Center field: Jewish studies scholars shouldn’t whitewash campus Israel-bashing

Does the big threat to academic freedom come from a minor organization fighting campus anti-Semitism too passionately?

Students in a classroom [Illustrative] (photo credit: REUTERS)
Students in a classroom [Illustrative]
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I am confused. Forty top Jewish Studies professors recently signed a petition “deplor[ing]” a threat to “the kind of spirited academic exchange that is the lifeblood of the university.” What so infuriated these academics? It wasn’t Israel-apartheid weeks. It wasn’t epidemic classroom anti-Israel bias. It wasn’t the fears many Jewish students have of being bullied this fall for supporting Israel.
No, the professors were criticizing a group called the Amcha Initiative, the purpose of which is to “monitor centers for Middle Eastern studies on American campuses.... Amcha has also circulated a list of more than 200 Middle Eastern studies faculty whom it urges Jewish students and others to avoid because, it asserts, they espouse anti-Zionist and even anti-Semitic viewpoints in their classrooms.”
As a lowly American historian, I am not as smart as these petitioners. But does the big threat to academic freedom come from a minor organization fighting campus anti-Semitism too passionately? Their worries seem misplaced, like warning firefighters confronting a 12-alarm fire that leaking hoses cause water damage.
I share some of the petitioners’ concerns. The scholar’s mission is to seek the truth boldly, wherever it leads. We need open classrooms and campuses, where issues are debated honestly, substantively, civilly. Having devoted their smarts and their souls to making Jewish Studies embody academic excellence, they must be devastated to see their corner of the academic world threatened by bullying and boycotting. The charged atmosphere around Israel risks clouding every lecture they give, every paper they write, every student interaction they have.
Both the attacks and counterattacks have a “chilling effect.”
Unfortunately, my colleagues’ unfair allegations against a minor player obscured the real problem and culprits – the many anti-Israel attackers, not the few counterattackers. Their skewed vision and perverse priorities failed our students who need their leadership.
Amcha appears to be mostly a one-woman show.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a Hebrew language teacher at the University of California, Santa Cruz endured anti-Israel hostility that occasionally degenerated into anti-Semitism. Feeling abandoned by colleagues, she now fights the campus culture of contempt that all too regularly targets Israel.
We need balance. Few campuses are burning.
Some defenders are too quick to brand Israel’s critics as anti-Semitic. But totalitarian Israel-bashing has become too trendy on many campuses. Hysterics exaggerate the troubles; fools ignore them.
The petition unfairly accuses Amcha of “launch[ing] a boycott initiative of its own.” Amcha outed professors who advocate boycotting Israel. As of last week, the list was posted without commentary.
Rossman-Benjamin told reporters that students “may want to check which faculty members from the university are signatories before registering.”
That’s “buyer beware,” not boycotting.
The petition claims Amcha’s “technique of monitoring lectures, symposia and conferences strains the basic principle of academic freedom.” Really? In this age of consumerist students, tendentious colleagues and intrusive Internet, academic life is all about monitoring, more elegantly labeled assessing, rating, evaluating. Every word I utter, every word I write is scrutinized, intellectually, politically and stylistically. And whereas once, judgments circulated through informal networks of student and professorial gossip, today, we “Rate my Professors” on a million blogs.
Much of this monitoring is healthy; some is libelous; much is sophomoric. Students have a right to assess my teaching, sift for bias, and share those concerns. I don’t fear the scrutiny.
The Middle East Studies’ hostility to Israel is so systemic many Jewish Studies professors helped establish Israel Studies as a separate discipline. A colleague of mine who is critical of Israel nevertheless denounces the “Whodunnitism” that reduces Middle East scholars into anti-Israel prosecutors.
The petitioners’ coy assertion that their universities offer “a broad array of courses dealing with Israel and Palestinian affairs” ignores the assaults against academic freedom anti-Israel professorial thugs commit regularly.
In hiding the real problem from the public and targeting Amcha, the petitioners rendered invisible and let down those students – Jewish and non-Jewish – who question skewed syllabi caricaturing Israel as a villain, who feel intimidated when professors celebrate Palestinian terrorism, who squirm when forced to enter class through an anti-Israel “apartheid” wall treating the Arab-Israeli conflict as a racial conflict rather than a national clash.
These educators invalidated the pain of the two Berklee College of Music students called “Zionazi whores” this summer, and the many students over the years who have told me of being humiliated by professors for defending Israel in class. A balanced letter could have acknowledged this pervasive problem and criticized any Amcha excessiveness they disliked. The missive’s one-sidedness – and the fact that this was the issue that finally mobilized these heavy-hitters – reveals a stunning insensitivity to the problem’s true dimensions.
I wonder: Why this overheated letter demonizing Amcha rather than a balanced letter tackling the bigger problem? Why not an open letter to the university community, calling for calm, reassuring nervous students from all camps, and condemning classroom indoctrination and intimidation? Why not launch a serious initiative to counter educational malpractice, encouraging professors of all disciplines to stop turning classroom podiums into political platforms? Launching this initiative instead feels like a pathetic attempt to curry favor, to appear politically correct on the eve of what may be a stormy year.
Rather than teaching the university community how to be good, open-minded scholars while having passionate political beliefs if they wish, rather than showing students how to defy academic trendiness, they preferred this empty posture – which might appear courageous in faculty lounges, but isn’t. Pretending the anti-Israel pile-on doesn’t exist enables the bullies.
Fortunately, an easy remedy exists. The 40 profs are already networking with one another. I challenge them to issue a follow-up petition that shows the way toward combining civility, objectivity and political passion. If these caring deep thinkers can find the right formula, they will be doing a service for all of us, on campus and off.
The author is professor of history at McGill University and will be a visiting professor at the IDC Herzliya this fall. The author of eight books on American history, his latest,, Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism, was published by Oxford University Press.
CENTER FIELD • By GIL TROY STUDENTS CALL for the boycott of Israel. (Reuters