T is fortunate that Israel must make peace with the Palestinians and not with the professors, claims Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, only slightly tongue-in-cheek.
"The current Palestinian leadership includes many pragmatists who understand the need to compromise," he wrote in The Case for Peace (2005). "Many professors, on the other hand, have become so polemical, so extreme and so opposed to Israel's very existence that they themselves have become significant barriers to peace."
Complaints about an alleged pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel bias in Australian academe have been less highly charged than in the US or in Britain, where during the past 18 months lecturers unions have twice tried to impose boycotts on contacts with Israeli academics.
Yet claims of analytical failures, politicisation and intolerance of alternative views in Middle Eastern studies departments in Australia have coalesced this year with complaints in federal parliament and from Jewish and Israeli lobby groups.
Allegations of bias in Australian universities were made in federal parliament in August when Labor MP Michael Danby singled out Andrew Vincent from Macquarie University's Centre for Middle Eastern and North African Studies and Amin Saikal of the Australian National University's Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies.
"I grieve for the state of Middle Eastern studies in Australia and the effect that some poor judgments and poor teaching have had on policy decisions as it affects decision making in Australia," he said.
Danby cited an article by Vincent in the April 8 edition of the Macquarie University News in which he claimed that "the Israelis quite possibly murdered Yasser Arafat who, despite all his failings, stood up for Palestinian interests and refused to cave in to US and Israeli pressure. His replacement, the hapless Mahmoud Abbas's real task is to provide security for the Israelis and to persuade his people to accept the Israeli occupation of their land forever and without protest."
In parliament Danby described the murder claim as "one of the most bizarre conspiracy theories, which one reads only in the far Left and conspiracy press around the world. That a serious university newspaper would publish such nonsense and that a serious university faculty teaching our students Middle Eastern studies would propagate this stuff is staggering."
Danby is not the only person to have read Vincent's statements with alarm. Colin Rubenstein of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council said: "This quote shows not just that Vincent is squarely in the pro-Palestinian camp but that he is consistently critical of Palestinians who show genuine interest in reconciliation and compromise."
Vincent's critics also note his call earlier this year for Hezbollah to be delisted as a terrorist organisation and his reported statement in 1990 that Saddam Hussein had a legitimate case for invading Kuwait.
They also say that the speakers at Vincent's centre are predominantly anti-Zionist. This year Vincent has hosted Israeli post-Zionist Tanya Reinhart and Bouthaina Shaaban, the Syrian Minister for Expatriates, who spoke on the Syrian strategy for peace in the Middle East.
Syrian ambassador to Australia Tamam Souliman and left-wing journalist and author Robert Fisk, who claims journalistic objectivity is "no longer relevant" to the Middle East, also spoke. Rubenstein says: "Vincent's speakers reflect his hardline, one-sided view of the Middle East. The problem is not specifically that he holds these views, but he is not running a think tank for Hamas or the Syrian Government. He has an obligation in a publicly funded institution to maintain balance and objectivity."
Rubenstein is also critical of the appointment this year of anti-Zionist blogger Antony Loewenstein to the board of Vincent's centre, which includes Health Minister Tony Abbott and parliamentary secretary Greg Hunt.
On January 27, Vincent was quoted in The Australian Jewish News as saying: "We wanted a Jewish person on the board. We didn't have any Jews on the board and it seemed to be an absence." Yet Rubenstein says Loewenstein has no academic expertise on the Middle East and visited Israel for the first time only recently to research his contentious book, My Israel Question.
Greg Weinstein, president of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students, has received complaints about Vincent's courses at Macquarie University. He says: "Students have told us that he is unapologetically anti-Israel but they are reluctant to speak publicly."
Vincent responds that "Danby and AIJAC are lobbyists for the Israeli Government and their view is that if you are not with us, you are against us. My view is that I criticise everyone equally and I think that it is the job of an informed academic to monitor the centres of power."
Vincent also says, "I think it would be terrible if universities in Australia became like their American counterparts, being monitored by McCarthyite organisations such as Campus Watch."
Asked whether he would like to see the establishment of an Australian Campus Watch, Rubenstein says: "It sounds like an idea whose time has come, given the number of complaints from students."
Danby's criticism of the ANU's Saikal highlighted his defence of Iran, a country that provided $US350,000 ($455,000) to underwrite the establishment of the ANU'S perpetual foundation in Persian language and Iranian studies.
Saikal is on record as defending Iranian democracy, "which may not accord with Western ideals but provides for a degree of mass participation, political pluralism and assurance of certain human rights and freedoms".
Danby told parliament that Saikal ignored the "mass persecution of minority religions, whether they are Zoroastrian or, in particular, the Baha'i faith" and that (Iranian) President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad's threat to "wipe Israel off the map" did not accord with any notion of human rights. Danby claims that Saikal's centre is having a deleterious effect on Australian public and foreign policy.
Alumni and associates of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at ANU include Bob Bowker and Jane Drake-Brockman, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade officers who faced heated questioning at the Cole inquiry over their knowledge of AWB's rorting of the oil-for-food program, and Tom Harley, president, corporate development of BHP Billiton Petroleum, who was questioned about his knowledge of shipments of wheat by BHP to secure an interest in the development of Iraqi petroleum.
Danby claims failures such as the AWB scandal are "the result of endless one-sided propaganda by university faculties producing graduates who move into DFAT and other organs of this Government with a one-sided view of the conflict in the Middle East".
Saikal was unable to comment, as he was about to leave for overseas. However, he referred to a letter from ANU vice-chancellor Ian Chubb published in The Australian on August 5, in which Chubb says: "In a democracy, robust debate, including contributions from academics as well as those who disagree with them, must be encouraged. It is an essential part of the process of stimulating public understanding of the many complex issues confronting humankind."