Policing the academy

As I was reading one of the latest death threats I received via e-mail, I remembered the defamatory campaigns to which Edward Said has been subjected since the 1970s and which included the firebombing of his office in the 1980s. Since last summer, apologists for Israel’s “right” to be a racist state (and to use whatever violence it can muster in defence of that “right”) have begun a campaign of defamation against anyone in the US academy who dares to question any Israeli action or practice. This campaign is part of a larger effort to discredit US universities as arenas for independent scholarship and thought. It also aims to delegitimise universities who refuse to serve the interests of either the national security state or the Israeli government. The fact that those spearheading this campaign are almost exclusively part of a large conglomerate known as the pro-Israel lobby in the US is hardly surprising. Since 11 September, the campaign has expanded to include any academic who believes that Islam is not a terroristic evil religion bent on murdering the “civilised”, and that Muslims and Arabs are humans who are entitled to civil, political, and human rights in their own countries as well as in the United States.

While academics live in a world where intellectual disagreements are registered through scholarly debates and discussions, and where methodological disputes are negotiated on the pages of academic journals and books and in the context of conferences, the new self-designated academic policemen refuse to acknowledge such modes of argumentation and fora as appropriate. In their fantasy world, the offending academics must be silenced, dismissed from their jobs, and their offending publications heaped and burned in an auto-da-fé. The strategy of the thought policemen consists of a refusal to address any of the offending contentions made by scholars and instead relies on the use of policing methods of discrediting, intimidation, and character assassination often used in societies run by the secret police. The overall purpose of this policing agenda is the destruction of academic freedom and the subversion of democratic procedure.

Take the examples of two of the better known academic policemen in recent years, the American Daniel Pipes and the Israeli Martin Kramer, neither of whom teaches in the US academy; as a result, some might say that they have an axe to grind with a system that refuses to recognise their talents, especially in the field of policing and propaganda. Pipes and Kramer are two of the most outspoken defenders of Israel’s “right” to be a racist state. They are also keen to defend Israel’s prerogative to kill and bomb anyone who stands in its way of protecting its right to discriminate on racial grounds. Their role in the debate is to extend Israeli violence to the US academic arena by bombarding all enemies of Israel with defamatory accusations. It is not Merkava tanks, Uzi submachine guns, or Apache helicopters that are used in this bombardment, but rather newspaper gossip columns and secret police-style dossiers to name the preferred methods; as for the e-mail spamming, identity theft, and the death threats to which the unrepentant have been subjected, one can be sure that Kramer and Pipes are unconnected to either of them. Admittedly, their campaigns, unlike the Israeli government’s campaigns, have not yet eliminated anyone physically (although the death threats sent by others to many of us continue), but the main point is to eliminate us professionally, and, failing that, to terrorise us into silence. Like the Israeli strategy of indiscriminate violence and terror, these campaigns have failed to achieve their purpose, whether to stop the Palestinians from resisting Israel’s illegal occupation and violence in the case of Israel, or to stop Israel’s academic critics in the case of the academic policemen.

This campaign of intimidation against academics has been well planned and conceived with one major goal in mind: defamation. This is undertaken by following a number of steps involving refusal to engage any of the ideas or propositions put forth by the targeted professors, much less to refute them, consistent use of innuendo, fabrication of claims based on half-quotes pulled out of context, recruitment of young and impressionable defenders of Israel’s aforementioned “rights” on college campuses, use of the right-wing press to whip up hysteria about anti-Israel sentiment being allegedly rampant on US campuses, and calls for outright dismissal of professors found guilty of not upholding Israel’s “right” to be a racist state. The less the US public believes in defending Israel’s crimes, the more intense the campaign becomes.

While the pro-Israel lobby’s campaigns to discredit people who criticise Israel had decreased in relative terms after Oslo, they were revived after the failure of the Camp David talks and the eruption of the second Intifada. The lobby and its individual manifestations have become rabid in their campaigns of discrediting offenders to the point that they have become embarrassing to many Americans who support Israel.

The campaign against university professors and instructors began in earnest in the Spring of 2002 and has not abated since. Columbia University, where I teach, is a major focus of the campaign, as it is seen by Kramer and Pipes as a major battleground for their cause. In addition to the unceasing campaigns against Edward Said, the campaign is now focussing on new professors, namely University of Chicago Professor Rashid Khalidi who will be joining Columbia University next fall, Professor Hamid Dabashi, the chairperson of the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures at Columbia, and myself. Other professors and academics targeted on other campuses include John Esposito, Juan Cole, Ali Mazrui, M Shahid Alam, and Snehal Shingavi, among others.

The effort was inaugurated by a newspaper article published by Pipes (who has no academic post whatsoever) under the title “Extremists on Campus,” and a book published by Kramer who is “senior researcher” at Tel Aviv University’s aptly named “Moshe Dayan Centre.” Kramer, the cleverer of the two, assailed American Middle East academics for their “failure” to explain the Middle East to the US public. What Kramer means is that unlike many of their Israeli Jewish counterparts, American academics have failed to explain to Americans that Muslims and Arabs are violent uncivilised creatures and that Israel has a right to be a racist state (although in fact many of them do exactly that). As Kramer works at the Moshe Dayan Centre, named after that luminary of Israeli military conquerors, one hopes in vain that some of Dayan’s wisdom would have rubbed off on Kramer. Alas, if Dayan acknowledged in reference to Israel that “there is no single place in this country that did not have a former Arab population”, Kramer in turn chases down any academic who would remind the world of such forgotten facts and demands that such an academic repent his sins. Dayan, ever the pragmatist, was never upset with legitimate Palestinian rage at Israel which he was determined to crush. He insisted to the likes of Kramer: “Let us not today fling accusations at the [Palestinian] murderers [of Jewish colonial settlers]. Who are we that we should argue against their hatred? For eight years now they sit in their refugee camps in Gaza, and before their very eyes, we turn into our homestead the land and the villages in which they and their forefathers have lived.”

Pipes, on his part, set up McCarthyist public dossiers on the eight professors of choice on a Web site and called on our students to spy on us and report any anti-Israel statements that we might make in class. Tens of professors (among tens of thousands who work at US universities and colleges) rushed to defend the blacklisted professors by demanding that their names also be added to the blacklist. For Pipes and Kramer, this was indication enough of how anti-Israel US academic culture had become, never mind the tens of thousands of professors who fell silent and did not defend academic freedom or us. This skewed view is all the more telling in the case of the ebullient Kramer who dubbed Columbia University “Bir Zeit on the Hudson”.

Now, in the tradition of Zionist lobbyists, the issue is not to have an Israeli view balanced with a Palestinian view about the subject, but rather, failing the suppression of Palestinian views altogether, to insist on a second, a third, and a fourth Israeli view to “balance” the one Palestinian view. Take the campaign against a course that I teach at Columbia titled “Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Societies” as an example. This course has enraged Kramer and his ilk and is used as evidence that Columbia University is an anti-Israel university. The fact that there are many other courses at Columbia (in existence for years, long before my course was even conceived) covering topics on contemporary Israeli society and politics, on Zionism, on conflict resolution in the Middle East, on Israeli literature, as well as on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict itself, all taught from an Israel-friendly angle (and not always by full-time professors) is immaterial; it is this orphan course taught with a critical view of Israel (and of Palestinian nationalism) that is the problem and which must be balanced. The fact that Columbia University features an important centre for Israel and Jewish studies but no centre on Palestine and Arab studies let alone a centre on Arab studies more generally, is not taken to mean that Columbia is a place friendly to Israel, rather the opposite: the existence of one course that criticises Israel is sufficient to conclude that rampant anti-Israelism (often dubbed “anti-Semitism”) has taken over the university.

If this was not enough, Columbia’s Bir Zeit status is augmented by the divestment campaign started last year by the Faculty Committee on Palestine (of which I am a member), which indicates further to Kramer that US academics are not upholding Israel’s right to be a racist state. The fact that Columbia has a counter-divestment petition whose signatures outnumber the pro-divestment petition by a factor of 33 to one (among faculty the rate is four to one against divestment) does not allay his fears or those of his followers, nor the fact that Columbia University’s new president has publicly denounced the divestment campaign as “grotesque”. Any questioning of the policemen’s cause unto itself is seen as a thought crime, even a mortal sin against the sacrosanct cause of Israel. If anyone were to use these facts to label Columbia “Hebrew University on the Hudson”, this would be seen legitimately as anti-Semitic. However, Kramer and his followers are never brought to task for their virulent anti- Arab racism.

What Kramer, Pipes, and their ilk want to achieve is a subversion of the democratic process as well as of the academic process. Their intent is to subvert the academy by deriding its independence and by attempting to make it subject to the national security state and the thought police. As far as the democratic process is concerned, their goals are to suppress dissenting views by defaming them and calling for people to be dismissed from their jobs if they expressed them. Kramer has called for the dismissal of Dabashi, myself, and others and began an unsuccessful campaign to pressure Columbia University to withdraw its offer to Khalidi. Notice that the academic qualifications of the targeted professors based on our recognised publications and academic records are negated a priori by Kramer who questions the very legitimacy of the institutions that have granted them to us, whether Middle East Studies as a field, the Middle East Studies Association, the university presses that publish us, or the universities that employ us (he lamentingly calls me “the flower of Columbia University”). In Kramer’s and Pipes’ fantasy world, the only recognition that academics should seek in order to qualify to teach and publish on the Middle East is that of Israel’s academic police in the United States. As a gesture of good will, such academics should perhaps attempt to publish in Kramer’s and Pipes’ journal Middle East Quarterly, which is indeed impressive for the absence of scholarship in it. Maybe one day Kramer and Pipes would demand of the academy that publishing in Middle East Quarterly become a condition for any academic to obtain tenure or promotion!

Kramer and his young dupes have huffed and puffed lately about my recent article in Al-Ahram Weekly on “The Legacy of Jean-Paul Sartre”, claiming that “The Jews, not being a nation by (Massad’s) definition, cannot have nationalism. They have only racism…” I of course have not made such a claim. Israel is a racist state not because of Jewish nationalism but because of its legally institutionalised racism where only Jews (not Israelis) have rights and privileges based on their national belonging. I oppose any state that discriminates against its own citizens based on ethnic, religious, racial, national (or any other) grounds, and this especially includes those states that have discriminatory laws as Israel does. It is this and similar questions that Kramer and his followers do not want to draw attention to, as they have no convincing answers to offer. The question is: do Kramer and Pipes actually believe that these methods will work in suppressing our views and freedom of thought and force us to worship at the altar of their favourite settler-colony?

Kramer, Pipes, and co are angry that the academy still allows democratic procedure in the expression of political views and has an institutionalised meritocratic system of judgment (admittedly with its own faults) to evaluate its members. Their goal is to destroy any semblance of either in favour of subjecting democracy and academic life to an incendiary jingoism and to the exigencies of the national security state with the express aim of imploding freedom. Their larger success, however, has been in discrediting themselves and in reminding all of us that we should never take the freedoms that we have for granted, as the likes of Kramer and Pipes are working to take them away.

The writer is Assistant Professor of Modern Arab
Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University, USA. This article first appeared in Al-Ahram Weekly. It is reproduced by EI with permission of the author.