Other than Gov. Jim Doyle and gubernatorial hopeful Mark Green, perhaps no man in Wisconsin has received more media attention this year than Kevin Barrett.
Previously a lowly folklore lecturer at the University of Wisconsin, Mr. Barrett rocketed to national fame this summer as he enunciated his belief that the Bush administration orchestrated the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, as a pretext for invading Afghanistan and Iraq. Politicians, educators and pundits argued at length as to whether his theories made him an acceptable instructor for the Introduction to Islam course he was scheduled to teach — and indeed is teaching — this semester at UW.
On the subject of his conspiracy theories, there's little that hasn't been said. All angles to the Barrett story have been approached a myriad of times.
Lost amid the conspiracy hullabaloo, however, is another issue concerning Mr. Barrett — an issue that, given its presence in one of his textbooks, is of some import for students of his class: Israel. Mr. Barrett's views on the Jewish state may not obsess him like the 9/11 "truth" movement does, but they do exist. Simply put, Mr. Barrett's opinions toward Israel are at best delusional with no hint of reality and at worst anti-Semitic with enough vitriol to make Mel Gibson blush.
Where Mr. Barrett resides on the scale between ignorance and bigotry is something people can decide for themselves. It should be noted that no spot on that spectrum is particularly desirable in a university teacher, though.
For evidence, one need look no further than to a letter Mr. Barrett wrote to The Badger Herald in 2002, during the height of a wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks known as the al-Aqsa Intifada. A UW graduate student at the time, Mr. Barrett accused Israel of "systematic genocide" and "ethnic cleansing" and said then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's goal "is to establish a state populated only by a Jewish master race, with such inferior races as Arabs expelled or exterminated. To that end, Israeli soldiers and snipers have been shooting Palestinian children for sport for more than 10 years … Sharon's Israel is becoming the mirror image of Nazi Germany, and Palestine is the new Warsaw ghetto."
One can certainly criticize Israeli policies without being anti-Semitic and can even be vehemently anti-Zionist, as Mr. Barrett is, without being anti-Semitic. I would argue such anti-Zionists are overly idealistic and ignore the ample evidence that suggests a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be utterly untenable, but that doesn't necessarily make them bigoted.
However, when one starts to litter his dialogue concerning Israel with terms like genocide and allusions to the Third Reich, red flags have to be raised. Such language reflects not a legitimate effort to critique Israeli policies, but an attempt to demonize Israel and its inhabitants with as insulting of language as possible. It incites hate, not honest dialogue.
Further, on facts alone, Mr. Barrett's claims are laughable. Throughout its history, Israel has taken extreme caution to minimize civilian casualties in combat, a devotion not shared in the least by the suicide bombers or rocket launchers who randomly attack the residential homes, restaurants and nightclubs in the Jewish state. If genocidal ambitions are harbored in the Middle East, it's certainly not on the Israeli side. Pure numbers debunk Israeli-perpetrated genocide — given the rapidly growing Palestinian population, if Israel truly was committing genocide, they'd be the least effective practitioners of it in history.
In addition to genocide, Mr. Barrett accuses Israel, a country that is home to well over a million Arabs, of ethnic cleansing. Curiously, he never seeks to apply the term to the Arab states that expelled Jews wholesale following Israel's War of Independence — or to the fact that Jews can't even legally live in Jordan. In Mr. Barrett's book, irrational scorn is befitting only of Israel.
Does all this make Mr. Barrett an anti-Semite? As I said: maybe, maybe not. It was only one letter, and even for a man apparently taken to quoting long sections of Mein Kampf during media interviews (as he did with WKOW-TV this summer), that's not a lot to go on.
To his credit, Mr. Barrett told me in an e-mail that he now would not "phrase things exactly the same way" as he did in 2002. He also acknowledged that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a little more complicated than his letter made it out to be, recognizing that terrorists do exist on the Palestinian side (though he added the ridiculous legitimizing qualifier that they are "defenders"). And, to be fair, Mr. Barrett's views are not anything that Noam Chomsky and other far-left academics haven't been spouting off for years.
Unfortunately, though, Mr. Barrett's new phrasing is only marginally better than his terminology of old. According to a WKOW-TV study of one of the textbooks for his class this fall, students may soon be reading about the "apartheid" state of Israel in the required textbook "9/11 and American Empire: Muslims, Jews, and Christians Speak Out." Mr. Barrett's essay in the book will not be required reading.
While perhaps not as vile as the comparison to Nazi Germany, calling Israel the spitting image of mid-20th century South Africa is still an accusation wrought with ignorance. Consider this admittedly condensed rebuttal: Israel is the most secular state in the Middle East, the region's lone bastion of free speech and rights for women and gays, a country where the non-Jewish minority has full suffrage and the right to hold office, a nation where discrimination based on religion or ethnicity in hiring or housing practices is prohibited. Try getting all that as a Jew in an Arab country. Heck, try getting all that as an Arab in an Arab country. You won't come close.
So despite imperfections, does Israel practice apartheid? Hardly. Does Mr. Barrett know what he's talking about? Hardly. Is that a problem for UW? Certainly.
Luckily, like the 9/11 conspiracy theories, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a major theme of the Introduction to Islam class — probably considerably less a part of it. It comes up in a few books, but it's never the main theme, according to Mr. Barrett.
But it raises concerns nonetheless. Some say that with freedom comes responsibility. Surely then with academic freedom, the principle that all Barrett-backers rely on, comes academic responsibility — that is, instructors present researched material in a subject area in which they are trained.
Academic freedom is mocked when unsubstantiated and wholly uninformed opinions, the kind that lead a man to equate Zionism with Nazism (or apartheid), masquerade as legitimate scholarship.
Ryan Masse (email@example.com) is the editorial board chairman of The Badger Herald.