Right of Reply: Intellectually dishonest on campus

Academic freedom means divergent views must be voiced. But science must not degenerate to politics.

security fence 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
security fence 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
David Newman recently provided an impassioned defense of academic freedom on these pages, but in doing so, managed to cast not a few aspersions on what he called the "McCarthy right" attitude of several organizations active in promoting Israel's case on campuses throughout the world. Among those he criticized were the Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), a group that I have been a member of for quite some time and where I serve on the task force for medical and public health issues. Prof. Newman bunched SPME with a number of other organizations and accused it of being "oddly named," taking funds from the Jewish National Fund and not taking up the cause of Arab academics denied their rights. I will leave it to the SPME board to respond to these claims, but for myself, I can personally attest to the clear erroneousness of much of what Newman claims characterizes members of these organizations such as myself. I direct a program in Jerusalem for students who spend a year in Israel prior to returning to the US, UK and Canada to resume university studies. The program, held at Midreshet Lindenbaum, a religious school and funded by the David Project (which, I would imagine, Newman would also classify as a yet another biased right-wing organization) is anything but partial. My students have heard from people like Jeff Halper and the women of Machsom Watch. They have visited Palestinian protest tents and seen Palestinian areas that suffer from a serious lack of services. They have had discussions with Ahmed Tibi as well as "international" Palestinian activists and visit the checkpoints to see firsthand what Palestinians experience. A Palestinian woman is one of our regular lecturers on the "Palestinian narrative" and all that it entails. Newman, or anyone else for that matter, would be hard-pressed to describe the program as a biased example of right-wing attitudes. Yet when I have tried to solicit an Arab journalist, any Arab journalist for that matter, for a panel discussion with a member of the Israeli press at an event for my students at Columbia University in New York, I was met with blunt refusals. Not one of the Arab press members that I contacted or were contacted through mutual friends was willing to share the podium with myself, an Israeli academic, and another fellow journalist from Israel. Perhaps they preferred the type of panels that I recently attended at some American universities, which labeled themselves as "teach-ins." A bland and innocuous title indeed, until one attends and sees that every single "teacher" professes the same clearly anti-Israel views without even the appearance of balance by professors who may think differently. It is as if any view that would support explanations that do not view the IDF as baby-killers or the State of Israel as an illegitimate colonial enterprise are invalid. BUT MORE TROUBLING is how the intellectual dishonesty of these academics extends beyond the campus and permeates what should be scholarly and scientific work. I have been personally involved, as an SPME task force member, in formulating responses to several articles published in professional academic journals. When the prestigious Canadian Journal of Psychiatry published an article entitled "The prevalence of psychological morbidity in West Bank Palestinian children," I wondered how a junior surgical resident along with a microbiologist managed to get a paper published in a clearly psychiatric journal. After looking into the matter, it turned out, curiously enough, that these two were recently mentioned in the Marxist-Leninist Daily as sponsors of a rally discussing Cuba and human rights and each had a rich record of political activity that included accusing George Bush of war crimes, working with an organization called the Che Guevera Brigade and calling for the banning of the United Jewish Appeal in Canada. Now, these may be perfectly legitimate political views and activities, but where exactly is the psychiatric expertise that would allow them to conduct "research" on psychological factors when it comes to West Bank children? This fear was not unfounded. Not to my surprise, the authors, in a profoundly faulty piece of research, found that "settlement encroachment" was responsible for the problems of Palestinian children. And who was the psychiatric expert upon whom they based some of their findings? None other than Noam Chomsky, who is a noted linguist, but certainly one whose clearly left political views are far more apparent than his expertise in psychiatric morbidity. The story does not end here. When the SPME, with myself as corresponding member, sent a letter to the editor which critiqued not the politics of the article but rather the weak science, which included the lack of evidence or references, the lack of appropriate scientific design, the choice of nonstandardized test instruments and the inaccurate citing of the psychological literature, the letter was rejected for publication. When we asked for an explanation, the then-editor refused to provide one, stating that the article was a "carefully conducted" example of "good science." He also stated that to publish our critique would promote a "polarized view" of the conflict. Rather than simply ignore this blatant anti-intellectual attempt to deny academic freedom, I led an effort where the SPME provided a detailed scientific analysis of the faults of the study and distributed this analysis to leading psychologists and psychiatrists (most of whom were not SPME members) in various academic departments throughout the world. With over two dozen endorsers, the analysis was sent to the new editor of the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry who, after much give-and-take and a desire to avoid being embarrassed by having the analysis published elsewhere, decided to publish it. What was troubling here was not any difference of opinion that may have existed between SPME members and the editors of the Canadian journal or the authors of the article on West Bank children. Rather, it was a clear attempt to use academic scholarship and science to promote a political agenda and to stifle any attempt to provide criticism of the science of the work, which here took the form of extreme anti-Israel views. Academic freedom certainly means that divergent views must be respected and tolerated. But it also means that science and scholarship must not be corrupted and distorted to improperly support a political position. Newman is right when he says that spreading accusations of "self-hating Israelis" and "Jewish anti-Semites" is to be condemned. But what about academics who improperly use poor research to provide "scientific" evidence of the ills of Israel? Is not that also an example of a danger to democracy, freedom and truth? Right now, it is only the organizations that Newman claims are a danger to freedom that provide the structure for combating the lies published in the name of science. That is a shame, and I hope Newman agrees. The writer is a psychologist who heads the David Project's Leadership Program in Israel-Arab Studies at Midreshet Lindenbaum and serves on the SPME task force on medical and public health issues.