Please note: This piece was written by Ithaca College professor Terri Ginsberg and New York-based journalist Rima Abdelkader.
Historian Tony Judt, Professor of European Studies at New York University , was scheduled to speak on the Israeli Lobby and American Foreign Policy at the Polish Consulate in New York City in October. Due to pressure from two Jewish American organizations, the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, his talk was cancelled. Judt had also been scheduled to speak on the same topic at Manhattan College , but that speech was canceled due to similar pressures. The ADL and the AJC believe that Judt, a Jewish American, is too critical of State of Israel and as such, should not be allowed to speak publicly on that topic.
In September, University of Colorado's Chancellor Phil DiStefano announced that his university would consider firing tenured Ethnic Studies Professor Ward Churchill for his criticism of the Bush Administration and its handling of the events of 9/11. Churchill is currently being subjected to university censure for research misconduct by an appointed outside faculty review committee comprised of faculty members from chosen campuses around the country.
The Judt and Churchill cases are not unique. Since the events of 9/11 and the subsequent U.S.-led military invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq , U.S. campuses have become a battleground for an increasing number of publicly scrutinized attacks on professors whose teaching and research entail criticism of Zionism and of U.S. and Israeli policy in the Middle East . Each attack has involved blatant violations of academic freedom that have gone largely unchecked despite protest from faculty, unions, and scholarly organizations.
Perhaps more troubling is the case of Professor Douglas Giles. Unlike Churchill, untenured adjunct Giles was fired from Roosevelt University in Chicago in November 2005 for using the concept of Zionism as a demonstrative example in his Comparative Religion course. Giles was told by his dean that no classroom discussion of religion is permissible that may be construed as offensive to students of a particular faith.
More recently, University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole was denied a Middle East Studies position at Yale after pressure from neoconservative donors and media pundits who expressed objection to Cole's public criticisms of Israel. Cole is former president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America.
The most notorious of these cases occurred at Columbia University in New York in Spring 2005. Professors Hamid Dabashi, Rashid Khalidi, and Joseph Massad, among others, who teach at Columbia's Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) Department, were investigated by a university-appointed non-faculty committee after The David Project accused them of anti-Semitism, and media pundits, elected officials, real estate developers and wealthy donors began demanding that Columbia dismiss them. In the end, Columbia's investigative committee was unable to substantiate the accusatory claims.
In the U.S. , academic freedom is a constitutionally guaranteed right meant to protect the role of the university as a site for producing knowledge where its aim is to serve the public good. As citizens or residents of the U.S. , academic scholars are endowed with the right to speak publicly, outside the academic sphere, on issues that may or may not pertain to their fields of disciplinary expertise. In addition, academic freedom stipulates that scholars, not elected officials, private interests, or media pundits, are the ones authorized and entitled to make collective decisions about academic knowledge, and about what may or may not be published and professed.
Regrettably, we are in a time and place where scholars are being intimidated from openly discussing subjects they teach or topics about which they feel strongly unless their ideas align with particular schools of thought, especially with regard to Zionism and to U.S. and Israeli policy in the Middle East. As we write, academics and university employees in the U.K. are being encouraged to spy on students who appear South Asian or Middle Eastern and who the British government suspects of supporting Islamic extremism. In addition to this, attempts are being made by neoconservatives to block both the hire of Wadie Said, son of the late Edward Said, by Wayne State University Law School in Michigan , and the tenure of anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj, author of a book that criticizes Israeli archaeology at Barnard College in New York .
If it is truly contributive to the public good, academia must be responsive to public issues and concerns and must treat scholars who speak publicly in accordance with accepted, usual and customary norms of scholarly practice. Political litmus tests should not be used as criteria for academic appointments, tenure, or promotion, nor should accusations of anti-Semitism be made indiscriminately against scholars who articulate legitimate criticisms of Zionism and of U.S. and Israeli policy in the Middle East . If elected officials, university administrations, mainstream journalists, and responsible citizens do not speak out and take action against these draconian measures, they will become guilty of facilitating the death of free speech in what may be its last bastion, academia.
Terri Ginsberg is most recently Adjunct Professor of Cinema Studies at Ithaca College , and a member of the International Jewish Solidarity Network (IJSN) www.jewishsolidarity.info.
Rima Abdelkader is a NY correspondent and a member of the Network of Arab-American Professionals of New York (NAAP-NY) www.naaponline.org/ny/.