Israel, Palestine, and campus civil wars

About the author
Stephen Howe is professor in the history and cultures of colonialism at Bristol University. His books include Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes (Verso, 1998); Anticolonialism in British Politics: The Left and the End of Empire 1918-1964 (Oxford University Press, 1993); Ireland and Empire: Colonial Legacies in Irish History and Culture (Oxford University Press, 2000); Empire: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2002); and (as editor) The New Imperial Histories Reader (Routledge, 2009)

On both sides of the Atlantic, universities and academics are embroiled in bitter controversy over attitudes to the middle east, and especially to Israel. There’s nothing new in that: “conflicts about the conflict”, where scholars’ ideas intertwine and collide with political projects and ethno–national claims, have accompanied and helped shape the Israeli–Palestinian struggle since its genesis. Today, though, they seem to have taken on a new kind of sharpness, a new depth of antagonism – and a new, global breadth, too, that may be accelerated by the web’s potential for near–instantaneous universalisation of initially local quarrels. Above all, these disputes have spilled far beyond the micro–politics of academia into the political arena at large.

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Battles among, or about, academic analyses of current affairs are usually “softened” a little by protagonists’ recognition – however grudging – that their opponents know something about the issues at stake; which indeed they may have spent a lifetime studying. It seems now, however, that in relation to the Israel–Palestine conflict such minimal mutual respect has altogether vanished. It is becoming entirely routine for pro–Israeli and pro–Palestinian intellectual feudists to describe one another as fools, frauds, paid agents of sinister puppet–masters, and – most often, and worst – mere bigots and racists.

There is a good rule of thumb for social arguments, now applicable to almost any subject and circumstance. It goes simply: whoever first mentions the Nazis loses the argument. By that measure, all sides in polemics over the middle east have long since lost: comparing each other to Nazis has become the routine, shop–soiled and ever–devaluing currency of dispute.

The two main current flashpoints both involve the most prestigious universities in their countries’ biggest cities: London University’s School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and New York’s Columbia University.

Israel in the SOAS storm

The very title of the conference held at SOAS on 5 December 2004, “Resisting Israeli Apartheid: Strategies and Principles”, arouses anger in pro–Israeli circles; as does the gathering’s aim – to renew and intensify the drive for an academic boycott of Israel, which began in Britain in 2002 – and the lineup of speakers. Jewish student groups accused the organisers of inciting hatred and even potentially fomenting violence. Newspaper columnists Melanie Phillips and Stephen Pollard led a chorus of denunciation.

Before examining the politics of comparing Israel to apartheid South Africa, raised by demands for a boycott of Israel, a question at least equally at issue deserves to be considered. Indeed, it is the oldest, most ubiquitous bugbear in these controversies: when does criticism of Israel shade into anti–semitism?

Many critics felt that the opening keynote speaker at the SOAS event, Tom Paulin – poet, literary scholar and TV critic – decisively crossed that line when he was quoted in the Egyptian newspaper Al–Ahram in April 2002 as saying that Jewish settlers were “Nazis” who “should be shot dead”‘. He also, in a poem commemorating a Palestinian schoolboy killed by Israeli soldiers, wrote of the “Zionist SS”. He later said his views had been misrepresented, that he opposed all forms of racism and attacks on civilians, and supported a two–state solution to the conflict.

Paulin’s anger and pain at being labelled an anti–semite are absolutely genuine, as is his commitment to anti–racism. His speech at the SOAS event itself, on “Poetry and Partition”, compared Israel–Palestine with his native Northern Ireland. It was, apparently, fairly low–key.

Paulin’s presence at the SOAS conference was central to the Jewish student groups’ claims that it might break laws against incitement to racial hatred, intensify ethnic tensions at the college (already allegedly high because of the previous activities of militant Islamist groups there) and even put students at risk of physical attack. But some others of the event’s speakers and organisers are almost as disliked by pro–Israel lobbyists as is Paulin. They included Steven and Hilary Rose, the originators of the call for an academic boycott of Israel; Mona Baker of Manchester University’s Institute of Science and Technology, who as part of that boycott sacked two Israeli members of a journal she edited; and Ilan Pappe, the fiercely anti–Zionist Israeli historian who is now in the apparently paradoxical position of calling for his own workplace and colleagues to be made global pariahs.

Palestine in the Columbia mirror

Meanwhile in New York, tempers are running even higher in a closely parallel dispute. Here too, the issue has been bubbling away for years, with pro–Palestinian and pro–Israeli scholars, students and outside pundits accusing each other of turning their classrooms into bearpits of bias, bigotry and intimidation. But here too, the battles are taking a new and nastier turn.

The present storm is heralded by accusations made in local tabloids the New York Daily News and New York Sun, and in a new film alleging pervasive anti–Israeli bias at Columbia University – and especially its Middle East and Asian Languages and Culture department (Mealac). In both newspaper and film, Jewish and Israeli–born students claim they face harassment, threats and intimidation from teachers who, it is said, abuse their positions to purvey not scholarship but violent anti–Zionist, indeed anti–semitic propaganda.

At the centre of the storm is a youngish, untenured middle–east studies professor, Joseph Massad. Anthony Weiner, a Brooklyn Congressman, has called for Massad to be fired, and the whole Mealac department to be “restructured”. The film, produced by a slightly mysterious Boston–based group called the David Project, features several Columbia students relating experiences of alleged bullying and harassment from professors, especially Massad. He is supposed, for instance, to have asked an Israeli student who served in the Israeli army how many Palestinians he had killed; equated the Jewish state with Nazism; and humiliated other Jewish students in public.

Accusations against other, more senior professors, notably Mealac head Hamid Dabashi and historian Rashid Khalidi, are also circulating, albeit in less specific and damaging terms. The Daily News broadened the accusations to include even Columbia literature professor Bruce Robbins, whose only “crime” seems to be his prominence among American Jews who advocate justice for the Palestinians.

Other indicators of anti–Israeli bias at Columbia cited by critics include the 106 academic staff signing a petition in October 2002 that called for Columbia to disinvest from companies that do business with Israel’s military – and, again, compared Israel to apartheid South Africa.

But the picture is murkier than this suggests. Another New York paper, the Jewish Week, spoke to four of the seven students who appeared in the film, and to many others — mostly Israeli or American Jewish students who attended Mealac courses. Almost none endorsed the film’s or the Daily News’s claims. Columbia’s authorities report that no formal complaints of political intimidation in the classroom have been received from any student. The confrontation between Massad and the Israeli ex–army student apparently took place not in Massad’s seminar but in a one–to–one encounter, initiated by the student, after a public lecture.

The distinction matters. Just as the SOAS conference was not sponsored or organised by the college authorities but by a student society in collaboration with outside bodies, so Massad’s alleged acts seemingly took place outside his teaching duties. The difference is between abusing academic structures for contentious political ends, and individuals or unofficial groups exercising their right to free expression.

Yet naturally, things don’t end there. For all sides in these battles, the particular incidents, often small in themselves – a one–day conference, a few professors’ alleged behaviour, a few students’ or even politicians’ possibly exaggerated if not malicious complaints – are seen as just symptoms of a much wider war. And each main camp sees itself as the persecuted victims in that war, while its opponents are the racist aggressors.

Joseph Massad believes that far from his views being anti–semitic, Israel is a racist state whose own actions – and often–implied claim to act on behalf of all Jews worldwide – are in effect anti–semitic. Massad sees himself as victim, not persecutor. He cites an email he got from an academic colleague – one of many abusive or threatening messages he says he’s received – which urged: “Go back to Arab land where Jew hating is condoned. Get the hell out of America. You are a disgrace and a pathetic typical Arab liar.” He says he’s had to give up teaching his course on Palestine under “the duress of coercion and intimidation.”

Hamid Dabashi too reports harassment and abuse, as does Rashid Khalidi, while Columbia’s most famous Palestinian, the late Edward Said, experienced it repeatedly.

The participants in Britain’s middle–east wars express similar feelings. Awad Joumaa of SOAS’s Palestinian Society, responding to claims that the conference excited hate against Israelis or even Jews in general, said: “We are not the ones inciting hatred here. We are the ones under attack.”

The separation wall of argument

But then almost everyone who has engaged in debate on Israeli–Palestinian affairs, from whatever angle, reports (at least privately) that they’ve felt under attack; ranging from malicious misquotation by opponents, through email spam blizzards, to death threats. Certainly I (to indulge one personal note) have experienced the milder forms of this, despite having published relatively little on the issue, and that from an almost aggressively centre–ground position. My consolation, or even pride, is that I’ve had it from extremists on both sides. Abuse and misrepresentation in Israeli–Palestinian debate seem more endemic, perhaps more spiteful, than in relation to any other world issue. Mutual accusations of anti–semitism and anti–Arab or anti–Muslim bigotry are the worst, most sordid aspect of it all.

Also in openDemocracy, Emanuele Ottolenghi and Anatol Lieven debate Israel, anti–semitism, and American foreign policy:

  • Anatol Lieven, “Israel and the American antithesis” (October 2004)
  • Emanuele Ottolenghi, “Anatol Lieven, right or wrong?” (October 2004)
  • Anatol Lieven, “Israel, the United States, and truth: a reply to Emanuele Ottolenghi” (October 2004)

If you find openDemocracy’s coverage of this issue valuable, please subscribe for just £25 / $40 / €40. You’ll gain access to easy–to–read PDFs of all our articles.

Some part, maybe a large part, of this comes from a genuine clash of entrenched positions and deep emotions. But much, it seems to me, is utterly dishonest. It is crucially important, though often difficult, to distinguish between the sincere if perhaps false charge, the genuine misunderstanding, and the cynical smear. Some, at least, of those who find comparison of Israeli policies with apartheid deeply offensive hold that view in good faith; and some of those were themselves courageous anti–apartheid campaigners. Equally, some of the people who have attacked Joseph Massad or Tom Paulin are sincerely angered or disturbed by those men’s words. Massad especially has provided some damaging ammunition for his critics’ case.

But very often, it seems increasingly often, it is extremely hard to accept that the accusations are made in good faith. It should be underlined that the worst excesses are rarely from the people most closely involved, let alone those with real expertise. In the lists of participants in the SOAS conference or the British academics’ “boycott Israel” campaign – or, on the other side, those who’ve leveled accusations at various Columbia teachers – one finds remarkably few people whose own lives, work or research indicate deep knowledge of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.

This is not to say that such non–experts are not, often, deeply and honestly concerned about the issues, let alone that they have no right to speak on them. It is certainly not to suggest that greater knowledge should mean a retreat from political action, or a dimming of moral outrage either at a brutal Israeli occupation or at indiscriminate, self–defeating terrorist attacks. Quite the reverse. A slightly stronger drive for self–education among the noisier polemicists might, however, lower the temperature just a bit and make it more difficult for some of the sillier accusations and more far–fetched comparisons to stick.

Without such a drive, all sense of complexity and nuance, of historical and moral entanglement, is lost. Glib comparisons of Israel with apartheid South Africa, let alone Nazi Germany, aid neither understanding nor a search for justice. The important point isn’t – or shouldn’t be – that the apartheid analogy has strong emotional overtones and resounds to Israel’s discredit. It is that the two societies, the two conflicts, have such extreme structural dissimilarities that the comparison doesn’t tell us much at all that helps explain what made Israeli policies or the Palestinian situation what they are.

Rules for civilised discourse

One of the minor ironies of the SOAS contretemps is that the school’s director, Colin Bundy, is not only a South African historian and former staunch anti–apartheid campaigner, but someone who in important early writings analysed why the model of South African development then held by the African National Congress – seeing it as “colonialism of a special type” – didn’t work very well, and thus was actively unhelpful to the liberation struggle. He understood the vital connection between analysis and action, as many of the pro– and anti–Israeli campaigners today apparently do not. Maybe some of those who’ve been writing letters of misplaced protest to him could better spend their time reading some of his work.

Also by Stephen Howe on openDemocracy:

  • “American Empire: the history and future of an idea” (June 2004)
  • “An Oxford Scot at King Dubya’s court: Niall Ferguson’s Colossus” (July 2004)
  • “Dying for empire, Blair, or Scotland?” (November 2004 )
  • “The death of Arafat and the end of national liberation” (November 2004)

If you find Stephen Howe’s informed, acute, and fair–minded analyses of contemporary global issues valuable, you are in good company at openDemocracy! Please consider subscribing to openDemocracy for £2/$3/€3 a month and access PDFs of these and other articles

Some other, mostly American participants in the knowledge wars over the middle east do seem to understand the connection, and use it in a strategically–minded and even sinister way. A coterie of rightwing ideologues has been working assiduously to remodel US academia’s teaching, writing and research on the region so that it reflects more pro–Israeli views and – perhaps more important – ones more supportive of US government policies. They operate through a nexus of interconnected think–tanks, through journals like the National Review and Middle East Quarterly, websites like the McCarthyite “Campus Watch”, and political lobbying designed to deny government funding (under “Title VI” of the US’s Higher Education Act) to universities whose middle–east coverage has an “anti–American” and/or “anti–Israeli” bias.

Their central charge is that middle–east studies is dominated by pro–Arab, even pro–Islamist, leftwing scholars whose pervasive addiction to trendy cultural theories makes them blind to real political trends, and whose hatred of Israel is matched only by their scorn for American values and interests. It’s almost irrelevant that some of these accusations are mutually contradictory (charging academics with being simultaneously godless Marxists and apologists for militant Islam is odd, to say the least).

A Republican White House and Congress – already deeply suspicious of the seemingly inbuilt Democratic majority among US intellectuals – lend a ready ear to such stories. The 9/11 attacks, and now the quagmire of Iraq, give them a new populist plausibility, along the simple lines of: “How come these so–called experts never predicted this? What are they wasting the taxpayers’ money for?”

So, there are real and dangerous enemies of freedom of expression on the middle east, and they aren’t all on one side. Britain’s academic world, as it pertains to study of the region, is not so intensely politicised and polarised as is the USA’s, but it is not far–fetched to fear similar pressures developing there. Resisting these, let alone achieving some basic civility in public discourse about the Israeli–Palestinian conflict, is going to be desperately difficult.

On some level, so long as the conflict itself persists, so will the “conflict about the conflict” in academia and media. But it might be less poisonous in its atmosphere, less personally wounding for many of those involved, more mutually enlightening, and might even contribute more to solving real problems, if all those involved tried to remember a few simple rules:

  • Comparisons between countries or political processes are supposed to be precision tools, not bludgeons wielded against the nearest enemy. They should actually tell us something useful about one or both the things being compared.
  • It is in principle illegitimate to bring your opponent’s ethnic, national or religious background into the argument – unless of course he/she has explicitly and deliberately done so first.
  • Try to work on the assumption that your opponent is acting in good faith, unless he/she absolutely forces you to believe otherwise.
  • Don’t pretend to be offended or intimidated, when all that’s really happened is that your views have been challenged.
  • There is nothing morally praiseworthy about being simple–minded.
  • And above all – don’t mention the Nazis!