What is the impact of Campus Watch, a project I founded that "reviews and critiques Middle East studies in North America with an aim to improving them," in its four years of existence? It gets plenty of back-handed compliments (a favorite: Duke University's Miriam Cooke claims it threatens "to undermine the very foundations of American education"), but last week turned up the most eloquent, if unintended, testimony to its effectiveness.
The story begins on November 11, 2005, when "Students for Justice in Palestine" (SJP) at Georgia Institute of Technology hosted a week-long film series titled "Life Under Occupation." Although run by faculty and paid for by the institute, the series was totally unbalanced in its treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian war. Orit T. Sklar, a junior majoring in Civil and Environmental Engineering, wrote up her negative reactions to the series' concluding event at FrontPageMag.com on December 5, in an article titled "Georgia Tech's Propaganda War."
Among other topics, Sklar, who is president of her school's Hillel, founder of "Jackets for Israel," and co-plaintiff in a lawsuit against Georgia Tech demanding the freedom to dissent from the school's official orthodoxies, criticized Laura Bier, a just-appointed assistant professor. Bier's bio states that her interests "encompass the history and culture of the Middle East, gender and Islamic law, and the role of women in Egypt." When Bier, the faculty advisor to SJP, spoke at the film series, wrote Sklar, she
managed to include the word "occupation" into every statement. It was like a propaganda lesson from the Nazis – if you say it enough, people will believe it is true. … The present situation in the Middle East is much more complex and deserves more than a one word description – a word that has become the Arab world's best international marketing ploy in history. Professor Bier's promotion of anti-Israel rhetoric leads me to question her intellectual capacity and objectivity on Middle East issues.
The matter should have ended here, but it did not. The April 14, 2006, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education carried a pseudonymous article by one "Leah Bowman" titled "The New Blacklists." In it, the author, who identifies herself as an assistant professor, provides copious details establishing her as Laura Bier:
I was at the end of my first semester of teaching Middle Eastern history at a large research university in the South. … I had spoken on a panel about the Israeli occupation of Palestine. It was on the closing night of a weeklong Palestinian film festival called "Life Under Occupation" sponsored jointly by a few human rights groups on the campus and a Palestinian advocacy group for which I am the faculty adviser. … I said a few words [at the event] about the humanitarian costs of the occupation on Palestinians and the necessity of a just political solution. … A student in the audience who is the head of a pro-Israel group on the campus … wrote an article that appeared on a right-wing Web site, identifying me as someone who condoned terrorism and objecting to my use of the term "occupation" to describe Israel's military presence in the West Bank.
Note that Orit Sklar, an undergraduate, signs her real name to her article; whereas Laura Bier, a professor, hid behind a pseudonym. Bier's timorousness points to the mood of paranoia among Middle East studies faculty. Bier goes on to explain why:
Entire Web sites are devoted to exposing academics with expertise on the Middle East as dangerous radicals who pose a threat to the young minds of America. I have seen many of my professors, colleagues, and friends over the past few years placed on such blacklists.
That's a reference to Campus Watch and its brief-lived dossiers.
The message to those of us who believe there must be room for ethical and reasoned debate on American involvement in Iraq, on the Israeli occupation, and on the war on terror has never been clearer: We are watching you. And we're going to take you down.
That's a reference to Martin Kramer's writing, the day Campus Watch appeared: "Well, academic colleagues, get used to it. Yes, you are being watched." (No mention by him, however, of taking anyone down.)
Bier relates her good fortune of enjoying the support of departmental colleagues but notes that they "have also pointed out that as an untenured faculty member I am vulnerable. Just don't do anything ‘stupid' in your classes, they caution, and you'll probably be alright." She reflects on this advice:
I get my colleagues' message. Somewhere between teaching students to try to think critically about the world and their place in it and giving students a reading, delivering a lecture, or asking them to discuss issues that might land me in the middle of a public witchhunt, there's a line that can't be crossed. The problem is that no one can tell me where that line is. …
So I stand in front of my class. I think about the articles I won't write and the book I won't publish if I inadvertently take a wrong step and have to spend all of my time defending my integrity as a scholar and a teacher to the university administration.
Bier puts it negatively, but her little crisis actually benefits herself and her students. It improves the life of the mind when instructors with strong commitments (as a student, Bier signed a petition urging divestment from Israel) rethink their premises. The purpose of the university, after all, is to stimulate ideas. Campus Watch compelled Bier to weigh her words and consider what she needs to do to prevent her colleagues from abandoning her. She now has to take another viewpoint into account. Perhaps she will even understand that the classroom is not a soapbox.
Bier, not thinking along these lines, goes maudlin at her dilemma:
I think of the career that I dreamed about during endless years of graduate school and dissertation writing that might be destroyed. It is in that moment that I choose between educating my students and saving my own hide. And it is in that moment that those who want to stifle debate on campus win. They don't need to get me fired to shut me up. I'm already doing it to myself. And I know I'm not alone. I talk all the time with untenured friends and colleagues about how our attempts to be cautious in the classroom too often translate into self-censorship.
Bier points here to a fact we at Campus Watch have also noted: that untenured faculty are most attentive to our critique. Talking "all the time" about us seems a stretch, but Bier's emotional account informs us to spend more time on younger members of the guild.
"We also share our feelings of anger and frustration," she goes on, "that the political agendas of a few well-placed, well-organized people can dictate how we do a job for that we've spent years training for." I must be one of those "well-placed, well-organized people." But, fear not, our heroine stands up triumphantly to these powerful and nefarious forces:
Yet in those feelings of anger and frustration I find reason to hope. Because it means that, in spite of the uncertainty and anxiety that come with teaching controversial subjects in an inhospitable intellectual climate, we haven't given up on the idea that it's still our job to teach our students that the world is a messy and complicated place; a place that is not easily reducible to simple political platitudes or clichés about "us" and "them." When that struggle becomes less important that [sic] getting tenure or leading a comfortable life, I know it will be time to start looking for another line of work.
This is the most revealing statement yet by a Middle East specialist about the "anger and frustration" Campus Watch has prompted. Thank you, Laura Bier, for the encouragement and guidance.
Apr. 18, 2006 update: For more examples of this phenomenon, see "Backhanded Endorsements of Campus Watch."