Professor Juan Cole is a scholar of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies at the University of Michigan, where he teaches the course "America and Middle Eastern Wars." He has played a role in various contemporary debates, in part due to his high-traffic weblog, "Informed Comment: Thoughts on the Middle East, History, and Religion." Cole is currently being considered for a position in the Yale Center for International and Area Studies as professor of Contemporary Middle East Studies, and was featured in a recent Herald article ["Search for scholar spotlights politics in classroom," 2/17/06] about his controversial image and the role of politics in the classroom.
Yale Herald: The term "anti-Semitism" is a historically charged phrase that has found its way into contemporary political and academic discussion. How is the term used today, and is its usage fair?
Juan Cole:Anti-Semitism is actually a term invented in the 19th century which generally denotes a prejudice or bigotry toward Jews on a racial basis, and of course it's a horrible thing. It is a perfectly legitimate use of the term to denote such bigotry—yet it has begun to be used typically by Jews on what I consider to be the far right to describe anybody who opposes their policies.That's completely unacceptable; it's a sleazy playing of the race card.
YH: How do you think the misuse of this term has entered into scholarly debate?
JC: That anybody who writes critically of, for instance, Likud party politics is very frequently accused of anti-Semitism is contrary to the principles of a democratic society. We ought to be able to debate policy issues without slinging a lot of mud, and when someone says that you are a bigot, that's obviously not a reply to your argument; it's an attempt to characterize you and to put you out of the realm of legitimate debate on an issue. It's counterproductive, and also it's dangerous, in the sense that it weakens the force of the charge of anti-Semitism to have it misused for these political purposes.
YH: Is this use of the term prevalent in Israel as well, or is it primarily an American phenomenon?
JC:In Israel, objecting to the Likud party policy is a national pastime. If you were going to say that everyone who objected to Likud policy was an anti-Semite, then half of Israel would be. I think the Zionist right in the United States has just decided that they're not going to allow a rational debate of Israeli policy in the United States, and they have adopted a tactic of character assassination as a way of shutting down the debate and making it uncomfortable for people to engage. It's been very successful in making people timid in talking about these things, and I consider it an anti-democratic tactic.
YH:How should teachers and students deal with this and other such controversies?
JC:My philosophy of teaching is that what academic discourse does best is to reformulate questions away from political point-scoring and towards questions that look at the "why" and impact of things. I don't think that partisan politics has a place in the classroom. I think if someone stands up and says that the students should support one party or another, it's not good history or good teaching, and it's inappropriate. On the other hand, to say that it's never appropriate to criticize policy being made by the politicians in Washington would of course mean that we couldn't discuss current affairs at all. I'd like to make a distinction between the analytical critique of policy, which is very appropriate in a classroom situation, and contrast that to sort of pandering for partisan political purposes. I don't think I do the latter; I don't know anybody who does.
YH: Politics and policies affect academic discussion immensely. In your experience, is the reverse also true?
JC:9/11 and its aftermath have catapulted me, without my having intended it to happen, into the role of a public intellectual. My weblog, which basically summarizes events in the Middle East, has become a mass medium. The Internet has broken down the barriers that I think used to exist between academic discourse or research and the public.
YH:How has the public responded to the influence of academia on politics?
JC:I'm hoping, and people seem to think, that I'm playing a positive role in trying to contextualize the events and explain them as well as I can, given my own studies of the history and cultures involved. Certainly there is a large public for this. However, when you become a public intellectual, it has the effect of dragging you into a lot of mud. Nonetheless, I think that the positive benefit of addressing the public, of breaching the walls of the ivory tower and getting academic insight and information out into the public in a democracy, outweighs the disadvantages.We have a responsibility as intellectuals to address these issues forthrightly and not to worry so much if other people accuse us of being partisan. We have a responsibility to speak out.