The recent report by two distinguished professors placing much of the blame on the pro-Israel lobby in Washington for America's involvement in the Iraq war may be more of a blow to the reputation of the two universities, Harvard and the University of Chicago, than to AIPAC, the America Israel Public Affairs Committee.
Serious sins of omission and commission are evident in the "working paper" by Stephen Walt of Harvard and John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago, and critiques of the report have been outlined in this and other newspapers in recent days.
The episode underscores that even a Harvard-affiliated study can be deeply flawed, and worse, adding to the increasingly tarnished image of the once-revered American university experience. It is not just Harvard where political correctness, a perception that Palestinians are not responsible for their condition, and a misreading of liberal values — particularly when it comes to the Mideast conflict — have combined to make support for Israel an uphill and unpopular battle on some campuses.
A case in point: A friend of mine, a local academic, recalled an anti-Iraq war rally he observed on the campus of Columbia University in Morningside Heights. He said there were more pro-Palestinian placards than anti-Washington ones, and he was particularly intrigued by a group of women carrying signs proclaiming "Lesbians for Palestinian Rights."
When my friend inquired about their sign, the women said they were expressing solidarity for the rights of the oppressed. But when he pointed out that Israel has a gay rights political party while the Palestinians ban such behavior, he said the women were furious at him and denied what he told them. His parting shot was to ask them where they would have more freedom to express their views and sexual preferences, Nablus or Tel Aviv.
"But they just screamed at me and I got out of there," he noted.
The disconnect between those who espouse the cause of Palestinians and oppose occupation in the same breath that they speak out in favor of women's rights, gay rights and other forms of human freedoms has always been exasperating to me.
This is especially true of college campuses, where open discussion, logic and intellectual honesty should be accepted, if not cherished. Yet arguments offering proof that Israel is the only Mideast country where all citizens enjoy freedoms of speech, religion, sexual expression and the press as well as open elections, property rights and a working justice system seem to fall on deaf ears.
The alliance between those on the left and supporters of the Palestinian cause is so strong, based on the concept of championing the oppressed, that advocates can justify the killing of innocent Israeli women and children in the name of morality.
How did this come to be? In part because the political climate at many universities is such that liberalism is synonymous with sentiments that are anti-establishment, anti-Washington and anti-Israel, all somehow merged as one.
Some in the Jewish community, primarily among the Orthodox, assert the campus has gone from accepting to embracing sexual freedom, drug use and gay rights, and making supporters of Israel feel on the defensive.
There are those who argue that anti-Israel professors have taken over the classrooms, and that pro-Palestinian activists are leading the campus demonstrations and driving the Mideast debate. There are incidences of both, but we need to keep the situation in perspective.
Columbia University, the scene of an ugly confrontation a year ago over whether pro-Israel students were being intimidated by pro-Palestinian professors, has been described by some as an anti-Jewish campus as a result of last year's unrest. In truth, though, it is a virtual haven for large numbers of Jewish students seeking a top university education, with excellent courses in Jewish studies and history, and a strong and active pro-Israel and religious community.
The vast majority of American Jews continue to place great value on a strong liberal arts education, and one could argue that despite some glaring cases of anti-Israel sentiment, universities continue to produce graduates who are sympathetic to and supportive of Israel.
Unlike Europeans, Americans continue to champion Israel's cause, and allow $3 billion of foreign aid to go to Jerusalem each year.
The attempt by some in the Jewish community to stifle discussion on the campus or challenge how universities select professors is precisely the wrong approach. We should be promoting our points of view and insisting on the true academic freedoms that call for hearing all sides of an issue.
It is discouraging and disturbing that respected professors like Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer would author a report asserting that U.S. support for Israel goes against American foreign policy interests. Fortunately, though, the American people feel otherwise, recognizing the historical, political, strategic and moral ties between the democracies in Washington and Jerusalem, and the need to keep them strong.
Just the other day, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard officially removed its name from the controversial report, a result of public embarrassment and, it is rumored, pressure from several wealthy Jewish donors.
That's another point to be learned from this sad episode: Money talks. It's a lesson that Arab states and billionaires have understood for some time, funding major Mideast study programs at a number of American universities.
The Jewish community has begun to take note. The key is not to try to squelch other voices but to make ours heard, with a message of truth that makes it difficult for thinking people to ignore.