Professors face anti-Palestinian harassment

Right-wing groups are trying to silence the outcry against Israeli abuses like the ‘apartheid wall’ in the West Bank, pictured here.

Photo: Lior Mzrahi
The nationwide campaign to silence pro-Palestinian scholars has reached a fevered pitch. Pro-Palestinian professors are dubbed “anti-Semitic” when they speak out in their classrooms. They stand accused of intimidating pro-Israel students, violating academic freedom, maintaining an “anti-Israel bias,” stifling dissent in the classroom, and many other things.

Columbia University is at the center of the campaign. At Columbia, student Lindsay Shrier claims Prof. George Saliba denied she could be a Semite because she had green eyes. Another student—a former Israeli soldier—claims Prof. Joseph Massad asked him, “How many Palestinians have you killed?” Other charges of bias indict Professor Hamid Dabashi for calling Israel a “racist state.” The alleged personal attacks are wholly unsubstantiated, and have been denounced as outright lies by the targeted professors.

Quite rightfully, the professors have not retracted the use of the formulation “racist state” to describe Israel. The phrase is not slanderous because it is true. Israel is a colonial state founded and based on exclusion and racist apartheid directed against Palestinians. The Palestinian people were not only uprooted from their traditional homeland. They have also been reduced to second-class citizens, without equal rights, inside the borders of historical Palestine and the Occupied Territories.

In this context, the right-wing’s “bias” charges are nothing more than an attempt to mask reality in Israel. The charges are ridiculous. They are tantamount to white racist students whining that U.S. history professors shouldn’t characterize the system in the Jim Crow South as racist.

Columbia University’s Prof. Edward Said (1935-2003), prominent Palestinian intellectual.

Photo: Agence France Presse
U.S. government sponsors witch-hunt

The debate about the state of Israel is certainly not a new one. For decades, the right wing has attempted to equate criticisms of the state of Israel with anti-Semitism. Pro-Israel students have complained about professors who raise any criticism of Israel. What has changed? Why is the media now so eager to promote these complaints?

The current period is one of reaction, and the right wing is especially aggressive. The increased visibility of the same old anti-Palestinian claims can only be explained in a broader political context.

In November 2001, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a non-profit organization founded by Lynne Cheney—wife of Vice President Dick Cheney—published a report entitled “How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It.” The report accused certain academics at U.S. universities of being unpatriotic, anti-American, and intellectual allies to terrorism. The report’s evidence was quotes from academics who called for investigations into the causes of the Sept. 11 attacks and raised the notion that U.S. foreign policy may have played a role.

The U.S. government is clearly taking part in the campaign against left-leaning educators. Professors of Palestinian origin aren’t the only targets. Any professor unwilling to parrot the “official” U.S. line on Palestine and Israel is at risk.

The National Council of Arab Americans, a grassroots civil rights organization, reports that, “last year, legislation (HR 3077) was passed in the House that would allow federal monitoring and regulation of the curricula of all area studies programs that receive government funding, including those that focus on the Arab World.”

In September 2004, the government denied renowned Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan a work visa only weeks before he was to begin teaching at the University of Notre Dame. The denial claimed he was “likely to engage in terrorist activity.”

Funding from anti-Palestinian groups

At Columbia University, claims of intimidation and harassment were spread through a “documentary” called “Columbia Unbecoming.” The film makes claims of “bias” against several professors, but focuses its ire on the untenured Palestinian professor Joseph Massad. Of the five students interviewed for the film who make outrageous accusations, none filed any grievances with the university, and only one, Noah Liben, had taken a class with Professor Massad.

The film does not contain interviews with a representative range of Columbia students—Jewish or non-Jewish—nor did it originate on campus. It was funded by a private organization, the anti-Palestinian, Boston-based David Project. The David Project’s website is silent on the countless historic crimes of the state of Israel, instead claiming that, “The [Middle Eastern] conflict is rooted in Arab leaders’ rejection of political equality.”

Any news outlet with even the smallest shred of journalistic integrity would have dismissed the film outright. Yet, the contrary has occurred. The campaign is gaining momentum. The attacks by the David Project have received substantial media attention, and university administrators are being pressured to dismiss targeted professors. Some of these professors, like Joseph Massad, have suspended their more controversial classes due to constant personal threats and heavy duress.

Online McCarthyism

It is no coincidence that one of the students featured in “Columbia Unbecoming” also works as an agent for Campus Watch, a notoriously anti-Palestinian website run by arch-racist Daniel Pipes. The website encourages students to report on professors with “unpatriotic” views of U.S. foreign policy.

Although Columbia professors are most directly in the crosshairs, the website has also launched campaigns against Dr. Hatem Bazian of the University of California, Berkeley, Shahid Alam of Northeastern University, and a number of Yale professors. Other right-wing websites like Campus Watch have cropped up, calling on students to “defend academic freedom” by fighting the “liberal orthodoxy.”

The right-wing campaign has turned reality upside down. The perpetrators of the anti-intellectual witch-hunt deem themselves the true defenders of “academic freedom.”

The David Project celebrates “Columbia Unbecoming” for challenging “the dominant paradigm.” This is just fancy academic wordplay for a very old trick—make the victim appear to be the criminal and the criminal to be the victim. The “dominant paradigm” in the U.S. is unconditional support and defense of the state of Israel. The pro-Palestinian professors are really the ones with the courage to challenge the prevailing view.

The corporate media’s role

Attacks on pro-Palestinian professors spread quickly through right-wing web logs. They are then often picked up by Bill O’Reilly, who regularly invites Daniel Pipes on his Fox News show as a “Middle East expert,” giving credence to the blatant smear campaign.

But Fox News isn’t alone in promoting an anti-Palestinian message. Other corporate “mainstream” media outlets, including CNN, ran the sensationalized “Columbia Unbecoming” story. They all depicted the pro-Israel students as oppressed by “firebrand” anti-Semitic professors. Although the notoriously rightwing New York Sun, New York Post and Daily News have headed the media blitz, the larger outlets are just as eager to promote the smears.

Politicians also have joined the fray. Although he had never viewed the movie, Democratic Congressman Anthony Weiner called for Massad’s immediate dismissal. And the New York City Council has vowed to launch its own investigation in case Columbia’s investigation comes up empty.

The New York City Department of Education has taken the most dramatic act thus far, firing Professor Rashid Khalidi, Chair of Columbia’s Middle Eastern Studies, from his post as a teacher trainer. To justify his dismissal, the DOE spokesperson cited Khalidi’s criticism of Israel.

There is nothing new about Zionist attacks on Palestinian intellectuals. Sometimes the attacks have been violent. In 1985, right-wing extremists set fire to the Columbia University office of the late Edward Said, the most prominent academic defender of the Palestinian cause. Right-wing terrorist groups like the Jewish Defense League are notorious for carrying out acts of violence and terrorism against leading defenders of Palestinian rights.

Justice for Palestine

The assault on Palestinian, Arab and Muslim intellectuals coincides with the increased integration of Palestine solidarity in the U.S. anti-war movement. On April 20, 2002, the ANSWER Coalition organized mass mobilizations in support of Palestine. Over 100,000 people marched in Washington, D.C.—the largest march in U.S. history raising justice for Palestine as a main demand.

Fighting through government and media propaganda, the anti-imperialist wing of the anti-war movement refused to marginalize the Palestinian struggle. As a result, many activists learned about the links between the war in Iraq and the occupation of Palestine. Other progressive organizations have increased their support for Palestine as well.

Growing solidarity with Palestine is a threat to U.S. hegemony in the Middle East. Maintaining Israel as a racist client state is a primary concern for the ruling class and its strategic interests in the Middle East. Increased knowledge about Palestine and support from the U.S. working class and progressives threatens this project. The heightened attacks on pro-Palestinian intellectuals are an effort to replace solidarity with fear.

But the right wing strategy is encountering resistance from various sectors of society. The American Association of University Professors has defended the targeted professors and exposed the right-wing’s bogus claims about protecting “academic freedom.” Students are organizing to counter the increasingly virulent witch-hunt at Columbia.

The NCA recently launched one of the most comprehensive challenges to the right-wing assault with “The Defense of Civil Rights in Academia Project.”

Its mission statement declares: “the problematic tenor of this [anti-Palestinian] campaign has reached such a high level of normalization in dominant discourses that it is now accepted in many forms of national and local media and is being incorporated into new legislation. The systematic and multi-faceted nature of these assaults requires the immediate institution of a proactive and nationally coordinated response.

“The goal is to challenge—through a variety of legal, grassroots, and institutional means—private campaigns and government programs that try to stigmatize, silence, or revoke the rights of Arab American students, faculty or community members.”

For information on the NCA’s “The Defense of Civil Rights in Academia Project” visit


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