On both sides of the Atlantic, universities and academics are embroiled in bitter controversy over attitudes to the middle east, and especially to Israel. Theres nothing new in that: conflicts about the conflict, where scholars ideas intertwine and collide with political projects and ethnonational claims, have accompanied and helped shape the IsraeliPalestinian 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 webs potential for nearinstantaneous universalisation of initially local quarrels. Above all, these disputes have spilled far beyond the micropolitics 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 IsraelPalestine conflict such minimal mutual respect has altogether vanished. It is becoming entirely routine for proIsraeli and proPalestinian intellectual feudists to describe one another as fools, frauds, paid agents of sinister puppetmasters, 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, shopsoiled and everdevaluing currency of dispute.
The two main current flashpoints both involve the most prestigious universities in their countries biggest cities: London Universitys School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) and New Yorks 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 proIsraeli circles; as does the gatherings 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 antisemitism?
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 AlAhram 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 twostate solution to the conflict.
Paulins anger and pain at being labelled an antisemite are absolutely genuine, as is his commitment to antiracism. His speech at the SOAS event itself, on Poetry and Partition, compared IsraelPalestine with his native Northern Ireland. It was, apparently, fairly lowkey.
Paulins 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 events speakers and organisers are almost as disliked by proIsrael 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 Universitys 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 antiZionist 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 proPalestinian and proIsraeli 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 antiIsraeli bias at Columbia University and especially its Middle East and Asian Languages and Culture department (Mealac). In both newspaper and film, Jewish and Israeliborn students claim they face harassment, threats and intimidation from teachers who, it is said, abuse their positions to purvey not scholarship but violent antiZionist, indeed antisemitic propaganda.
At the centre of the storm is a youngish, untenured middleeast 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 Bostonbased 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 antiIsraeli 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 Israels 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 films or the Daily Newss claims. Columbias 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 exarmy student apparently took place not in Massads seminar but in a onetoone 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 Massads 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 dont end there. For all sides in these battles, the particular incidents, often small in themselves a oneday 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 antisemitic, Israel is a racist state whose own actions and oftenimplied claim to act on behalf of all Jews worldwide are in effect antisemitic. 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 hes 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 hes 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 Columbias most famous Palestinian, the late Edward Said, experienced it repeatedly.
The participants in Britains middleeast wars express similar feelings. Awad Joumaa of SOASs 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 IsraeliPalestinian affairs, from whatever angle, reports (at least privately) that theyve 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 centreground position. My consolation, or even pride, is that Ive had it from extremists on both sides. Abuse and misrepresentation in IsraeliPalestinian debate seem more endemic, perhaps more spiteful, than in relation to any other world issue. Mutual accusations of antisemitism and antiArab or antiMuslim bigotry are the worst, most sordid aspect of it all.
- 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)
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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 antiapartheid campaigners. Equally, some of the people who have attacked Joseph Massad or Tom Paulin are sincerely angered or disturbed by those mens 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 whove leveled accusations at various Columbia teachers one finds remarkably few people whose own lives, work or research indicate deep knowledge of the IsraeliPalestinian conflict.
This is not to say that such nonexperts 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, selfdefeating terrorist attacks. Quite the reverse. A slightly stronger drive for selfeducation 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 farfetched 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 isnt or shouldnt be that the apartheid analogy has strong emotional overtones and resounds to Israels discredit. It is that the two societies, the two conflicts, have such extreme structural dissimilarities that the comparison doesnt 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 schools director, Colin Bundy, is not only a South African historian and former staunch antiapartheid 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 didnt 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 antiIsraeli campaigners today apparently do not. Maybe some of those whove 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 Dubyas court: Niall Fergusons 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 Howes informed, acute, and fairminded 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 strategicallyminded and even sinister way. A coterie of rightwing ideologues has been working assiduously to remodel US academias teaching, writing and research on the region so that it reflects more proIsraeli views and perhaps more important ones more supportive of US government policies. They operate through a nexus of interconnected thinktanks, 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 USs Higher Education Act) to universities whose middleeast coverage has an antiAmerican and/or antiIsraeli bias.
Their central charge is that middleeast studies is dominated by proArab, even proIslamist, 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. Its 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 socalled 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 arent all on one side. Britains academic world, as it pertains to study of the region, is not so intensely politicised and polarised as is the USAs, but it is not farfetched to fear similar pressures developing there. Resisting these, let alone achieving some basic civility in public discourse about the IsraeliPalestinian 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 opponents 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.
- Dont pretend to be offended or intimidated, when all thats really happened is that your views have been challenged.
- There is nothing morally praiseworthy about being simpleminded.
- And above all dont mention the Nazis!
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