Academic Freedom vs. Academic Malpractice

 Anti-Israel student groups tend to get all the blame and publicity for problems on college campuses; however, the reality is they have little or no influence. Their peers ignore them (most don’t even know they exist) and the few that attend their events often come away feeling more hostile toward the Palestinians. On the handful of campuses where these organizations are active, the atmosphere can be toxic; however, the situation can change from year to year as students graduate, since hostile groups are often held together by a single highly motivated Israel denier. Tenured faculty, by comparison, are like Supreme Court justices, with virtual lifetime appointments, and detractors among them have contributed to the legitimization of Israel denial on the campus and beyond.

To give an idea of the scope of the faculty problem, more than 4,000 professors worldwide, and no fewer than 1,600 in more than 500 universities in the U.S., have signed petitions or letters condemning Israel and/or advocating boycotts, divestment, and/or sanctions against Israel, Israeli companies, U.S. companies doing business in Israel or Israeli academic institutions. Twenty-two American universities have at least 15 faculty members among the 1,600 with NYU holding the dubious distinction of having the most critics – 43. Ten of the 22 schools are in New York and six are University of California campuses, led by UCLA and Berkeley with 33 and 32 detractors respectively. Other elite schools on the list are Columbia (31), Michigan (27), Harvard (26), Georgetown (19), Cornell (17) and Duke (16). Roughly 15 percent of the deniers are on these few campuses.

The good news is that problematic faculty represent a small percentage of the total faculty. Moreover, many of these schools remain very friendly places for Jewish students. The bad news is that these faculty are most prevalent in liberal arts and a small number of bad apples can poison the campus climate, misinform their students and adversely influence hiring decisions in their departments.

All of these professors have the right to express their views as private citizens, but their opinions often have little or nothing to do with academic freedom since there is little or no scholarly research to support their positions. Are they necessarily anti-Semitic? Perhaps not, but to judge try using Natan Sharansky’s 3D test: First, are Israel or its leaders being demonized or their actions blown out of proportion? For example, are the critics making a specious equation between Israel and Nazi Germany? Second, are double standards applied to Israel? Is Israel singled out for condemnation while nations that violate human rights on a massive scale, such as Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia, are not even mentioned. Finally, do the critics deny Israel’s legitimacy? Do they assert a right to self-determination for the Palestinians but not to the Jews?

Applying Sharansky’s test exposes the views of many of Israel’s critics in academia as anti-Semitic. If similar denigrations were expressed toward women, or any minority group other than Jews, they would be considered intolerable hate speech.

The problem with hundreds of professors expressing criticism of Israel that is inaccurate, disproportional and selective is that by attaching their affiliations to their critiques they bestow the veneer of academic respectability to subjective, non-scholarly opinions, and create the impression that the views have the imprimatur of their universities. Moreover, their bias raises questions as to their ability to conduct research or teach without committing academic malpractice by injecting their bias and personal political agendas into their work.

Another factor is foreign funding and the question of how much influence Arab states and individual donors have on the behavior of professors. Foreign investment in U.S. universities exceeds $1.4 billion and there is no question about what those investors expect for their money. Former English diplomat John Kelly said, “They expect a return upon their donations to institutions of learning and their subsidies to publishing houses; whether it be in the form of subtle propaganda on behalf of Arab or Islamic causes, or the preferential admission of their nationals, however unqualified . . . or the publication of the kind of sycophantic flim-flam about themselves and their countries which now clutters sections of the Western press and even respectable periodical literature.”

The hypocrisy of Israel deniers is evident when they insist on an absolute right to express their hostility toward Israel under the umbrella of “academic freedom,” but they object to anyone who suggests that they should be held accountable for their views or raises legitimate questions about their qualifications to make judgments about subjects that they are ill- or misinformed about, or the propriety of allowing them to propagandize in their classrooms.

Here are just a few examples of problematic faculty over the last several years (some of which have been corrected):

$    Swiss academic Tariq Ramadan, a grandson of Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al‑Banna, who was accused by French Jews of fomenting anti-Semitism, was invited to teach peace studies at Notre Dame in 2004, but was denied a visa for "providing material support to a terrorist organization."

$    Rashid Khalidi, a former PLO official who believes Israel is similar to racist South Africa, is Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies and Director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia.

$    Several years ago, an anthropology professor at American University used a comic book as a text that is in the vein of Der Stürmer. Another professor crossed out the word AIsrael@ on a student=s exam and wrote in the margin, AZionist entity.@ A third handed out maps of the Mideast omitting Israel.

$    Clovis Maksoud, the virulently anti-Israel former head of the Arab League, was a Professor of International Relations and Director of the Center for the Global South at American University.

$    At Clemson University, a philosophy professor offered a Humanities course entitled, ALiving under Occupation.@

$    Berkeley offered a course entitled, AThe Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance,@ which the instructor said would explore how Israel Asystematically displaced, killed, and maimed millions of Palestinian people.@

$    A dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and a prominent University of Chicago political scientist, neither of whom were Middle East experts, wrote a book, pilloried by critics, suggesting that the “Israel lobby” controls U.S. Middle East policy and is responsible for harming the national interest.

•     Professor Joseph Massad has said that Israel does not have a right to exist and that Arab anti-Semitism is not real. He teaches a class on Israeli and Palestinian politics at Columbia. His syllabus says, “The purpose of the course is not to provide a 'balanced' coverage of the views of both sides.”

•           Steven Salaita’s job offer at the University of Illinois was rescinded when it was learned that he posted multiple examples of hate speech toward Israelis on Twitter, including a claim that anti-Semitism was something honorable.

            I hear complaints about professors frequently, but only a tiny fraction of the students concerned about politicized classrooms speak out. Years ago a hotline was set up for students to report problems, but it was shut down from disuse. Most students are petrified of their professors, fearing they will be embarrassed, harassed and/or given a bad grade that could effect their future.

            It is not only students who are fearful. As Cary Nelson, a former president of the American Association of University Professors has written, “Junior faculty members sympathetic to Israel fear for their jobs if they make their views known. Established faculty who grasp the complexity of Middle East politics hold their tongues for fear of harassment by those who are more interested in offering lessons in contemporary demonology than in sound history. The politically correct stance in many academic departments is that Palestinians are victims and Israelis are oppressors. Period.”

            Although some of the 1,600 professors mentioned above are well known for their hatred of Israel, most could be teaching from their prejudices without anyone beyond the classroom knowing. Now that these professors have all put their animus on the record; however, it behooves interested parties – parents, trustees, donors and people from around the country who object to U.S. education being politicized – to ensure that these professors are not engaged in academic misconduct. University officials frequently claim that no one outside their boundaries has a right to monitor their compliance with academic standards, but that is no truer of universities than it is of high schools. It would be preferable if faculty policed themselves, but they have proven unwilling and unable to do so because of the perversion of the concept of academic freedom. Short of a professor molesting a student, faculty are reticent to interfere with their colleagues’ behavior inside or outside the classroom (unless a woman or a non-Jewish minority is involved).

The influence of problematic faculty extends far beyond the classroom. Perhaps one of the most serious concerns is their impact on hiring. Departments where faculty hostile to Israel have become ensconced simply will not hire an Israel scholar. This is how most Middle East Studies departments became bastions of anti-Israel propagandists. The virulently anti-Israel Columbia comparative literature professor (that’s right he had no scholarly expertise relating to Middle East history and politics) Edward Said, influenced a generation of young PhDs who admired his activism and bought his nonsensical assertion that, essentially, only people from the background of the subject they are studying can understand or have a legitimate opinion on the topic. Thus, only Arabs and Muslim Arabs should be allowed to study the Middle East because everyone else will impose their Western, imperialist bias on their observations. Academic inbreeding and groupthink has allowed the Saidians to establish a virtual monopoly on the field of Middle East Studies.

A second way that faculty can exert influence is through their research. The Israel deniers publish tracts that are used in classes around the country and allow them to transmit their prejudices to thousands of students at other colleges. Worse, many, especially at taxpayer funded centers, such as Harvard, UCLA and Georgetown, which are expected to provide “diverse perspectives and wide range of views” on the Middle East in their outreach activities, provide one-sided information, often to high school teachers, which enables the faculty to spread the infection down the K-12 chain. It is all the more outrageous that directors of Middle East centers at Duke, Georgetown, NYU, Columbia and UCLA are known detractors of Israel who, in 2014, signed a letter calling for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions and pledging not to collaborate with Israeli institutions, attend their conferences or publish in Israeli journals.

Some of these professors have even larger platforms thanks to the prestige of their university and the media’s need for “experts.” Consequently, many of the most ignorant professors are presented to the public as authorities. They are quoted by journalists and appear as TV talking heads allowing them to spread misinformation nationwide and sometimes globally. Unlike other experts, they are rarely questioned about any conflicts of interest, as in the case of John Esposito, who directs a Saudi funded institute at Georgetown, and has the reputation of serving as an apologist for radical Islam.

            One of the newer manifestations of faculty abusing their positions is the effort by Israel deniers to convince academic associations to boycott Israel. Here again the alleged crusaders for academic freedom cease to crush the rights of Israelis and anyone who does not share their myopic hatred of Israel. Thus, the associations of American Studies, Asian American Studies, and Native American Studies, adopted resolutions calling for their professional academic guilds to boycott Israel (a similar boycott effort failed at the 2014 Modern Language Association convention). These votes received a lot of publicity, and were trumpeted as great victories by the BDS crowd; however, the good news is they are impotent. The resolutions have no binding effect on individual professors and the only faculty who are boycotting Israel are those who would do so anyway. Moreover, the associations have little or nothing to do with Israel, and, according to an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, neither the ASA nor the Asian-American Studies group “declined to collaborate with an Israeli institution – or turned away an official representative of one – since the resolutions passed.”

            Still, the academic community was so appalled by the ASA’s action that more than 200 college presidents denounced the call for boycotting Israel, and several universities withdrew their membership in the association. The ASA got into more hot water in advance of its 2014 convention when the hotel hosting the meeting was informed it would be violating California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act if it allowed the ASA to enforce the boycott against Israeli participants who represented the government or their institutions. The ASA subsequently backtracked and said Israelis would be allowed to register for the meeting.

            The impotence of the resolutions of these associations is not deterring BDS advocates from targeting other professional groups. In December 2014, Israel deniers lobbied the American Anthropological Association to boycott Israel. Panels on the topic were composed primarily of BDS advocates, such as the omnipresent Omar Barghouti, a founder of the movement and advocate of the destruction of Israel (even though he studied for  a PhD at Tel Aviv University) and Rebeca Vilkomerson, the director of Jewish Voice for Peace. According to Farleigh Dickinson professor David Rosen, the panels were stacked with BDS supporters. “Not one speaker is from a major Israeli university,” he noted, “and on only one panel have BDS opponents been invited to speak.”

The pro-boycott faction of the association defeated a proposed resolution opposing the academic boycott of Israel, meaning the issue will remain on the association’s agenda and a pro-boycott measure may be presented for a vote in 2015.

            The sponsorship of academic bodies of conferences, panels and lectures by Israel deniers is especially problematic. Once again, sponsorship implies the university supports the views expressed and, while a degree of balance might be expected, it is common for the deck to be stacked with staunch critics of Israel and little or no representation of an Israeli point of view. Lacking the scholarship to back their views, the Israel deniers often hope to convince the audience by the volume at which they express their opinions and their ability to intimidate opposing members of the panel and the audience. At an event at Rice University, for example, a bombastic pro-Palestinian speaker dominated the discussion. Afterward, someone said it was as if the Israeli on the panel, who presented a reasoned, scholarly argument, had brought a spreadsheet to a gunfight.

            A serious act of professional sabotage may be carried out by peer reviewers and editors of the journals that scholars need to publish in to advance their careers. Since reviewers are anonymous, those with an anti-Israel animus can reject a paper, or savage a book proposal, while anti-Israel contributors often find a more hospitable audience. One journal that came under recent scrutiny is The Lancet, one of the most prestigious medical publications, which published an open letter totally unrelated to its mission. That letter, signed by 24 doctors and scientists, denounced Israeli actions in Gaza as a “crime against humanity.” Worse, the letter was co-authored by two scientists who had previously circulated anti-Semitic material. The editor, Richard Horton, defended printing the letter until it created an uproar. As a way of atoning he agreed to visit Israel to see things for himself. Horton was impressed with what he saw and pledged to “open a new chapter” in the relationship between The Lancet and Israel; nevertheless, the letter has not been withdrawn or repudiated by the journal.

            Academic journals have a limited number of readers; however, faculty detractors often reach a much larger audience through the publication of their books, especially those used as textbooks. Most professors have little knowledge of the Middle East so they are unable to discern the biases in some of these texts, which they subsequently assign to their classes. Thus, for example, a scurrilous work such as The Israel Lobby may be used in many classes where neither the professor nor the students are aware of the speciousness of its arguments.

            The bottom line is that Israel deniers have been allowed for too long to hide behind the veil of academic freedom. Attacks on women and other minorities would not be tolerated in the way that assaults on Israel and Jews are by faculty and administrators. Similarly, professors teaching their students the world is flat – the equivalent to much of the pseudo-scholarship regarding Israel – would not be shielded from ridicule, sanctions and dismissal by “academic freedom.” Professors have not been held accountable for their actions or penalized for committing malpractice.

            Faculty and administrators who do have the courage to stand up for academic integrity, and violate the unwritten rules of political correctness, often face a hail of criticism. This was the case when the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign rescinded a tenured teaching offer to a professor who is a leader of the boycott campaign and had made a number of anti-Semitic comments in tweets during the Gaza War. The university has since faced intense pressure to reverse its decision (more than 15,000 people signed a petition demanding the professor be rehired), but so far has refused to capitulate to the mob. Not all administrators have the necessary backbone and retreat from principled positions, as was the case when Joseph Massad was granted tenure at Columbia in a rare second chance after previously being rejected. Journalist Jacob Gershman summarized Massad’s scholarly contribution during his decade as a faculty member, “Israel is racist, and homosexuality is an insidious Western invention.”

The only way to ensure that universities uphold the standards they profess is for students, taxpayers, donors and concerned citizens to be vigilant and to insist on their freedom to hold professors and administrators accountable for hate speech, Israel denial and the propagandizing of the classroom.

Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.