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 entitled, "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 "enc
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" entitled, "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 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.
Inadvertent Endorsements of Campus Watch
By Daniel Pipes
Just yesterday, I published "An Inadvertent Endorsement of Campus Watch," an exposé of Laura Bier, an assistant professor of Middle East studies, and how she pseudonymously bemoans the impact of Campus Watch on her and her colleagues' lives:
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. … 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.
Two other inadvertent endorsements of Campus Watch quickly followed, spurring the idea of keeping an informal tab on these as they appear.
Hatem Bazian, University of California at Berkeley: A blog entry dated Apr. 17, "Aljazeera Hosts San Francisco Arab Americans," reports on an Al-Jazeera show:
Dr. Bazian spoke about the pressure faced by professors teaching Middle Eastern politics or history. He said he knew of students in his classroom who attended just so they could write down what he says, essentially spying on him, and transmitting that information to other private organizations. These include the infamous Campus Watch network which was founded by known Islamophobe Daniel Pipes as well as the likes of David Horowitz who recently authored a book entitled "The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America." Both the organization and the book are essentially are [sic] witch hunt against any academic that dares to provide a human side of the Middle East, more specifically the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They want to "black list" these professors, ruin their reputation, and eventually remove them from their positions in some of the most prestigious universities in America. Taking their statements out of context, these Islamophobic pop stars are attempting to muffle dialogue at the most important institutions of our time: universities. Dr. Bazian openly discusses this intimidation and the students also provide their own accounts of such abuse.
Beshara Doumani, University of California at Berkeley: They must really be feeling the heat at Berkeley. The following oped, dated today but reporting on a talk given April 5, comes from "Redefining Academic Freedom," in The Poly Post, the student paper at the California State Polytechnic, Pomona:
Beshara Doumani claimed that collegiate academic freedom is at risk. His point: politicians, not academics, are gaining the power to redefine academic freedom in universities. … politicians, using Web sites and coalition campaigns claiming to fight for academic freedom are actually targeting liberal professors who question and criticize mainstream viewpoints. …
Political organizations such as Campus Watch, an online project of the Middle East Forum, have also reverted to various methods of surveillance to keep tabs on "radical" professors. With a more defined agenda, specifically monitoring Middle Eastern studies, the group maintains and publishes dossiers on professors they feel are radical for providing dissenting opinions regarding our government's role in the Middle East.
Although Campus Watch claims its aim is to improve the state of Middle Eastern Studies, much of their research targets professors providing criticism of the Israeli movement in particular. Doumani is among those professors that Campus Watch is watching. …
In the recent article, "Policing Thought after 9/11," published by the campus newspaper at UC Berkeley, Doumani said efforts are being made to privatize Middle Eastern studies and "establish think tanks that will provide for the press and government a ready stable of ‘experts' who can shape knowledge about the Middle East." During the Campus Forum, Doumani made clear his thoughts that sites like Campus Watch are not really out to protect academic freedom at all but are instead "making charges of anti-Semitism when teachers criticize the Israeli movement. They're making it treasonous for professors to question the prevailing reasons."
For the record, I don't believe Campus Watch has called any professor antisemitic nor treasonous, though we do freely point out how many of them seek the destruction of Israel and are hostile to the United States.
These build on earlier endorsements, starting with a purple-prose statement of our acccomplishments:
Miriam Cooke, Duke University: In the conclusion to a lengthy August 2005 article mainly about Campus Watch, "Contesting campus watch: Middle East studies under fire," Cooke writes:
Campus Watch is the Trojan horse whose warriors are already changing the rules of the game not only in Middle East studies but also in the US University as a whole. They threaten to undermine the very foundations of American education. Their project must be challenged