within the West Bank and Gaza that are imposed by the Israeli government on all Palestinians” (Israel, the West Bank and Gaza: Country-specific information).

However, despite the open letter, the inherent discrimination within the Israeli study abroad program itself, and enormous statewide budget cuts that have eviscerated educational resources, the CSU administration announced in mid-December that it was “pleased to announce the re-opening of its program in Israel starting Fall 2012” (“Israel: Overview”).

The program will be hosted at the University of Haifa, making it nearly impossible for Palestinian CSU students who were born in the West Bank or Gaza to attend.

Already four CSU students are currently enrolled for the 2012-2013 school year, according to the Daily 49er, the campus newspaper of CSU-Long Beach (“Israel program back after safety concerns,” 23 January 2012).

Continuation of a disturbing trend on US campuses

Klein, a longtime human rights activist, told The Electronic Intifada that he worked with popular solidarity committees in El Salvador and Nicaragua in the 1980s, and also confronted Ku Klux Klansmen in rural Louisiana. But it was Israel’s attacks on the Gaza Strip in the winter of 2008-09 that spiked his interest in Palestinian rights. Klein began a website on his own CSU-Northridge faculty page to bring attention to what was happening in Palestine, and it has since become an in-depth resource for the growing, international Palestinian-led BDS movement.

In addition to hosting the website, Klein also joined the organizing committee of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and is a faculty advisor for the local Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at CSU-Northridge.

Since beginning his Palestine solidarity and BDS activism work, Klein has faced aggressive slander and threats by anti-Palestinian individuals and Israeli lobby groups who have called him and his website “anti-Semitic” (“Sample hate mail, opposition, and expressions of racism in response to the open letter to CSU Chancellor Reed and this website”).

Some of the most vicious attacks levelled against him personally, he said, include those by two faculty members at the University of California (UC) Santa Cruz and UC Los Angeles who have founded the Amcha Initiative, a project which aims “to inform the Jewish community about the efforts made by Jewish students and faculty to combat anti-Jewish bigotry on California campuses.”

The two professors boast on the Amcha website that they have launched the “Investigative Taskforce on Campus Antisemitism” and have filed complaints with the UC system claiming “anti-Israel” and “anti-Jewish discourse and behavior in classrooms, [and] at university-sponsored events” (About us).

However, just recently, a California court and a University of California official disagreed with these types of claims. In late December, the court dismissed a lawsuit brought by students at UC Berkeley who claimed that they faced anti-Semitism on campus. The court determined the plaintiffs could not provide evidence to support their allegations.

Following on the heels of the lawsuit dismissal, a major announcement was made last week by University of California President Mark Yudof — an ardent supporter of Israeli policy — who, as Ali Abunimah reported for The Electronic Intifada, denied claims that Jewish students on UC campuses “face a climate of hostility that amounts to a violation of their civil rights, due to Palestine solidarity activism.”

Referring to two civil rights complaints at UC Berkeley and UC Santa Cruz — where Amcha’s members have alleged that Jewish students face “intellectual and emotional harassment and intimidation” as a result of classroom discussions and on-campus events — Yudof stated: “These cases have to be carefully crafted with a fact pattern that is compelling. I don’t think in either of these cases these fact patterns exist” (College leaders balance Israel and speech,” The Forward, 17 January 2012).

Despite their inability to prove that a frightening culture of anti-Semitism exists on UC and CSU campuses, members of anti-Palestinian groups such as Campus Watch, Amcha and the nationwide academic watchdog group euphemistically called Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) have not relented in their mission to conflate anti-Semitism with Palestine solidarity activism or academic discussions on Israel’s policies towards Palestinians.

“The larger issue for the pro-Israel groups is that they don’t want to allow the criticism of Israel to be public if they can stop it,” Klein explained. “On a level playing field, in a debate or in a situation where all facts can be aired, they would lose. So the only way to win is to silence debate.”

Open debate: “breaking the rules” of academic freedom?

Dr. Lisa Rofel, a cultural anthropology professor at UC Santa Cruz, told The Electronic Intifada that she was subjected to harassment by Amcha and SPME after organizing on-campus events related to Palestine and critical analysis of Zionism. A member of the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network, Rofel said that she was brought up on charges three times by Israel lobby groups who claimed that she “broke the rules of academic freedom by talking about politics on campus.”

Rofel said that the chancellor’s lawyer on campus disagreed with the claims, so she was then brought up on the same charges to the university’s committee on academic freedom, who told the Israel lobbyists that they had no case and to stop harassing her.

“They were then very unhappy,” Rofel said. “Then, someone who’s a big supporter of Israel went to the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights and managed to get anti-Semitism [categorized] as a racial discrimination.”

“It’s very disturbing to me to define Jewish identity as a racial identity, because that’s what Hitler did,” Rofel added. “But you have to define it this way to claim anti-Semitism, and the whole point is that they’re trying to bring up a charge of anti-Semitic discrimination on campus with the Department of Education against those of us who put on these events, and against the university administration who didn’t do anything to stop it.”

The Israel lobby’s threats and intimidation tactics against other US professors have worked — and some academics have been punished for holding open discussions on Israeli policies. Dr. Terri Ginsberg, who was denied tenure at North Carolina State University (NCSU) in 2008, has been subjected to academic censorship efforts by Israeli lobby groups and has been subsequently blacklisted for other faculty positions. She is now embroiled in legal proceedings in her ongoing fight against censorship and intimidation.

In an interview with The Electronic Intifada in December, Ginsberg said that NCSU admitted that it openly suppressed a speech of hers which was “critical of Zionism and supportive of the Palestine liberation struggle” and that the university “chose not to interview or hire” her for a tenure-track position because of her scholarship on Palestine and the Middle East.

In reference to Ginsberg’s ongoing struggle, Rofel said she feels that the administration at UC Santa Cruz isn’t as susceptible to Israeli lobby attacks, and she feels generally supported.

“[The university] has protected me in terms of not finding me guilty of any charges related to violations of academic freedom,” Rofel said. “And I feel very lucky to be on this campus, because [what happened to Ginsberg] would not happen here.”

An imperative time for universities to support faculty, students

Back at CSU-Northridge, Klein said that like Rofel, his university’s administration has been protective of him and has supported his activism under the banner of academic freedom. He added that there has not yet been any indication that his website nor tenured position are in jeopardy.

However, even after the CSU system reinstated the Israel study abroad program last month, Klein said the attacks on him by outside lobby groups and individuals have not quelled, and the demands to take down his website are still unrelenting.

Klein told The Electronic Intifada that he believes there is “a great deal of coordination” among various Zionist and Israeli lobby groups, but it is Amcha’s targeted attacks in particular that have been most troublesome.

Tammi Rossman-Benjamin and Leila Beckwith, the founding members of Amcha, “have been beating the drums the hardest, demanding that the university take down my website,” Klein said.

“And now, since the university has supported my website as an expression of academic freedom, now they’re attacking the university administration,” he added. “The acting president, Harry Hellenbrand, is a signer of the open letter [against the reinstatement of the Israel study abroad program], and they’re attacking him for that, and they’re going to the chancellor.”

US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) organizing committee members Sunaina Maira, professor of Asian American studies at UC Davis, and Nada Elia, professor of Global and Gender Studies at Antioch University in Seattle, told The Electronic Intifada by email that the attempts to censor Klein run against the very idea of academic freedom and open discussion in university classrooms. Maira said that the viciousness of the attacks on Klein “betray a desperation to shut down free and honest debate and to exceptionalize the case of Israel.”

“Professor Klein is a courageous and conscientious scholar who has chosen not to remain silent in the face of egregious violations of international law and overt racial discrimination in Israel,” Maira added.

“As a principled Jewish American scholar, he has worked with students and colleagues to oppose a program that would legitimize an illegal occupation and discriminatory policies, which the Brand Israel campaign would like the world to ignore, in the face of growing global condemnation and international outrage,” she said.

Elia said that the Israeli lobby’s attempts to excoriate the cultural and academic boycott movement against Israeli institutions and describe it as an effort that violates, not protects, academic freedom should be carefully examined.

“We should be very clear about the fact that the Palestinian call for boycotting Israeli institutions which are complicit in the occupation is not a violation of academic freedom — it is a means to an end, a strategy to achieve the academic freedom that currently does not exist in Israel and Palestine, and is seriously jeopardized in the US,” she stated.

As of press time, more than 860 persons have signed on to a public petition (penned by his colleagues at USACBI) demanding that the California State University system — and, specifically, CSU Chancellor Reed — defend David Klein and not capitulate to the lobby’s demands that his website be taken down, nor should he be subjected to academic punishment (“Sign petition in support of Dr. David Klein and academic freedom here”).

Along with public support, Klein said he’s optimistic about the support from within the university itself. “So far, the administration is standing with me,” he explained. “Hopefully it’ll be representative of a paradigm shift.”

Klein said that now, more than ever, is an imperative time for universities to stand by their faculty and students. In addition to the attacks on academics like Terri Ginsberg and Norman Finkelstein, ten Muslim students at UC Irvine last fall were charged and convicted by the Orange County District Attorney’s office with disrupting a public meeting for their protest of the Israeli ambassador’s speech on campus.

“[It sets] an important precedent,” Klein said, referring to his case. “It’s a precedent for a faculty member to be able to post criticisms of Israel and Israeli policy on a website. So if the current situation stands and I’m allowed to continue to do that, it immediately opens doors for other faculty in the 23 other state university systems. But it would also have positive effects for the other university systems as well.”

While well-funded Israel lobby groups attempt — and fail — to prove that a pandemic of anti-Semitism exists on college campuses, student activism in support of Palestinian rights continues to strengthen.

Groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine — with growing chapters across California and the rest of the US — are more determined than ever to press forward with divestment initiatives and creative protests against Israeli apartheid policies.

“I can’t put my finger on it but I feel that worldwide, there’s a shift in the last couple of years where there’s a greater opening to criticize Israel and the policies that Israel imposes on the Palestinian people,” Klein said.

Lisa Rofel of UC Santa Cruz said that although she’s less optimistic than her colleague about a general paradigm shift, she knows that it’s important to analyze the reasons why Israel lobby groups are spending so much time and effort attempting to censor discussion.

She told The Electronic Intifada: “The activities of people who are trying to silence us are very worrisome, because they’re so anti-democratic, so rigid. If they’re so convinced about the rightness of their position, then they shouldn’t worry about open debate.”

Nora Barrows-Friedman is an award-winning independent journalist, and is a staff writer and editor for The Electronic Intifada. She also writes for Inter Press Service, Al Jazeera, Truthout and other outlets, and regularly reports from Palestine.