Watching the Pro-Israeli Academic Watchers

, November 15, 2010

Jewish Political Studies Review Vol.23 No.12

Although anti-Israeli activity on campus was evident in the 1980s and 1990s, the resolutions at the notorious World Conference against Racism in Durban in August 2001 led to an upsurge in such efforts and also to the founding of three academic watch organizations in 2002. The largest of these organizations is the U.S.-based Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, which is run by the academic community itself. Campus Watch, also U.S.-based, is part of the well-established Middle East Forum and focuses on the anti-Israeli biases of Middle East courses and the academics who teach them. In the UK, Academic Friends of Israel has dealt with counteracting academic boycott attempts, particularly by the staff unions. Subsequently established organizations include Engage, also in the UK, which has concentrated on the anti-Israeli attitudes of left-wing academics; and in Israel, Israel Academia Monitor and IsraCampus, which highlight the anti-Israeli biases and actions of Israeli academics. The continuing growth of anti-Israeli activity on campus since 2002 has given all these watch organizations much to do. In this new environment, watching and monitoring may no longer be enough, and a more explicit and central campaigning role may now be necessary.

Watching academics for evidence of anti-Israeli bias is largely a twenty-first-century phenomenon. Campus Watch and Scholars for Peace in the Middle East in the United States, and The Academic Friends of Israel in the UK all began in 2002. Some university campuses had become hostile to Israel long before 2002, fueled particularly by the notorious UN declaration that “Zionism is racism” in 1975. Yohanan Manor, in his book on the UN resolution and its subsequent repeal, cites many examples of how discussion on campuses in a number of countries linked Zionism with racism, and he describes the hostile atmosphere faced by Jewish students.[1]

There are a number of reasons why this anti-Israeli hostility on campuses did not evoke a strong counterreaction in those earlier years. As Manor has pointed out, the initial reaction to the UN resolution by Israel and most world Jewish leaders was a calculated indifference. The attitude seemed to be that any sensible, civilized person could see that the notion that Zionism was racism is nonsense, and that the best approach by the “civilized” world was to ignore it. It was only in the mid- 1980s, as the negative effect of the resolution became more obvious, that serious attempts began to be made, both by Israel and its supporters overseas, to have the resolution rescinded. Even then it took until December 1991 before the United Nations revoked the 1975 resolution.

A second factor in the lack of any sustained watch on campuses in the 1980s and 1990s was the fact that the anti-Israeli behavior mainly came from and was experienced by students, rather than academics. In the UK in particular, where student unions are organizationally separate from, and largely independent of their university, many student organizations sought to ban or severely limit the activities of their Jewish student societies on the ground that by supporting Israel they were racist. The campus wars of the 1980s largely bypassed the adult Jewish community and its leaders, many of whom were ignorant or indifferent to the hostility and negativity Jewish students were facing.

Another important factor in the absence of any serious watch on campus activity was the lack of modern communication tools. It is sometimes difficult to remember nowadays the snail’s pace of communications before email and the use of the World Wide Web. Not only were the tools – such as postal mail – slow, they were also expensive. Information took time both to collect and to disseminate, and the print media were usually the quickest method. For the reasons noted earlier, the mainstream media at the time were largely not interested in the issue of anti-Israeli activity on campus.

Why 2002?

The Academic Friends of Israel in the UK and Scholars for Peace in the Middle East in the United States began their work in the early summer of 2002, while Campus Watch, also in the United States, began operating in the fall of 2002. What was special about that year to stimulate the formation of three new organizations?

On Passover 2002 a suicide bomber managed to gain entry to the Park Hotel in Netanya, just as guests were assembling for the seder. The bomber killed thirty people besides himself, and left over 130 wounded. Israel’s response was a sustained operation in the West Bank to capture and kill terrorists. This included fierce battles in Jenin, accompanied by lurid media reports, subsequently found to be untrue, of hundreds of civilians being killed. The Israeli action, particularly in Jenin, brought forth a storm of protest, notably in Europe. This included a letter to The Guardian by two British academics, Prof. Steven Rose and his wife Prof. Hilary Rose, to which 123 other signatures were appended. The signatories called for an EU moratorium on research funding for Israeli universities.[2]

The letter was originally represented as a response to the Israeli incursion into the West Bank after the Netanya bombing. This was unlikely as it was published just ten days after the bombing and less than a week after the incursion had started. To have obtained agreement to the wording of the letter and also 125 signatures in this short time would have been a minor miracle, even for nonacademics. It turned out subsequently that the decision to call for a ban or moratorium came out of the notorious World Conference against Racism in Durban in August 2001. Work had been going on quietly for six months, collecting signatures and waiting for a suitable opportunity to be launched. The events in Netanya, which the Roses’ letter did not mention, and the West Bank, provided that opportunity.

Although a web-based petition opposing the call for a moratorium attracted far more signatories, the Guardian letter created a momentum for action, particularly in Britain. In June 2002 Dr. Mona Baker, a lecturer at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST), dismissed two Israelis from the editorial board of a linguistics journal that she owned. The subsequent debate became an example of the twisted logic of boycott supporters on the issue of academic freedom. Many defended Baker’s “academic freedom” to sack members of her editorial board rather than the Israelis’ academic freedom and right to be judged on their academic merits rather than the country in which they lived. Baker’s supporters seemingly could not understand the implication of their position that if she had the “academic freedom” to sack people because she was in a position of authority, then presumably university presidents had a similar freedom to sack academic staff whose views or passports they did not like![3]

The events in the UK stimulated the establishment in spring 2002 of The Academic Friends of Israel. It aimed at countering the boycott attempts both through the Roses’ letter and through motions at the academic trade union conferences. The letter, however, had in Manfred Gerstenfeld’s words “brought about the globalization of the boycott attempts.” [4] Additional signatories came from across the world. In the United States, events in the Middle East were impacting campuses, and this led Prof. Edward Beck to establish Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. Its purpose, in Beck’s own words, was “to address the growing number of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic incidents in classrooms and on campus.”[5]

Meanwhile the long-established Middle East Forum, in the United States, led by Dr. Daniel Pipes had been giving greater attention to Middle East Studies courses on U.S. campuses, alleging that they were increasingly showing anti-Israeli bias and were increasingly led by academics who were not just critical of some Israeli policies but fundamentally anti-Israeli. In September Pipes established a separate website within the Middle East Forum organization called Campus Watch. Its purpose was “to review and critique Middle East Studies in N. America with an aim to improving them.”

So within six months, three organizations had been established to watch and campaign against perceived anti-Israeli statements and actions on campuses in the UK and the United States.

What Is a Watch Organization?

There are a whole range of organizations that comment on and/or campaign against anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish activities on campus. To limit the scope of this inquiry, the focus here is on organizations that deal exclusively with campus issues, while excluding those that include campus issues from time to time as part of a wider remit. Also excluded are those whose main function is an Israel-advocacy role, essentially providing the Israeli case on any issue. No doubt these groups need to engage in a “watching” role in order to do their work, but watching is not their prime activity. So, for example, not included are Stand With Us, The David Project, or CAMERA, and many other organizations whose work is extremely valuable but do not meet the criteria set out here.[6]

Finally, it is worth noting the definition of “watching” used by Gerstenfeld and Green in their study of media watchers: “Media watching can be defined as critically examining one or more media on a regular or recurrent basis. It usually results from a conviction that certain media are biased against a cause that the monitoring body or individual supports. Media-watching activities include collecting, analyzing, and publishing data.”[7]

Substituting “campus” or “academic” for “media” provides a good description of the core purpose of the six academic watch organizations covered in this report. As will be seen, however, some, from time to time, develop from “watching” to campaigning to try and change particular anti-Israeli proposals.

The Academic Friends of Israel UK

The UK-based Academic Friends of Israel (AFI) has the distinction of being the first academic watch organization to begin operations. Established by Ronnie Fraser, and still, despite the existence of an Advisory Board, operating essentially as a one-man operation it has focused particularly on the UK academic trade unions’ attitude toward Israel. In 2002, but less so now, most academics belonged to the academic trade unions because academic pay and conditions were agreed through national collective bargaining. On those issues the unions were strong and influential. Their attitude toward more general political issues was less influential but attracted media attention.

In 2002 there were two academic trade unions. The Association of University Teachers (AUT) represented academics in the older, more research-intensive universities, and at the time was less interested in “political issues.” The National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE), as its name implied, represented staff in the former polytechnics and in the colleges. It had a reputation for militancy on both bargaining and political issues. One of the first statements put out by AFI was a comment on NATFHE pronouncements in April and May 2002 about events in the West Bank, which drew attention to its own role in moderating these pronouncements.

AFI claimed that a compromise motion was agreed by the union executive “as a result of unfavourable publicity for the Union in the Times Educational Supplement, the Academic Friends of Israel campaign and several extreme amendments which were proposed before the conference.”[8] The important point from the present perspective is that AFI from its earliest days was a campaigning organization as much as a watch organization. It was motivated by a mission, through political action, to oppose and campaign against anti-Israeli activity on campus, and it reported on that activity largely as a means to achieving its main objective. In the early days the main anti-Israeli activity came from the unions, and Fraser’s personal involvement with these gave him an expertise that was very valuable.

AFI’s mission statement reflects this campaigning approach. It refers to “fighting” the academic boycott and anti-Semitism, “reacting” to anti-Israeli policies, “ensuring” that Israeli academics are accepted in global academic circles, and “reacting” to the policies of academic trade unions toward Israel and Jewish staff members.

AFI moved beyond its immediate concern with the activities of the trade unions in mid-2003, when it exposed the boycott activity of Oxford academic Andrew Wilkie. The professor of pathology rejected an application from an Israeli postgraduate student because he objected to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and therefore “no way would I take on somebody who has served in the Israeli army.” Fraser obtained this information and passed it to the Sunday Telegraph whose subsequent publication gained worldwide attention.[9] Wilkie was suspended by Oxford for two months without pay, and was only reinstated after undergoing equal opportunity training.

AFI has evolved over the years. Union boycott activity in the UK is still a major focus, particularly around conference season at the end of May. Here, as in the past, AFI campaigns as well as watches, producing amendments to resolutions and mobilizing political support. In recent years the wider Anglo-Jewish leadership has become involved in campaigning against boycott, divestment, and sanctions activity through a well-resourced Stop the Boycott campaign. AFI is part of that campaign but still works separately with its own constituency. However, it has widened its interests and its regular digests now draw attention to broader anti-Israeli activity in the UK and anti-Israeli campus activity overseas. Here it is more of a watch organization.

Nevertheless, campaigning is still evident. In the 2009 worldwide campaign against the proposal from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim to ban relationships with Israel, AFI contacted the heads of the major research universities in the UK, who in turn published a strong statement criticizing the proposal. It was undoubtedly one of the factors that persuaded the university’s board to defeat the proposal.

AFI’s main form of communication is its regular digest, whose frequency varies with the level of activity. Sometimes a digest is concerned with a single issue, such as NTNU, and on other occasions there are updates on a wide variety of issues.[10] They are published whenever there is a need, so that sometimes two or three arrive in the same month. On average there is at least one a month over the year.

Scholars for Peace in the Middle East

Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) also began as a response to the vilification Israel was receiving in academe, and more generally, as a result of its activities on the West Bank in the late spring of 2002. Prof. Edward Beck, then director of the Susquehanna Institute in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, circulated a call for support for Israel among fellow academics. By the end of July he reported that he had fifty-three members of an organization called Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. Membership was obtained by agreeing to join and receiving communications.

By October there were 275 members from 135 institutions, though Beck put that in perspective by reporting that he had written to some fifteen thousand academics. Moreover, he wrote, many did not simply say no but criticized the aims of the organization, typified by a response that said, “How can you be for Israel and not for the Palestinians?” Beck refuted the implication that being for Israel meant being against the Palestinians, but remarked that it “is a falsehood that many of our colleagues seem to be buying.”[11]

Overcoming these early difficulties, SPME has grown into a large organization that now claims a membership, in effect a mailing list, of nearly twenty-eight thousand across 3,500 campuses worldwide. Close to forty campuses, mainly in the United States, have their own SPME chapter.[12] As well as supporting SPME’s overall work and campaigns, chapters focus on activity on their own campuses. SPME’s annual expenditure for 2008-09 was in the region of $250,000. Apparently about a fifth of this comes from members’ donations with the rest coming from charitable foundations.

SPME’s distinctiveness arises not only from its size, but its character. While other watch organizations do not publish the size of their mailing lists, it is doubtful if they can match the near-thirty thousand who receive SPME information. Nor is it likely that they can match the number of campuses worldwide that receive this information. Moreover, in over forty campuses there are academic staff interested enough to group together and form chapters to deal with activity on their own campus, though the numbers on each campus might be quite small.

SPME prides itself in being run by academics for academics, and its strength is that it is inside the campus rather than outside. While it cannot claim to be a fully democratic body, it is more open and participative than other watch organizations. It has an impressive Board of Directors of over twenty members (though the board itself seems to be responsible for appointing new members).

SPME’s revised mission, adopted in June 2008, is: “to inform, motivate, and encourage faculty to use their academic skills and disciplines on campus, in classrooms, and in academic publications to develop effective responses to the ideological distortions, including anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist slanders that poison debate and work against peace. SPME welcomes scholars from all disciplines, faith groups and nationalities who share our desire for peace and our commitment to academic integrity and honest debate.[13]”

SPME’s work and methods of communication have evolved over the eight years of its existence. Its main medium is a “Faculty Forum” email published about once a fortnight that has various sections. SPME News reports generally on actions or campaigns in which SPME is involved, and internal matters. Faculty Voices reproduces views expressed by often well-known academic commentators on campus and wider anti-Israeli issues. Chapter News gives notice of meetings at particular universities that may be of wider interest. Latest Academic News, which is usually the largest section, is in effect a sophisticated press-cuttings service that draws attention to anti-Israeli activity on campuses across the world, but essentially focuses on North America and Europe. The final sections of Views and News reproduce articles or news by nonacademics.

Although the content of Faculty Forum is categorized, somewhat confusingly, under a number of different headings, its essential purpose is to bring to the readers’ attention a comprehensive listing of news and views on anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish activities on campuses. A regular reader will be well informed both on attacks on Israel and campaigns to repel these attacks, particularly in North America. Sometimes a Faculty Forum will seek support for a campaign or petition. On other occasions a special email will be sent out, while occasionally the board will act, speak, and campaign in the name of SPME.

Much of the effect of SPME is hidden, and is reflected in the information, encouragement, and support it gives to its readership to combat anti-Israeli activity on campus. However, it also participates in and contributes to international campaigns. In 2007 it supported the campaign against the proposed boycott of the University and College Union (UCU) in London by creating a petition that was signed by thirty-three Nobel Laureates, over eleven thousand academics from over one thousand institutions worldwide, and fifty-eight college and university presidents, stating that “if one boycotts Israeli academics and professionals, one boycotts us.”[14] In 2009 SPME again mobilized its Nobel Laureates and 3,600 scholars to oppose successfully the proposal brought to the board of NTNU to boycott Israeli universities and academics.[15] In 2010 it played a key role in the international response to boycott proposals put to the board of the University of Oslo, which were soundly rejected.[16]

Campus Watch

Although Campus Watch was technically the third academic watch organization to be launched in 2002, it has a rightful claim to having been involved for far longer. Campus Watch is part of the much larger and older Middle East Forum run by Daniel Pipes. The parent body was drawing attention to anti-Israeli campus issues in the 1990s, and it was when these issues became more frequent and pervasive in the early part of the twenty-first century that it decided to launch a separate organization.[17]

Unlike the other two organizations launched in 2002, Campus Watch has a very specific focus on curriculum matters. As its mission statement says, “Campus Watch reviews and critiques Middle East studies in North America, with an aim of improving them.” Its first statements in September 2002 aroused great controversy, indicating that it would keep dossiers on professors and academic institutions and collect information from students on their teachers’ political opinions. In due course Campus Watch dropped the idea of dossiers as a distraction from its main focus, essentially to expose the bias against Israel in most Middle East Studies programs. Moreover, it declared that it takes no position on employment and tenure issues or on invitations to individual speakers on campuses.

Campus Watch identifies five problems with Middle East Studies: analytical failures (e.g., a benign view of Islamic extremism); the mixing of politics with scholarship (e.g., strong anti-U.S. bias), intolerance of alternative views (e.g., attempts to ban pro-Israeli speakers), apologetics (e.g., defense of Islamic dictatorships); and the abuse of power over students (e.g., punishing with lower grades students who do not follow the professor’s political slant in their essays).

Campus Watch’s main form of disseminating information is through its website under the heading “Middle East Studies in the News.” This brings together on a daily basis, often with a multiple number of items each day, information from a variety of public and more obscure sources. To take a random example, the five items posted for 9 June 2010[18] came from The Times of London, The Tennessean, the Washington Times, the Traditional Values Coalition, and The Corner (the blog of National Review Online). One important point emerges from this list: Campus Watch no longer restricts itself to North America. The item in The Times referred to an academic at Oxford University. Nor is the concern restricted to the curriculum of Middle East Studies programs; it now also extends to anti-Israeli statements or actions by academics, whether or not they specialize in Middle East Studies.

As a result, Campus Watch has become the most comprehensive source of information on anti-Israeli argument on campus. Note the use of the word argument, for Campus Watch rarely gets involved with actions such as resisting academic boycott attempts. Its focus is the debate, largely within Middle East Studies, but also more widely in terms of lectures and publications. For example, in the controversy in spring 2010 at the University of California Berkeley on a motion for divesture from Israel, Campus Watch focused on identifying the UC academics, mainly from Middle East Studies, who were supporting the motion.

The comprehensiveness of Campus Watch’s information over eight years means that it is able to classify its information by individual campus. Its website offers information on anti-Israeli bias at forty-nine different campuses in the United States and Canada. Its database would also allow it to classify its information by named academics, but presumably the early controversy over witch hunts and allegations of McCarthyism have deterred that approach. However, simply putting a name in the website search box will instantly produce all the website material on that person. Campus Watch does produce, as guidance to students, a list of over seventy professors who it believes are thoughtful and balanced in their work.

As Campus Watch is integrated organizationally within the Middle East Forum, it is difficult to identify the specific resources devoted to it out of the latter’s $1.5 million budget. With at least three devoted staff, it is likely that the costs of Campus Watch will come close to the $250,000 of SPME.

Engage

Engage is based in the UK and was established in 2005 “to counter the propaganda of the boycott campaign by the Association of University Teachers.” From that single-issue beginning it has grown to become “a resource that aims to help people counter the boycott Israel campaign in general, as well as the assumptions and misrepresentations that lie behind it.” Its uniqueness among academic watch organizations is that it is explicitly left-wing. Some quotes from its statement about itself on its website provide a flavor of its approach to anti-Israel activity: “We do not speak as “Jews” but as socialists, liberals, trade unionists or academics. A number of people centrally involved in Engage are not Jewish…. Engage is a single issue campaign. It focuses on one issue, anti-Semitism, and is therefore also concerned with the demonization of Israel, and of Jews who do not think of themselves as anti-Zionist. We believe that a new commonsense is emerging that holds Israel to be a central and fundamental evil in the world. We disagree with this notion and we think it is dangerous…. Engage’s primary business is to combat anti-Jewish racism in the left and liberal public sphere. It goes without saying that we also oppose more traditional right-wing anti-Semitism but that is not our focus.[19]”

Engage’s activities range from earnest theoretical debates about left-wing ideology to practical campaigning to ensure the election of antiboycott candidates in academic union elections. The theoretical, and even more so, the policy debates in which Engage gets involved should not be dismissed as irrelevant. Given that much of the anti-Israeli demonization is based on left-wing ideology, the more that this ideology is challenged by those who understand it, and in part believe in it, the better. Moreover, Engage also acts as a support group for those who are left-wing or liberal, providing them with arguments and moral support in their regular dialogue with their colleagues. However, Engage is more interested in fighting anti-Semitism than being pro-Israeli, and so its views of the Israeli government might make some uncomfortable reading for supporters of other academic watch organizations.

Engage posts news and views virtually daily on its website, supplemented by a fortnightly mailing to those who give their email address. It is run by a small group of people backed by administrative support, who control what is posted on the website, often posting most of the items themselves. In earlier years David Hirsch was the main contributor, and currently that role is filled by Miri Vogel and Richard Gold.

Israel Academia Monitor

In November 2004, Israel Academia Monitor (IAM) began its work and announced itself as “an Israeli watchdog that monitors abuses of academic freedom and politicization of Israeli campuses by extremists and radicals.” It claimed to be partly modeled on Campus Watch. Its opening statement continued: “Israeli academic institutions have been misused in recent years for radical anti-Israeli and even anti-Semitic propagandizing, often by tenured radicals with embarrassing academic records and dubious research credentials.” Israel Academia Monitor aimed to “bring to light statements written by and about the academic extremists and university anti-Zionists…to expose their activities.”

Unsurprisingly, because it used, but did not define, terms such as extremists, radicals, and anti-Zionists, the organization received a mixed – being a euphemism for “largely negative” – response from Israeli academia and others. To its credit it published, and continues to do so, the range of responses it receives, including those that are critical. In recent years IAM has sought to moderate its approach with a new mission statement and a revamp of the organization. The mission statement reads: “IAM is non-profit, grassroots organization comprising citizens who, while strongly advocating free speech and academic freedom, are seriously concerned about the growing tendency to abuse and distort these two essential characteristics of a democratic society. Of particular concern are academics who defame their own universities and advocate measures that will harm Israel in general and their universities in particular by using unbalanced prejudiced arguments that fail to live up to the scholarship standards expected of the universities they represent.[20]”

The phrasing in the second half of the mission statement indicates a focus on counteracting attempts by Israeli academics to advocate and support boycott, divestment, and sanctions policies toward Israel, including their own university, and that has been a feature of recent IAM activity. In 2010, for example, IAM was involved with campaigns to persuade university Boards of Governors – particularly  that of Tel Aviv University – to take action against “anti-Israeli” academics. It is also supporting the work of the Knesset Education Committee on investigating the boycott calls of Israeli academics. Not surprisingly, therefore, it continues to generate criticism not just from academics but also from more general observers. Benjamin Pogrund, writing in Haaretz in October 2009, accused it of being a “vigilante group of dangerous cranks.” In a spirited response, IAM accused Pogrund of ignoring the extreme activities it had identified.[21]

However, IAM still seems a little confused about what it is seeking to achieve. The website that offers the new mission statement also contains a section called “Why IAM?” This features much of the old language referring to “tenured extremists,” “people working to support the enemies of their own country,” and “seditious activism.” Perhaps there is an ideological struggle taking place within IAM between the sharp-tongued and the more moderate. Or more prosaically, perhaps in publishing the new mission statement they forgot to remove the old one.

IAM’s main means of communication is the regular emails it sends out to those on its mailing list, and displays on its website. These now provide near-daily reports of what it regards as anti-Israeli activity on Israeli campuses and by Israeli academics overseas. IAM proudly claims on its website that it has received over four million visitors since its inception six years ago. The driving force behind IAM is Dana Barnett who, while having a Board of Governors and a Board of Advisers, effectively runs the organization as a one-person operation. Certainly it would not operate as comprehensively without her.

IsraCampus

In 2008 a group of academics broke away from Israel Academia Monitor to establish IsraCampus. The tone and content of their website indicate that they felt IAM had become too moderate, as reflected possibly in its revised mission statement. IsraCampus has no such inhibitions. Its self-description on its homepage states: “Monitoring Israel’s Academia Fifth Column. Following Anti-Israel Extremism on the Israeli Campus.”  It also has a “rogues gallery” of around 120 people of whose activities it does not approve. As well as the usual suspects the list includes Amos Oz, Alice Shalvi, and Yuli Tamir.

In explaining itself, IsraCampus says it is “modeled in part on Campus Watch,” though whether Campus Watch would accept that designation is open to question. While its description of the problem facing Israeli campuses is similar to that of IAM, its approach is much more self-promotional. Thus it declares, “A specter is haunting the Israeli Academic ‘Post-Zionist’ extremists in Israel, and it is ISRACAMPUS.” It goes on to claim that: “Until ISRACAMPUS came upon the scene, few in Israel and fewer still outside Israel were aware of the anti-Israel activities of these Israel academic radicals. That is now changing. The past few years, when there were numerous attempts to adopt boycott of Israel resolutions in the UK, Canada, in the US, and elsewhere, it was ISRACAMPUS that exposed the fact that most of these resolutions have Israeli academic initiators and sponsors, faculty members who draw salaries paid for by the Israeli taxpayer, calling on anti-Semites all over the world to boycott Israel…. While its web site has been in operation for only a relatively short period, the impact of ISRACAMPUS is already being widely felt…. While no one is calling for restricting academic freedom and freedom of expression, even for the worst anti-Israel academic radicals, nevertheless these folks are feeling the pressure as their activities are exposed….[22]”

IsraCampus generally republishes articles and news stories about once a week. A good example of its approach is to compare its response to Pogrund’s Haaretz article in October 2009 with that of IAM. IAM produced a vigorous but reasoned response. IsraCampus called Haaretz a “Palestinian” newspaper, described Pogrund’s article as “hysterical,” accused him of being dishonest, and termed the people IsraCampus was attacking as “moonbats.” While IsraCampus makes great claims for its influence, it provides no evidence for these. For example, unlike IAM, it was not involved in the 2010 campaign at Tel Aviv University or the inquiry by the Knesset Education Committee. Its main approach is to unsettle those it sees as the enemy by personal abuse and strongly worded attacks on their behavior.

IsraCampus is run by a small group of academics of whom Steven Plaut and Seth Frantzman seem to be the most prominent. It is evidently run on a shoestring and does not solicit donations on its website.

Summary

The area of anti-Israeli activity in academia is now covered from a variety of perspectives. Apart from those organizations with wider briefs that become involved with campus issues occasionally, there are now six organizations dedicated to monitoring, and in most cases campaigning against, such activity. There is a geographic spread, with two large organizations in the United States, two medium-size ones in the UK, and two smaller ones in Israel. The focus of each is different, so that although there is inevitably some overlap, each has a distinctive style and approach.

Scholars for Peace in the Middle East is the largest and most comprehensive, and its fortnightly sweep of activity often includes stories initiated by one of the other academic watches. Its philosophy is balanced, stressing that it is pro-Israeli rather than anti-Palestinian, and its language is measured. It is run by members of the academic community itself, and strongly emphasizes its academic approach to the issues. Campus Watch continues to focus on the curriculum of Middle East Studies courses and the activities of the academics involved, but it now also looks beyond the United States, and also covers the activities of nonacademics. After initially threatening to create dossiers on academics whose activities it criticized, it is now more focused on critiques of what is taught, and in particular what it sees as pro- Muslim and anti-Israeli bias.

The Academic Friends of Israel in the UK began as a response to boycott attempts by academics and their trade unions, and that still remains a major focus. However, it now covers more general anti-Israeli activity on campus, and supports campaigns against boycott motions. Engage in the UK is distinctive because it approaches its opposition to anti-Israeli activity from a left-wing or liberal perspective. While its formation was a response to particular academic boycott proposals, it has broadened its interests to tackle the ideological Left’s general attitude toward Zionism, Israel, and Jews.

In Israel, both Israel Academia Monitor and more latterly IsraCampus focus on those academics whose criticisms and activities they label as anti-Israeli. While IAM now uses relatively moderate language and gets involved in active political campaigns, IsraCampus is more shrill and more personal in its attacks on individuals.

If the academic watch organizations were businesses, they could take great satisfaction in being involved in a growth market. When they began in 2002 the main focus was nascent boycott attempts, and reports of anti-Israeli bias in courses. Over the past eight years boycott attempts have grown into more general boycott, divestment, and sanctions campaigns, not just in academia but in many other civic organizations, through trade unions and in trade. Anti-Israeli bias has developed from courses to other areas of campus life, particularly (sometimes violent) opposition to any support for Israel on campus. This opposition has undoubtedly spilled over on occasion into direct and overt anti-Semitism.

Fit for Purpose

It is timely to consider whether academic watch organizations remain fit for purpose. If the main purpose of a watch organization is “collecting, analyzing, and publishing data,”[23] then there was certainly a need for such work in 2002. Even with the greater general media interest in these activities in 2010, watch organizations still undertake essential work, particularly as the amount and intensity of anti-Israeli activity increases. Moreover, with the possible exception of the two Israeli watch organizations, whose differences seem to be more of style and personality rather than substance, each of the existing watch organizations has a different core purpose.

But what of the future? One need not be a Marxist to agree with the statement that it is more important to change the world than to interpret it. Or to put it another way, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, is watching enough? Is there a need for more active political campaigning against anti-Israeli activity of which watching is a necessary component? Most of the watch organizations would argue that they are in effect campaigning organizations, but this is not reflected overtly in most of their mission statements. Campaigning, where it exists, is supplementary to watching, rather than watching becoming a necessary support activity for campaigning.

There are good arguments against an overt move to campaigning. First, watching and monitoring are activities that unite those who support Israel. Campaigning can be divisive over issues of strategy, tactics, and style. Second, while watching is a national activity, campaigning is often local, focused on a particular campus. This needs local activists with backup information from the national watch organizations. SPME with its local chapters is best placed to combine this national watch with local campaigning coalitions. A third factor is that campaigning requires great energy often on relatively small issues. Finally, there is the sensitive issue of finance. Most watch organizations are not transparent as to the size and sources of funding. Transforming themselves into effective political campaigning organizations would most likely necessitate significant increases in funding. Given the fragile nature of their financing, it is understandable if they are reluctant to go down that road.

Finally, a contrary thought. Given that most of the attacks on Israel come from left- based ideologies and organizations, it is understandable that pro-Israeli watch organizations look in that direction. Even the left-based Engage, while recognizing the threats to Israel from right-wing organizations, concentrates its work on the Left. Behind all this, however, is an assumption best described by Jerusalem Post columnist Sarah Honig – that “[r]ight-wingers want to strengthen the Jewish state rather than battle their fellow Jews.”[24] If this had “discuss” after it the statement would make a good seminar topic, but it was written as an undeniable truth.

It might, however, be interesting if Israeli watch organizations in particular occasionally switched their focus to the academic activities of the Israeli Right to see if Honig’s assertion is always correct.

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Notes

* Yotam Levy undertook the initial research on which this article is based.

[1] Yohanan Manor, To Right a Wrong, 2nd ed. (New York: Shengold,  1997), 66-67.

[2] The Guardian, 6 April 2002.

[3] For more on the Baker case, see Manfred Gerstenfeld, Academics against Israel and the Jews, 2nd ed. (Jerusalem: Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, 2008), 35-36.

[4] Ibid., 34.

[5] Edward S. Beck, “Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME): Fighting Anti-Israelism and Anti-Semitism on the University Campuses Worldwide,” in Gerstenfeld, Academics against Israel, 134.

[6] For further information on the work of Stand With Us, see Roz Rothstein, “Stand With Us: A Grassroots Advocacy Organization Also on Campus,” in Gerstenfeld, Academics against Israel, 147-53. For further information on the role of The David Project at Columbia University, see Noah Liben, “The Columbia University Report on Its Middle Eastern Department’s Problems: A Paradigm for Obscuring Structural Flaws,” in Gerstenfeld, Academics against Israel, 95-102. CAMERA stands for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America and includes reporting on campus issues within its brief.

[7] Manfred Gerstenfeld and Ben Green, “Watching the Pro-Israeli Media Watchers,” Jewish Political Studies Review, vol. 16, nos. 3-4 (Fall 2004).

[8] “NATFHE Conference 2002 Endorses Its Position on Palestine,” http:/academics-for-Israel.org/index.php?page=dn3.

[9] Ronnie Fraser, “The Academic Boycott of Israel: Why Britain?,” in Gerstenfeld, Academics against Israel, 199-200. See also Gerstenfeld’s analysis of the issue, 68-70.

[10] http:/academics-for-Israel.org/index.php?page=Digests.

[11] SPME Update, vol. 1, no. 2 (October 2002).

[12] Figures are from SPME’s website, July 2010.

[13] Appearing on SPME’s website’s homepage, July 2010.

[14] Beck, “Scholars,” 137.

[15] “SPME Petition – Current Signatures,” http://spme.net/cgi-bin/display_petitions.cgi?ID=19&Action=ViewRicki Hollander, “Norwegian University Votes Down Anti-Israel Boycott,” On Campus, vol. 20, no. 1 (Spring 2010).

[16] David Meir-Levi, “SPME Successfully Assists Norwegian University Rector in Opposing Israeli Academic Institutions and Scholars Boycott Effort by Union,” http://spme.net/cgi-bin/articles.cgi?ID=6908.

[17] “Campaign Launched to Monitor Middle East Studies,” Middle East Forum, 18 September 2002, www.meforum.org/506/campaign-launched-to-monitor-middle-east-studies.

[18] Middle East Studies in the News, http:/campus-watch.org.

[19] Appearing on SPME’s website, “About Engage,” July 2010.

[20] Appearing on IAM’s website, “IAM – Mission Statement,” July 2010.

[21] Letter to Haaretz on IAM’s website, “IAM – About Us,” July 2010.

[22] Appearing on Isracampus’s website, “About Isracampus,” July 2010.

[23] Gerstenfeld and Green, “Watching.”

[24] Sarah Honig, “Another Tack: Loose Lips Sink Ships,” Jerusalem Post, 10 April 2010.

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PROF. LESLIE WAGNER is vice-chairman of the JCPA’s Institute for Global Jewish Affairs in Jerusalem. Among the posts he has held are chancellor of the University of Derby in the UK, and prior to that vice-chancellor (president) of Leeds Metropolitan University and the University of North London. He has been a member of the Advisory Board of the UK Academic Friends of Israel since its inception.

Prof. Leslie Wagner

Prof. Leslie Wagner is a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. Before making Aliyah in 2008, he was Chancellor of the University of Derby and Vice-Chancellor (President) of Leeds Metropolitan University in England. Within the Jewish community, the offices held by Professor Wagner included Vice President of the United Synagogue and trustee of the Office of the Chief Rabbi. He chaired the Commission on the Future of Jewish Schools for the Jewish Leadership Council. In 2000, Professor Wagner was honored by the Queen for his services to higher education and the Jewish community.