Asaf Romirowsky on Academics against Israel and the Jews, by Manfred Gerstenfeld

, April 16, 2008

Jewish Political Studies Review 20:1-2 (Spring 2008)

One of the greatest myths in Middle East studies departments across North America is that if one has an Israeli faculty member, one has a balanced department. In fact, many Israeli academics have built their reputation on scholarship that is critical of Israel and Israel’s existence. And these academics are also given center stage by the Association for Jewish Studies, Middle East scholars, and Middle East studies centers, which frequently host them and provide visiting appointments. This gives Israeli scholars the visibility they seek while allowing their hosts to claim balance in presenting an “Israeli viewpoint.”

In his book Fabricating Israeli History, Middle East historian Efraim Karsh observes that in the field of Middle East studies, propaganda has become the accepted norm, more so than in any other discipline. If this had happened in any other field it would have created a serious issue of credibility. As Karsh notes, “not so in contemporary Middle East Studies. For such is the politicization of this field that the New Historiography’s partisanship has been its entry ticket to the Arabist club and its attendant access to academic journals, respected publishing houses, and the mass media.”[1]

Israel as Stand-In for “the Jews”

In Academics against Israel and the Jews, Manfred Gerstenfeld, chairman of the Board of Fellows at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, presents a collection of essays on the latest surge of anti-Israeli/Western sentiment on college campuses in the United States and Europe. The phenomenon itself is not blatantly anti-Semitic but rather appears only critical of “Zionist policies.” This well-worn distinction has enabled the anti-Israeli camp to pose as legitimate critics. But what has actually emerged is a new form of anti-Semitism whereby the state of Israel acts as a proxy for Jews at large. The situation has become increasingly inimical to the pro-Israeli community as it becomes harder to make a case for Israel on campus.

John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt’s The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy[2] presents yet another challenge as it focuses on the U.S.-Israeli partnership. The authors contend that there are no genuine motives for America’s support for Israel, which they refer to as a “strategic burden.” They argue further that U.S. foreign policy has been hijacked by the pro-Israeli camp to the detriment of America’s own interests. Mearsheimer and Walt indeed claim that the war in Iraq resulted from AIPAC’s pressure.

In turn, an integral part of this trend is the adaptation of Holocaust rhetoric to the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic, such as equating the Palestinian Naqba (catastrophe) with the Holocaust. This has engendered statements that, for example, Israelis are doing to Palestinians what was done to them during World War II and the security fence is Israel’s method of ghettoizing the Palestinians. This poses yet another hurdle to the pro-Israeli community, which has to counter demands to recognize a nonexistent Palestinian Holocaust. The task becomes increasingly difficult as the media consistently promotes the Palestinian angle.

Several of the contributors to Academics against Israel and the Jews note that 9/11 fostered yet another element of the formula, namely, the apologetic tendency among American Jews with regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict. In particular, rabbis and Jewish educators, whether on the Left or Right of Israeli politics, feel the need to apologize for defending Israel. This, along with the need to be politically correct, is one of the prime sources of confusion among students.

For example, the Palestinian “right of return” has always been a topic of debate when discussing prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The issue, however, is almost always framed in terms of “Israeli oppression,” which is assumed to be solely responsible for the plight of Palestinians wherever they may be. In contrast, the issue of Jewish refugees from Arab lands is among those also never raised by Arabs or by liberal American Jews.

“Academic Freedom” as Pretense

College campuses have become podiums for those who denigrate Israel, such as the various human rights, antiglobalization, and anti-imperialism groups that have adopted the Palestinian cause. In academic circles, individual scholars’ views are often, as Daniel Pipes and Norvell B. De Atkine note,

turned into a political litmus test. For example, Fouad Ajami, the articulate interpreter of Arab culture and politics who teaches at Johns Hopkins University, has been subject to scathing attacks from Arab critics. In a review of his book The Vanished Imam, Asad Abu Khalil verbally assaulted Ajami, calling him a “neo-orientalist,” an insult in Middle East studies circles. Ostensibly, Arab critics find Ajami’s scholarship faulty. In reality, they see him as too soft on Israel and, worse, as selling out to the enemy. He endured much abuse, for example, for attending a Jewish function.

Pipes and De Atkine also note that “this factional infighting becomes particularly bitter in the context of the Arab-Israeli issue. Halim Barakat of Georgetown University simply dismisses as ‘Zionist scholarship’ anyone who dares dispute his dubious vision of the Arab world as ‘a single overarching society.'”[3]

This type of anti-Israeli advocacy is highlighted in Academics against Israel and the Jews. Contributors emphasize the need to provide students with a broad understanding of Israel before they leave high school for the college campus. Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is by no means black and white, the Palestinian cause has, primarily under the impact of the late Palestinian apologist Edward Said, become the flagship of many Middle East studies departments across North America. Said’s Orientalism posited the Palestinians as the icon of alleged Western prejudice against the Arab world and Islam in general. Thus, in the post-1967 era the Arab-Israeli conflict was portrayed in this light, and Israel as the latest outpost of Western oppression of non-Europeans.

Said’s thesis adds another element to the political correctness that already dominates American society. It must be recognized that there is no acceptable use of terrorism, nor any acceptable notion of eliminating a living and breathing state like Israel. Those who advocate such “causes” are the ones who should be on the defensive. An open climate for discussion of Israeli society and Israel’s quest for peace will enable calm reflections on what Israel means to American Jews.

Furthermore, academic freedom has been used as a shield and a “get-out-of-jail-free card” when speakers are dismissed as conservative. The modern notions of free speech and academic freedom stem from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Mill argued that free speech originates in society’s desire to discover the truth. By vetoing a right opinion, society loses the opportunity to exchange an error for truth. But banning a false opinion, Mill maintained, means losing something almost as precious-a clearer perception of truth that is produced by its clash with error. If no foes are available to put one’s ideas to the test, Mill urges inventing arguments against one’s own beliefs.

Today whatever is said in a classroom, whether or not it is academic, is deemed protected by “academic freedom.” Only sexual harassment appears exempt from this blanket protection. Gradually the entire campus has become an “academic freedom” zone where protests and other activities now qualify as academic “speech.” The freedom to critique is, predictably, directed mostly at the two Satans, Israel and America, while efforts to curtail speech that academics find uncongenial have long taken the form of “speech codes” and restrictions on “hate speech.” Clearly, academic freedom is a one-way street; only those having the correct opinions may claim it.

Academics against Israel and the Jews presents testimony of the clear lack of balance in academia, especially in Middle East studies departments where so-called scholarship consistently fails to examine, much less condemn, terrorism or jihadism. Such an atmosphere enables intolerable ideas to become accepted as the norm. This situation needs to be challenged by all those concerned about the health of academia, as well as the continued wellbeing of Israel. It is to be hoped that the essays in this book will serve as a wakeup call for the Jewish community at large and engender proactive steps on these critical issues.

*     *     *

Notes

 

[1] Ephraim Karsh, Fabricating Israeli History: The “New Historians,” 2nd rev. ed. (London: Frank Cass, 2000), xxviii.

[2] John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007).

[3] Norvell B. De Atkine and Daniel Pipes, “Middle Eastern Studies: What Went Wrong?”
Academic Questions, Winter 1995-1996, www.campus-watch.org/article/id/558.

*     *     *

ASAF ROMIROWSKY is an associate fellow at the Middle East Forum and manager of Israel and Middle East Affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.