Targeting the university

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Article/book #: 20054
Title: Targeting the university
By: Joseph A. Massad  
Published in: Al-Ahram Weekly, issue 745
Date of issue: Thursday, 2 June 2005
Topic(s) addressed: People/entities mentioned in this item:


»Targeting the university is the latest mission of right-wing forces who have hijacked not only political power and political discourse in the United States but also the very vocabulary that can be used against them. The campaign of the last three years or so to attack US universities as the last bastion where a measure of freedom of thought is still protected is engineered to cancel out such freedom and ensure that scholars will not subvert the received political wisdom of the day.
Some of the major tactics in this campaign have been the launching of witch hunts against specific professors, calling for their dismissal from their jobs, and, failing that, smear their reputation; target Middle East Studies as a scholarly field more generally and cut federal funding to it and place it under governmental supervision, and promote apologists for Israel in the guise of scholars as the only adequate scholarly alternative. While shutting down the educational process in favour of religious theories of creationism and the like has been around for a while, the recent attack on scholars who disagree with US foreign policy and the policies of the state of Israel are the main mobilisational issues of the current campaign. What is at stake in this assault is not only academic freedom, but scholarship per se, and specifically scholarship on Palestine and Israel, which is the primary target of the witch-hunters.«

»What makes these anti-scholarship attacks possible and popular is the existence of a major discrepancy, even a radical disconnect, between popular knowledge and media coverage about the Palestine/Israel conundrum and established scholarly knowledge about the topic. It is this disconnect that the witch hunters mobilise against scholarship as proof that it is not media and popular knowledge, which defends Israeli policy and Zionism's axioms, that is ideological, but rather academic scholarship which has largely uncovered unsavory facts about both. Thus when young American students who come from ideologically charged homes, schools, and environments, attend university classes about the subject, they mistake established scholarship as pro-Palestinian propaganda, a conclusion that is propped up by the likes of Campus Watch, the David Project, and the Anti-Defamation League, all three organisations who make it part or all their business to attack scholarly criticisms of Israeli policy. «

»Established scholarship enumerates all the racist laws and institutional racist practices in operation in Israel which discriminate between Jews and non-Jews, granting Jews differential rights and privileges over non-Jews, and rendering Israel a racist state by law. Popular and media knowledge, in contrast, depict Israel as a democratic liberal state that treats all its citizens equally. It is also established in scholarship that Israel discriminates against non-European Jews (the majority of the country's Jewish population) and also against recent Russian Jewish immigrants, and has engaged and continues to engage in a racist discourse about them and in unofficial institutional discrimination against them (witness the most recent case of discrimination against Ethiopian Jews in admissions to Israeli universities). In contrast, popular and media knowledge depicts Israel as a place where all Jews are equal. Scholarly knowledge addresses the question of Israel as a quasi-theological state, where religious law governs major aspects of Jewish life and that only Orthodox Judaism is allowed to have religious authority over Jewish citizens to the exclusion of Reform and Conservative Judaism, let alone other Jewish denominations. In contrast, media and popular knowledge depict Israel as a secular state. These are only a few examples of how scholarly knowledge is drastically different from and contradicts media and popular knowledge about key issues regarding Israeli society and history. «

»Israel's apologists and right-wing witch-hunters aim to establish this popular and media "knowledge", which echo the official positions of the State of Israel and its US lobby, as "scholarly" and dismiss academic scholarship as ideology. It is in this context that many of the organisations and individuals attacking me are under the false impression that what I teach in my classes is a "Palestinian" perspective or narrative. In fact, at the risk of engaging my fanatical critics, whose outrageous claims and inventions should not be given any legitimacy, I do no such thing. In my class on the topic, I teach academic scholarship on Palestine and Israel, which is precisely why the witch-hunters want Columbia to fire me. «

»This is not to say that scholarship is unbiased. On the contrary, all respectable scholarship about Nazi Germany and the holocaust, to take an important example, is indeed biased against the Nazis, but no one except anti-Semites would dare equate scholarly judgment of Nazi Germany and the holocaust as the "Jewish" perspective or narrative. The same applies to scholarship about South Africa under Apartheid, which is never described as the "Black" perspective or narrative. Feminist scholarship is equally biased against sexism, but is not labelled as "women's" narrative or perspective. Scholarship on Stalin, on US slavery, on British colonialism, on American racism, on institutionalised sexism and discrimination against women, etc, is always biased, and no amount of lobbying from right-wing groups will force academics to teach the Nazi or slavery perspectives in the interest of "balance." It is this scholarly space that the university enshrines which the neo-conservative culture commissars want to close off. To do so, what better place to create consensus than the Palestine/Israel conflict on which there is total US cultural agreement echoed by the mainstream and the right-wing and left-wing press. If Fox news and CNN and ABC news can agree on the "facts" surrounding Israel and its policies, as do the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Daily News, and the New York Sun, then surely critical scholarship on this question will find little popular support. In this regard you can have a civil libertarian Zionist like the Village Voice 's Nat Hentoff, liberal Zionist apologists like the Nation magazine, and the New York Sun and the New York Post, join hands to discredit scholars on Palestine and Israel as "dogmatic", "uncompromising," "strident" and the like. Ostensible civil libertarian and Harvard Law Professor Alan Dershowitz has not only joined the campaign in writing for the press, but also by lecturing at Columbia University against "pro-Palestinian" professors whom he accused of supporting terrorism. Luckily, Dershowitz did not advise Columbia on the types of legal torture that it could mete out to "guilty" professors. «

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