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The echo chamber of campus anti-Semitism

Written by admin  •  Monday, 03.09.2012, 13:25

Although few people are aware of the United States Commission on Civil Rights’ (USCCR) 2006 findings about “campus anti-Semitism”, they have recently been invoked in a growing number of campaigns that threaten to curb students’ First Amendment right to freedom of expression.

The USCCR findings on this issue form part of an echo chamber whereby a network of partisan, Israel-aligned organisations and activists repeat the same claims, often unchallenged, before official bodies that simply take their word as truth.

Like walls in a cave, these bodies publish findings and resolutions regurgitating the partisans’ claims without exercising their own independent due diligence. Despite the apparent sound of many speakers, essentially one voice speaks. The rest, it turns out, are echoes.

The same process has just taken place in the California State Assembly, where House Resolution 35 was quietly rushed through the end of the legislative term and passed without sufficient discussion or debate. HR 35 characterises criticism of Israel as “cloaked” anti-Semitism and is meant to provide political cover to the University of California after widespread criticism of its campus climate reports. Although it creates no new law, HR 35 may embolden university administrators to curb students’ freedom of expression.

Predictably, HR 35 invokes the USCCR findings as evidence of campus anti-Semitism. But its reliance on the USCCR findings is misplaced. A careful review of the USSCR’s transcripts on campus anti-Semitism reveals a lacklustre record of one-sided testimony by only three individuals that rarely went challenged by commissioners.

Nevertheless, Israel-aligned advocates continue to rely on the findings as an authoritative source, presumably hoping to capitalise on the USCCR’s historic prestige and status as an official body. USCCR held its hearing on the matter on November 18, 2005; findings and recommendations were adopted on April 3, 2006; and a full briefing was published in May 2007.

Exclusion of Arab voices

Most shocking about the USCCR hearing is that it consisted exclusively of testimony from three speakers with political agendas. They were Susan Tuchman of the Zionist Organisation of America; Gary Tobin of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research; and Sarah Stern of the American Jewish Congress. All three of these organisations have a record of defending Israeli policies and attempting to silence or smear their critics.
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Although Arab and Muslim students were implicitly blamed for the alleged rise of an anti-Semitic climate on campus, no speakers were invited from any Arab, Muslim or Palestinian community organisations. Nor were any student activists from the Muslim Student Association, Arab Student Association, or Students for Justice in Palestine invited to speak, despite the accusations implicitly levelled in their direction. Progressive Jewish organisations were also excluded from testifying, notwithstanding a blog posting by Jewish Voice for Peace reacting to the published report after the fact.

Had these groups been given a seat at the table, they might have contested the many allegations of those who gave testimony. And their disputed nature might have been noted in the USCCR’s published report. Moreover, these groups might have provided comment about how the USCCR’s involvement in this issue threatened to chill the First Amendment rights of student activists, especially those who, on account of their actual or perceived ethnic, national, or religious background, are more vulnerable in an Islamophobic environment.

Absent their participation, it is difficult to see how the USCCR may claim to have reached a credible resolution before considering a full spectrum of perspectives.

Assault on academic freedom

Academic freedom came under fire at the USCCR hearing. Sarah Stern of the AJC gave testimony urging the Commission to amend Title VI of the Higher Education Act in order to provide for direct government oversight of federally funded Middle East Studies programmes.

The speakers testified that Middle East Studies departments were partly to blame for the alleged rise in campus anti-Semitism, and that the federal government should react by pulling the purse strings to influence the content of academic speech.

According to Stern, “what is extremely pernicious and disturbing is… a body of scholarship that is all predicated upon the same initial biases, and then it takes on the guise of legitimate scholarship but it’s basically political propaganda wrapped around footnotes and indexes.”

The problem, Stern explained, was that “a Rashid Khalidi could footnote an Edward Said who could footnote a Joseph Massad. And what we need is a balance of perspectives. What we need is a Bernard Lewis in there, or a Martin Kramer”.

Let aside Stern’s highly improbable chain of citation – not to mention that Middle East scholars often cite Bernard Lewis, albeit frequently as an object of critique. Her recommendation seems to be based purely on her perceived political orientation of these scholars, not on the methods of their scholarship, which testimony frequently characterised with subjective political labels like “anti-American” or “anti-Israel”.

“I mean some things have got to be based on truth, and at least on a balance of perspectives,” Stern told the commission, “and not in a suppression of debate, free and healthy open debate within the classroom.”

Yet “free and open debate” is precisely what she and her colleagues sought to undermine with their testimony. Gary Tobin testified that the speakers “want these departments appropriately overseen by outside reviews that don’t come from the field”. Tobin even recommended that “Middle East Studies programmes should not be able to tenure their own faculty at this point”.

One would be hard pressed to come up with a more Orwellian conception of “free and healthy open debate”, or suggestions more odious to established notions of academic freedom.

The individuals who gave testimony might have themselves benefited from a course in Middle East Studies. Stern’s summary of Edward Said, the widely acclaimed Palestinian-American scholar who revolutionised English-language scholarship in various fields of area studies and who Google Scholar reports has been cited in tens of thousands of published works, is that his ideas were “very, very simple”.
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The New York Times called Said a “polymath scholar”.

Said’s “thesis,” Stern testified, “is that the European nations carved up the world after World War I, the Middle East, after World War I. Now America is a hegemonic colonial master.”

In his seminal work, Orientalism, Said, according to the Times’ obituary, “laid out a vision of history in which cultural power – the power to define others – is inextricably linked with the political power to dominate”.

Yet it was the testimony of individuals like Stern, who revealed a basic lack of understanding of the scholars she criticised, that formed the basis of the USCCR’s sweeping finding that “many university departments of Middle East studies provide one-sided, highly polemical academic presentations and some may repress legitimate debate concerning Israel”.

Moreover, the Commission did not hear testimony from the scholars in the field. For example, there is no evidence in the record indicating that the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) – an organisation that boasts a membership of more than 3,000 scholars – was invited to testify before the Commission, although it represents the vast majority of scholars whose work was under attack at the hearings. It was not until June 2007, after the USCCR published its report on “Campus Anti-Semitism”, that MESA issued a letter to the Commissioners criticising the report and the process that produced it.

Once more, it is hard to see how USCCR Commissioners could have arrived at credible findings regarding Middle East Studies without even hearing input from the scholars that make up the field. Based on one-sided testimony of poor quality, USCCR’s findings should therefore not be surprising.

Anecdotal and hyperbolic evidence

Reviewing the testimony, submissions and findings, one yearns for evidence of a systematic study that might have led the Commissioners to believe that campus anti-Semitism was so pervasive.

Instead, the record consisted exclusively of anecdotal hearsay about isolated incidents, many of which actually have nothing to do with anti-Semitism.

Many specific allegations of discrimination or anti-Semitism cited by the speakers have since been discredited. For example, much attention was focused on the polemical film, “Columbia Unbecoming”. No mention was made of the widespread criticism of the film, including research by New York’s The Jewish Week journalist Liel Liebovitz who interviewed some students featured in the film and “learn[ed] that a number of them had not even studied under the professors who were being accused”.

The main target of the film – Columbia University Professor Joseph Massad – has been awarded tenure, and cleared both by Columbia administrators and by a US Department of Education investigation.

Yet unreliable anecdotal references like these formed the bulk of the evidence presented to the Commission.

Although it is true that reprehensible anti-Jewish stereotypes or rhetoric sometimes make their way into political debates about Israel, it is unfair to use these isolated incidents to characterise the entire arena. Likewise, the occasional unfair accuser should not be used to tarnish all others who speak out against Israeli policies in good faith.
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Even given the existence of such incidents, though, the Commission’s report does not recognise that anti-Jewish speech is not the only form of racism to sometimes enter debate about Israel/Palestine.

In fact, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment and speech often animate support for Israel, including on university campuses. Islamophobic innuendo is frequently used to align Arab and Muslim students with terrorism, a harmful charge in the post-9/11 environment. Many Israel advocates repeat the racist claim that “Palestinians do not exist”. Israel’s very governing system is based on differentiation between Jews and Arabs, granting the former more rights and privileges over the latter.

Finally, supporters of Israeli policies often victimise Jewish students who criticise Israel or sympathise with Palestinians by calling them “self-hating” or likening them to Nazi collaborators.

None of this is acknowledged by the Commission’s report.

Glaringly, the Commission’s report also neglects to mention that pro-Palestinian student organisations regularly condemn anti-Semitism. Many Students for Justice in Palestine chapters, for example, have anti-discrimination and anti-racist clauses in their mission statements. This information would mitigate the claim that objection to Israel’s policies correlates with anti-Semitism.

A nuanced report with a comprehensive picture of the issue in question – geopolitical debate about Israel/Palestine on university campuses – would have at least acknowledged these important dimensions.

But the Commission’s failure to do so helps maintain “campus anti-Semitism” as the animating frame of public debate, and a network of Israel-aligned organisations and activists continue to push for more restrictions on support for the Palestinian cause.

More voices, fewer echoes

The USCCR and California State Assembly hearings on HR 35 share one thing in common: a non-inclusive process that, ultimately, undermines their credibility. More involvement by Arab, Palestinian, Muslim and progressive Jewish organisations in official proceedings will help to mitigate these problems. Diverse voices can replace the echoes.

Although many disagree with progressive activists’ views on events in Israel/Palestine, few can contest the notion that, in a democratic society, all must be represented. The glaring omission of Arab, Muslim, Palestinian and progressive Jewish voices even from mere consideration in these proceedings – whether at the university, state, or federal level – cannot be maintained in the face of sufficient agitation.

At stake is not only the fate of apartheid in Palestine, but our status as equal persons in the United States. Smear campaigns spurred by Islamophobia and false charges of anti-Semitism are meant to attack both.

Yaman Salahi follows developments impacting the free speech rights of Arab and Muslim students, particularly with respect to Israel/Palestine activism. He recently graduated from Yale Law School and is also an alumnus of the University of California, Berkeley and Cal Students for Justice in Palestine.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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