Academic freedom, as an abstract principle, is universally applauded by
university administrators. Any American university president,
with occasion to talk about it, will exalt Galileo and decry Pope Urban
VIII for sentencing the astronomer to house arrest. Yet,
presidents and their subordinates slide easily to the other side of the
fence when confronted with the closely analogous cases involving Norman
Finkelstein, and other scholars critical of U.S. Middle East policy.
Finkelstein is only one of many targets of academic censorship, and the
presidents of DePaul University and CSUN are far from alone in heeding
the ideological directives of the Israel lobby. A high mark in
subservience was achieved by Fr. Dennis Dease, President of the
University of St. Thomas in Saint Paul, Minnesota, when he withdrew an
invitation to Archbishop Desmond Tutu to speak at his university. The
episode was reported in a series of articles starting in October 2007
(Snyders, Jaschik, Shellman, Furst).
In April 2007, members of the Justice and Peace Studies program at St.
Thomas succeeded in booking the Nobel laureate for a campus speaking
engagement for the following spring. But the Zionist Organization of
America opposed the invitation, and Julie Swiler, a spokeswoman for the
Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas,
informed the university that, "In a 2002 speech in Boston, [Tutu] made
some comments that were especially hurtful" (Snyders). In that speech
Tutu criticized Israel for human rights violations against
Palestinians. After consultation with members of the Jewish
community, President Dease announced that Tutu would not be allowed to
speak on campus.
Following the president's decision, the chair of the Justice and Peace
Studies program, Cris Toffolo, sent Tutu a letter informing him of the
administration's decision and expressing disagreement with it.
When they also received a copy, St. Thomas administrators removed her
as chair of the program.
Dease was denounced by faculty and students within the university, and
became the focus of international criticism. A National Book
Award-winning poet, Lucille Clifton, canceled her visit to St. Thomas
protest. Even more alarming, Abraham Foxman, national director of the
Anti-Defamation League, sent a letter to Dease in which he wrote,
"While Archbishop Tutu is not a friend
of Israel, we do not believe he is an anti-Semite. As you rightly
point out in your letter, his words have often stung the Jewish
community. However, while he may at times have crossed the line,
we believe that he should have been permitted to speak on your campus."
Contradictory directives from leading Jewish organizations put
President Dease in an awkward position. He reversed his decision
and re-invited Tutu to St. Thomas. However, Tutu made acceptance of the
offer conditional on Toffolo's reinstatement as chair of the Justice
and Peace Studies program. But while the world-renowned peace
activist, Desmond Tutu, may have been too prominent a target, Toffolo
was not. The administration did not reinstate her as chair, and
true to his word, Tutu declined the second invitation.
Although Toffolo was already tenured and was not stripped of her rank
of associate professor, her treatment by St. Thomas, to some degree,
parallels DePaul University's treatment of Mehrene Larudee.
Larudee was 19 days shy of becoming the director of DePaul's program in
international studies when she learned she had been denied tenure,
despite unanimous decisions in her favor by faculty committees and her
dean. Her firing in 2007 was widely perceived as retribution for
her public support of Norman Finkelstein.
Harvard University has also disinvited speakers for their criticisms of
Israel. J. Lorand Matory, a professor of anthropology and of
African and African-American studies at Harvard describes three such
incidents. In 2002,
"Harvard’s Department of English
invited Tom Paulin – Oxford professor and one of the finest living
British poets – to speak, but promptly disinvited him after
then-University President Lawrence H. Summers expressed disapproval of
Paulin’s criticisms of Israel. Though the Department later voted to
reverse the disinvitation, Paulin has never come to campus."
Also disinvited was Norman Finkelstein in 2005, who was previously
invited to speak at the campus bookstore. Then in 2007, Rutgers
biologist Robert L. Trivers was invited to speak in honor of his
receipt of the prestigious Crafoord Prize in biosciences from the Royal
Swedish Academy of Sciences. But just hours before his scheduled
speech, the invitation was abruptly rescinded. His erstwhile campus
host said that he was ordered to do so by someone he would not name.
"Also according to Trivers, Jeffrey Epstein later admitted ordering the
cancellation and said that he had done so under pressure from
Dershowitz. Epstein, a legal client of Dershowitz, had donated the
funds used to establish [the Program for Evolutionary Dynamics] which,
according to other sources, depends for its future effectiveness on
further funding from him" (Matory). Thus, at Harvard (and
elsewhere) free speech by critics of Israel is for sale, and campus
administrators protect it up to the level of its cash value.
Even faculty members who meticulously avoid publicity are not immune
from attack if their scholarship deviates from a Zionist-approved
agenda. A case in point is the ordeal of Nadia Abu El-Haj, an
anthropologist at Barnard College. Hundreds of alumni funneled their
potential for monetary donations into the service of censorship,
demanding in 2007 that the assistant professor not receive tenure.
Nearly 2000 people signed a petition to the campus president demanding
her expulsion. Dr. Abu El-Haj was guilty of writing a book
entitled, "Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial
Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society," that "looked at the role of
archeology in what was essentially a political project: the Biblical
validation for Jewish claims in what is now Israel" (Kramer
50). She was eventually awarded tenure, but not before
receiving hate mail in bulk, being the target of denunciations, and
enduring mischaracterizations of her statements and beliefs. As
with Finkelstein, the principal (but baseless) argument was that tenure
should be denied on account of low quality of scholarship. The
actual ideological motivations would have been less effective on
account of the need of university administrators to at least pantomime
support for the academic freedom for their professors. In this
rare instance, the presidents of Barnard and Columbia deserve mild
praise for not caving in to the mob.
Noam Chomsky informed me by email of this example of intimidation:
"In the 1980s I was invited to a major
US university for a week of lectures on philosophy, and of course added
many other talks and meetings, in those days mostly on Central
America. A tenured professor (who taught part time at Tel Aviv)
invited me to give a talk on the Middle East. The next day I got
a call from campus police asking if I would agree to have uniformed
police with me the entire time I was on campus. I refused, but
was accompanied by undercover armed police the whole time – walking
from the faculty club to a phil seminar, for example. After I
left there was a huge campaign of vilification, and an effort to remove
tenure from the prof who invited me."
Tenure protected that professor, but it did not protect Sami Al-Arian,
an associate professor of computer science at the University of South
Florida. He was suspended by the campus president after Fox TV's
Bill O'Reilly accused him of having terrorist connections, two weeks
after the 9/11 attack, and eventually fired. In a December 19,
2001 statement by University of South Florida President Judy Genshaft,
posted on the university web site, the president followed rhetorical
norms when she wrote,
"Academic freedom is revered at USF . .
. we respect the right of faculty to express their personal views on
controversial subjects, with the understanding that it must be clear
they are speaking for themselves and not for the University. In this
case, I have recognized my great responsibility to fully consider both
the welfare of the University Community and Dr. Al-Arian's rights of
Moving past the fanfare, the point of the memorandum was this: "I have
instructed our Office of Academic Affairs to notify Dr. Al-Arian of the
University's intent to terminate his employment." No proof of guilt of
anything, real or imagined, was offered, and academic freedom was
tossed out the window.
Two years later in 2003, the Bush administration filed 17 trumped up
charges against Al-Arian. Then after years of imprisonment, and
in spite of the government's best legal efforts, he was fully acquitted
of eight of the charges, and the jury deadlocked on the rest, voting
for acquittal by 10 to 2. The verdict was a major defeat for the
Bush administration, but Al-Arian's brutal treatment by his university
and especially the government can only be regarded as a successful
assault on First Amendment rights for Middle East activists and
By way of contrast, university administrations see no problem in
retaining professors like John Yoo, Henry Kissinger, and many others
who in a more just world might be tried for war crimes, or even crimes
against humanity. In such cases the principle of academic freedom
is steadfastly upheld by campus presidents.
What accounts for the lack of courage and principle by those who
preside over the academy, when it comes to the Middle East?
Clearly, it is the influence of the Israel Lobby, a small but powerful
rightwing group that purports to speak for all Jews, and yet persecutes
those Jews who dare to criticize the policies of Israel.
The crackdown on dissent, obediently carried out by American university
presidents exposes "the grave limits of academic freedom in the United
States," as Professor Gendzier put it. And it is not merely
individual professors like Norman Finkelstein who pay the price for
censorship. The quality and stature of U.S. universities, as a
whole, is compromised by the political Lysenkoism that muzzles critics
of Israel. Perhaps lowering the stature of American
universities through censorship, and the consequent upending of
the lives of heretical scholars, is a price that university presidents
are willing to pay in order to appease the Lobby, but there may be
other unintended consequences to the stifling of debate about
The Lobby succeeds in stifling criticisms of Israel by labeling critics
as anti-Semites. In the case of Jewish critics, the labels
include "self-hating Jew," "Holocaust denier," and worse.
According to this propaganda, Jews who raise serious criticisms of
Israel for the mistreatment of Palestinians, Jews such as Norman
Finkelstein, Noam Chomsky, Sara Roy, and many others, are, in short,
"Bad Jews." It is left to the "Good Jews" to neutralize such
criticisms of Israel by tarring critics with these labels, thereby
ending their employment, blocking speaking engagements, or generally
attempting to destroy their credibility with the public – and with
university presidents. In this taxonomy, it is the "Good Jews"
who claim to speak for Jews collectively.
The Israel-Palestine conflict is fundamentally about land.
Throughout its history, the land area of Israel has expanded, while the
land area for Palestinians has contracted. If Israeli
expansionism in pursuit of a Greater Israel is ultimately to succeed,
it will be necessary to impose negative growth on the Palestinian
population over an extended period of time, either through exodus or
gradual genocide. Consistent with this purpose, Israel has
inflicted misery through humiliation, the wholesale use of torture,
demolition of homes, deprivation of water, power, and food, and through
direct assassinations and indiscriminate attacks.
It is no longer possible to hide the darker side of Israeli policy, and
mainstream voices have expressed concerns. John Mearsheimer of
the University of Chicago, and Stephan Walt of Harvard's John F.
Kennedy School of Government raised doubts about the value of the
U.S.-Israel alliance in their book, "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign
Policy." Former President and Nobel laureate, Jimmy Carter, pressed
forward moral questions about Israel's behavior in his book,
"Palestine: Peace not Apartheid." Predictably, all three authors
were denounced by the Israel Lobby, but it is becoming increasingly
difficult to marginalize all of Israel's critics.
As the realities of the Israel-Palestine conflict enter public
discourse with increasing weight, what will be the perception toward
Jews by the rest of the population? If the Israel Lobby's
"Good Jews" continue to represent all Jews, and "Good Jews" defend
Israel's every action, all the while working to suspend academic
freedom in universities, what ultimately will be the
A far more enlightened path would be for universities to permit open
discourse about the Middle East. Excluding Norman Finkelstein,
and others like him, from America's universities is misguided in the
I thank Khaled Abou El Fadl, Noam Chomsky, Irene Gendzier, Harry
Hellenbrand, Sara Roy, Avi Shlaim, and John Trumpbour for permission to
use the quoted material attributed to them. I am also indebted to
Noam Chomsky, Norman Finkelstein, Irene Gendzier, Sara Roy, and John
Trumpbour for helpful comments and suggestions; to Laila Al-Arian for
information about her father; and to Edie Pistolesi and others unnamed
for critical readings and corrections. Finally, I would like to thank
Edward Carvalho for his help in finding and organizing approrpriate
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