- Many new mutations of American anti-Semitism, and in particular its anti-Israeli forms, originate on the University campus. Much pro-Israel advocacy is carried out by new grassroots faculty groups such as Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME).
SPME’s preferred approach is through collegial professorial contact. Only if these efforts prove ineffective, cases of anti-Semitism are turned over to the Anti Defamation League or others.
SPME issues challenges to anti-Israel and anti-Semitic academics, some of whom are Jews, and invites them to put their opinions forward on the SPME web forum.
SPME also monitors professional journals, guilty of publishing anti-Israeli fabrications, such as the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry and the British Medical Journal.
Pro-Israel Advocacy by Grassroots Groups
Many new mutations of American anti-Semitism, and in particular its anti-Israeli forms, originate on the campus. Part of the battle against this is undertaken by the classic American Jewish defense organizations. However, much pro-Israel advocacy is carried out by new grassroots faculty groups.
One important new initiative is Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME, www.spme.net). It was founded in 2002 to address the increasing number of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incidents in classrooms and on campus. Ed Beck, its volunteer president and cofounder, mentions that the founding of SPME was to some extent a reaction to the anti-Semitic events at San Francisco State University (SFSU).
Due to a convergence of events around the start of the second Intifada Beck realized that there was no grassroots network of faculty that advocated for Israel on campus. While Beck was monitoring what went on at SFSU he developed a correspondence with Laurie Zoloth, whose Internet description of events there captured the attention of many. He also met Judith Jacobson, who would become SPME Vice President, while monitoring anti-Israel propaganda on a “Professors for Peace” listserv. At the same time, his son was commencing studies at Tel Aviv University. It was in this context that SPME was born.
Over 500 Members at 200 Campuses
Beck explains: “Our organization is modeled after the defunct body of American Professors for Peace in the Middle East. Some of its veterans are among the more than 500 SPME members at over 200 campuses world-wide. These are mainly, but not exclusively, Jewish and non-Jewish academics from the United States. SPME has 17 chapters at institutions such as MIT, Cal Poly, Columbia University, and Louisiana State University.”
He describes the situation on campus: “People comment unofficially and officially, and educate on the Middle East conflict formally and informally in classrooms where the subjects being taught are medicine, architecture, liberal arts studies, or whatever. SPME is designed to network professors to give them access to the information they need when Israel-related subjects come up in their classrooms. This may be directly, or indirectly, as part of the curriculum or outside it, in term papers, textbooks, journals, and so forth.
SPME investigates all anti-Semitic incidents on campuses from which it receives information. We try to analyze these incidents and then to mobilize faculty to address the issues. To do so, we have to see to it that our members who teach many students are educated, networked and empowered. They have to understand Israel’s history and its political ramifications as well as to be able to talk to Jewish and non-Jewish students.”
Before explaining SPME’s aims and modus operandi, Beck mentions other initiatives which have emerged to foster Israel’s cause on the campus. Sociologist Mervin Verbit started the Israel Studies Project at the graduate center of City University in New York, as he considered that many problems the Israeli cause encounters on campus result from a lack of information. Beck admires the work of Andrew Marks, M.D., who formed International Academic Friends of Israel which sponsors international specialty conferences for medical school faculty in Israel.
Beck also mentions the Israel on Campus Coalition, a network of around 25 national organizations, among which AIPAC and Hillel are particularly active but primarily with students on campus without dedication to faculty development, networking and empowerment for Israel advocacy. “They have targeted mainly Hillel-based campuses having no resident faculty member group sitting on it. The ICC uses mainly independent and think tank scholars, with the occasional big name resident scholar, who specializes primarily in political science or Middle Eastern Studies.”
Beck explains that the best method to be effective on campus is through collegial professorial contact. “Our goal is not to embarrass an institution or a particular professor. We are not seeking to ‘out’ anybody unless adversaries become belligerent. Peer contact is quiet, respectful, and often effective. The offending academic is approached by another resident scholar from the same area. They exchange views and can debate back and forth as to the merits of the curriculum, the chapter, the paper or wherever the offense which has been committed.”
Beck illustrates this: “One story I frequently tell has never made any big splash. It involved a student who took a comparative religion course. She was studying from a text which stated that Mohammad had been betrayed by Jews, and that this was the reason why Muslims hate them. A first and second year professor was teaching this from a pre-printed text that came with the textbook.
“The student was very upset because he wasn’t aware of Jews having betrayed Mohammad, and the text was not very specific. We had one of our faculty members contact the teacher at the college and say: ‘We understand that in this particular text you are using, an inciting statement is made.’
“The professor had no idea that this was in the pre-printed text that hundred of students were taught from. She was much embarrassed and helped us write to the publisher to change the text.”
A Tedious Task
Beck says: “Following such a peer to peer approach can be tedious, but we think it has long lasting effects. Our task is to educate a generation of scholars who will be more sensitive to facts as opposed to propaganda and rhetoric. It is our belief that simple analysis of these facts will lead to a number of conclusions. The first one is that Israel has a legitimate right to exist within safe and secure borders, at peace with its neighbors.
“The second is that the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians and other displaced persons can be negotiated. There are legitimate concerns on both sides of the fence and these have to be discussed civilly and through negotiations. We, however, do not have to take up the cause of the Palestinians, who have more than enough well-funded advocates, such as Professors for Peace. One of their prominent members was the late Edward Said, a well-known scholar who falsified his biography until he was exposed. There is no moral equivalence between how the pro-Palestinians operate and what we are doing.”
Beck mentions the metamorphosis he and other progressive academics have undergone. “What is very upsetting is that the Jewish intellectual left in academia still thinks that you can get cozy with forces that demonize Israel. They have short-term memories and do not realize that Ariel Sharon came to power as the result of Palestinian intransigence.”
Euphoria and Reality
Beck says that he told a group at Duke University that the American Jewish intelligentsia had been caught with their pants down. “Our euphoria about peace after the Oslo agreements made us unable to carry out rational analyses. Most of us were behind Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. Ehud Barak was negotiating far beyond what anybody would have thought was reasonable.
“In our wildest dreams, many of us would never have backed Sharon. Most of us, in terms of our sympathies, aligned with Labor and other moderate parties. The Palestinians, however, were directly responsible for the election of Sharon when they walked out of the Camp David Agreements with Barak and started the new Intifada. Israel had to resort to a strong military response. This is not propaganda. Any analysis of the facts will show that it is reality.
“We began to understand that huge amounts of money had been poured by forces hostile to Israel, into American academia in the field of Middle Eastern studies. There were now many Arab and Palestinian professors all over college campuses who started to say that Israel had always been engaged in extremely brutal action against the Palestinians.”
Talking to Anybody
“SPME’s approach is to talk to anybody who will talk to us, provided that he or she recognizes Israel’s right to exist. Extremists who don’t are beyond the pale. In order to be able to do so, we have a very varied membership. Our initial board had scholars identified with rightist positions such as Daniel Pipes, and with the left, including Israeli political scientist Moshe Maoz and ethicist Laurie Zoloth who now teaches at Northwestern University.”
Beck says that SPME issues challenges to patently anti-Israel, anti-Semitic academics and invites them to put their opinions forward on the SPME web forum. He observes: “However, they never accept.” Beck mentions that some of Israel’s main opponents on campus are Jewish. “We have invited the best-known among them, Noam Chomsky, the linguist from MIT, to write in our forum. He refused.
“Joshua Schreier at Vassar College is using a racist war-mongering template, distorting biblical history, portraying the Israelis as Goliaths to the Palestinian Davids. He teaches his students that ‘Israel is engaged in a low-grade war of genocide against the Palestinians.’ I replied to him that Israel has the military means to do so, but is merciful enough not to engage in this. I added that ‘it is the Jordanians and the UN who are engaged in a low-grade war of genocide against the Palestinians, blaming it on the Jews.’
“I explained this by saying that Jordan is the homeland of the Palestinians. Its government however does not admit them into the country. One could argue that the Arabs are slowly strangling the Palestinians. Had all the resources the Palestinians received from the Arab countries been used in the territories for economic and peaceful development, the current situation would not have developed.
“Another Jewish enemy of Israel is Joe Levine, Professor of History at Ohio State University. He heads a group called The Committee for Peace and Justice in Palestine. Levine was very active in the third anti-Israel divestment conference, which took place at his campus in 2003. He claims to be knowledgeable on Jewish studies and has previously lived in Israel.
“Levine tells his students that the state of Israel is based on mythology. This defies all archaeological, anthropological and historical facts. It is also an expression of anti-Semitism as he claims that Jews are not entitled to a homeland. When we asked Levine to put his ideas forward on the SPME website so that he could be challenged, he refused.”
Reassessing Post-Colonial Theories
Beck mentions that many people are out to deconstruct Chomsky, the historian Norman Finkelstein or the late Edward Said. “SPME, however, wants to take a much broader approach. We want to reassess post-colonial theories as they are applied to the Middle East.
“It has become academically fashionable to criticize Israel’s legitimate right to exist. This is part of an argument which says that Israel is a manifestation of a post-Colonial period, destined to fail with the imposing of a seemingly non-indigenous people to a region with the modern creation of the state of Israel. This of course flies in the face of archeology, history and reality.
“Such an assessment has to be done in an academic way. The validity of the main theories will be investigated. Academic analysis is by nature slow. One first organizes a conference to which one brings distinguished scholars. The papers one publishes are submitted to peer review. This gives them legitimacy so they can’t be discounted as propaganda. The published volume goes to university shelves and libraries. The difference from think tank scholarship is evident. It is like taking the local train rather than the express one.”
Pro-Israel Advocacy: Politically Incorrect
Beck says that such an approach is important because pro-Israel advocacy on the campus has become politically incorrect. One well-known scholar who has been punished for this is Anne Bayefsky. Her contract as a visiting scholar at Columbia University was not renewed because she expressed her pro-Israeli opinions.
“A similar thing happened at the University of Pennsylvania with Francisco Gil-White. His scholarship was fine for the faculty as long as he was a pro-Palestinian advocate. It was no longer so when his research led to different conclusions. He is the classic example of the type of person we want to reach. He had a genuine conversion of views. Yet when this happened, according to Gil-White, his Jewish department head, Professor Ian Lustic told him that he would not get tenure due to his activism. In addition to providing Gil-White with collegial support, SPME linked him with a number of community resources to help with legal advice and offered to peer-review his work and write on his behalf to his promotion and tenure committee.
“The anti-Israel atmosphere in the Middle Eastern Studies Department of Columbia University has been exposed by ‘Columbia Unbecoming,’ a film produced by the David project. It shows how Jewish and Israeli students have been intimidated and treated uncivilly by members of the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures faculty (MEALAC).
“In the documentary a female student tells the story of her subjection to Nazi-type, ethnic intimidation. Several interviewees have graduated and only now feel they can speak freely. An Israeli student recounts an incident in which Professor Joseph Massad, who teaches Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History, asked him: ‘How many Palestinians have you killed?’ The scandal has reached the general press. Columbia now has a lot of egg on its face.
“Another important aspect of this film is that the producers could not find any faculty member to express views on the issue for the camera. Several students claimed that some university professors had said that they feared expressing pro-Israel sentiments on campus because it would be ‘professional suicide’ in a department dominated by pro-Palestinian scholars. This indicates further intimidation. President Lee Bollinger of Columbia has already announced that he is taking the accusations seriously.
“Sometimes a single individual can make the difference. It doesn’t even have to be a faculty member. A well-known case is that of Rachel Fish, who as a master’s student in the Harvard Divinity School, founded Students for an Ethical Divinity School and led protests of Harvard’s acceptance of funds from Sheik Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan. Zayed, who recently passed away, was the ruler of the United Arab Emirates and founder of the Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-Up, a virulently anti-Semitic and anti-American think tank, which engaged in conspiracy theory development and Holocaust denial promotion. Eventually, Harvard returned the funds. Unfortunately, a year later, Columbia University has accepted them.”
Fabricating One’s Past
Beck relates another case. “When SPME was still at its beginning, we were told about Gordon Brubaker, Professor of Theology at a local fundamentalist Christian college. He belonged to a group called Christian Peacekeepers and went around lecturing and claiming that he had been part of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s negotiating team at Wye plantation.
“In lectures before church groups and on campuses he made wild fabrications about his role there and the various agreements reached. Any reasonably educated person should have known that his story was fabricated and mainly self-promoting. We contacted Netanyahu and asked him what the lecturer’s connection to him was. He told us that he had never heard of him.
“In the world of academics, such action is not considered free speech. Falsification and fabrication are moral turpitude, and a reason for release. We have taken this matter up with his employer.”
A Psychiatry Journal Case
Beck also gives examples of anti-Israeli fabrications published by respectable journals. The Canadian Journal of Psychiatry printed an article on the morbidity of Palestinian children as a result of the Israeli occupation, entitled the “Prevalence of psychological morbidity in West Bank Palestinian children,” by Tanya Zakrison, Amira Shahen, Shaban Mortaja and Paul Hamel. The article appeared to use science in an attempt to further a specific political and scientifically undefined and unjustified explanation for their results.
“An investigation and analysis of the article and the backgrounds of the authors found repeated assertions not supported by the authors’ own references, a lack of attention to available data that can explain the results, a failure to properly define terms used, and conclusions reached on the basis of unsubstantiated conjecture. The authors also seem to have used a non-standardized scale despite claiming the opposite which appropriateness for the population in question is questionable. None of the authors have mental health backgrounds, and the recurring use of references that do not support their statements calls into question their credibility.
“Several SPME members reacted. Lead by psychologist Irwin Mansdorf, formerly at Columbia University and now living in Israel, these academics took the article apart with Mansdorf preparing a comprehensive rebuttal. Q. Rae Grant, editor-in-chief of the journal, refused to publish it. We then wrote to the executive director of the Canadian Psychiatric Association. He responded to our request for a thorough investigation of our concerns with a counterproposal for us to submit a 500-word letter to the editor, where we will reference Dr. Mansdorf’s article which will be posted at our website.
“In this particular case, there was no discussion of the educational system of the Palestinians. The authors should have asked what the high-risk morbidity effect is of the teachings of religious education by fundamentalist Islamic clergy to youngsters. A child growing up to be a shaheed, a homicide murderer, contributes to high-risk morbidity. If to die for a goal is inculcated in you as a child, the chances are that you are going to engage in high-risk behavior. None of this was mentioned by the authors.”
“Yet this is a widely respected academic journal. A past president of the American Psychiatric Association, who collaborates with us, said that the article, in view of its poor quality, should never have been published in the first place. It is thus an indication of the bias of the editors who teach psychiatry in significant places.”
Beck stresses how important it is that such articles in academic journals are brought to SPME’s attention. “The leading pro-Israeli media watch organizations, such as CAMERA and HonestReporting, deal with general media, but not with professional journals. We need many more scholars to go through all the journals. The anti-Israel attacks are becoming more and more blatant.
“In autumn 2004, another such story broke. An opinion piece, ‘Palestine: The Assault on Health and Other War Crimes,’ by psychiatry Professor Derek Summerfield was published in the weekly British Medical Journal of 16 October 2004. SPME’s Task Force on Medical and Public Health Issues, under the leadership of Steve Albert of Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University, Irwin Mansdorf and others, have prepared responses for that article as well.”
Too Few Mentors
Beck observes that there are too few university teachers willing to expose themselves and work on pro-Israel advocacy. This causes problems, particularly when Jewish students are seeking vital support. “We try to hook them up, wherever possible, with sympathetic faculty members. Students and teachers raise issues with us, and we attempt to get scholars to give academic answers as opposed to those based on myths. Graduate students, or those doing doctoral work, need material which meets the quality of the research they are doing.”
One issue receiving much publicity recently was the Palestinian Solidarity Movement meetings and the corresponding Joint Israel Initiative at Duke University. At the students’ invitation, Beck presented what students and faculty could do within the academic system to effectively address issues of anti-Israel, anti-Semitic teachings and activities. He also explained that those violating the rules of academic free speech which frequently crosses over into hate speech could be held accountable. This is not tolerated on campuses and can be cause for dismissal.
Beck returns to the essence of his thinking. “SPME initiates contact collegially. We talk to offending professors, and if this does not help we go to university administrators. We try to keep matters on the campus. If our efforts prove ineffective, we turn a case of anti-Semitism over to the Anti-Defamation League or others from whom we get very good cooperation.
“In the ICC publication ‘Fighting Back’ by Mitchell Bard, SPME laid out many of the challenges facing campus communities in terms of how to resolve academic problems when they arise. SPME has positions and papers on anti-Semitism free campuses and on academic fabrication and falsification.”
An Integral Part of Campus
Beck summarizes: “The essential difference between SPME and many other organizations is that we are an integral part of the campus. SPME faculty are in the trenches, i.e., in places that outside institutes cannot gain access to. Many general Jewish organizations come in and go out. They land on campus, do good high impact work, but then leave. They have no permanent presence on the campus and are not seen as part of academic life, which is a world in itself. Faculties are the glue that keeps campuses intact academically and set the standards for discourse.
“While the Hillel presence is a strong one on many campuses, most Hillel professionals have no academic standing and are seen as student personnel professionals working primarily with the Jewish students. The sad fact of the matter is that Hillels reach a very small segment of the campus community while faculty impact many more students and colleagues.
“These people have not gone through promotion and tenure and thus do not know the university system and the current rules in academic culture. They cannot adequately educate students on how to deal successfully with fabrications, falsifications, propaganda, historical revisionism and so forth.”
Beck refers also to the larger community: “Some national organizations have been more helpful than others. The new roof body, United Jewish Communities of North America, has tried to obtain funding for certain projects. Raising money is a problem. We would like to partner with some bigger organization as we are sustained by members’ voluntary contributions and our budget is unbelievably small.
“Other major groups, however, have stated that faculty is not considered a target population in the advocacy movement. One Jewish leader even said in front of 600 students at the Rutgers University Israel Inspires conference: ‘Faculty are hopeless.’ I thought to myself: ‘What kind of a message are you sending out? Why should you impact negatively on our legitimacy?’”
Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld
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Dr. Edward S. Beck is co-founder and President of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (www.spme.net). He is director of the Susquehanna Institute in Harrisburg, PA and has served on the administrations and taught psychology and professional ethics at Penn State, New York University, Rutgers University, Alvernia College, Lebanon Valley College, Rosemont College and the City University of New York.