THE aftershocks of Israel's war against Hezbollah in Lebanon beginning last July are being felt in Australian universities with ugly consequences. Jewish Labor MP Michael Danby and pro-Israeli groups say students of Middle Eastern studies are being fed an increasingly biased and distorted anti-Israeli view of the region by "Arabist" academics.
Their blunt claims, aired in parliament and in the Jewish press, have prompted one of these alleged Arabists, Andrew Vincent of Sydney's Macquarie University, to hit back at his accusers.
"(They) are trying to frogmarch not just the whole Jewish community but the whole community in general into supporting a government which not all Israelis support, let's face it," said Vincent, who heads the university's Centre for Middle East Studies, on SBS's Dateline program last month.
This dispute over academic balance in relation to Israel has been simmering for years on Australian campuses but it is the war in Lebanon that has brought it to a flashpoint. It is a clash that raises raw and sensitive questions about the freedoms and the responsibilities of academe as well as the power of the pro-Israel lobby.
"Because of public commentaries about Israel's war in Lebanon in July, a lot of Israel's supporters thought that Israel was being unfairly attacked," Vincent tells Inquirer. "So they circled the wagons and attacked the attackers."
Danby entered the fray in August after hearing a radio interview in which Vincent called on Prime Minister John Howard to de-list Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation. It was a provocative comment to make in the heat of the Lebanon war and one that was sharply at odds with both sides of Australian politics at the time.
So Danby stood up in federal parliament and let rip: "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 was joined by conservative analyst Ted Lapkin of the Australia/Israel Jewish Affairs Council, who wrote a scathing piece in Quadrant magazine saying that Australian academe was a "rogue's gallery of anti-Zionists".
This ideological row might be dismissed as an academic storm in a teacup, except Danby and Lapkin believe it could have very real implications for Australian policy in the years ahead. Danby says Australian universities are guilty of producing "endless one-sided propaganda" that "produces graduates who move into the Department of Foreign Affairs and other organs of government with a one-sided view of the conflict in the Middle East".
Lapkin is more blunt, warning: "The best and brightest of Australia's youth are exposed to virulent anti-Zionism throughout their university years. It remains to be seen what effect this indoctrination will have on the next generation of Australian leaders."
But what precisely is the basis for these claims that universities are running courses that are pro-Arab and anti-Israeli?
Danby's and Lapkin's criticisms are focused largely on the two best known Middle East study courses in the country: Vincent's Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Macquarie and the Australian National University's Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies, directed by Amin Saikal.
Lapkin accuses Saikal of pursuing an "anti-Zionist agenda" that decrees that "Israel can do no right and the Palestinians can do no wrong". Among other things, Saikal is said to be highly critical of Israel's conduct in Lebanon while praising aspects of Iranian democracy in an Islamic context. Saikal does not dispute this, but says his criticisms of Israel in Lebanon are not unreasonable and they do not mean he is anti-Israeli.
"Most of the things we have said in terms of criticising Israel have been voiced by Israelis themselves inside Israel," he says. "But the (pro-Israel) lobby group here cannot tolerate any form of criticism whatsoever. They don't want an objective assessment of Israel in this country and if you make one then they attack you and call you anti-Semitic or anti-Zionist.
"I think at times, particularly in the wake of the Lebanese crisis, they have said some things which could be interpreted as crossing the line."
Saikal and Vincent say hostile emails have been sent to their respective university vice-chancellors calling for them to be sacked.
However, ANU vice-chancellor Ian Chubb defends Saikal, saying he has been "attacked personally ... because (his) views are unsavoury to others who have closed their mind. This is a fragile period in world relations, the very time when understanding and reason are needed to prevail over prejudice and ideology."
Danby strongly disputes suggestions that he or other pro-Israel advocates are trying to stifle free speech or otherwise censor debate on Israel and the Middle East.
"I encourage debate," he says. "It is through criticism of these courses that the public will arrive at a judgment themselves about their worth. My concern is that you are not getting a full range of opinions on campus, you are not getting a wide range of views."
Danby says undergraduate students are frustrated by what they see as a pro-Arab bias in these courses. "Undergraduates feel very disadvantaged, their lectures are often very anti-Israel and very anti-American," he says.
Vincent questions this, saying he has not received any complaints from his students about bias despite having many Jewish students in his course.
Australia's Jewish community is politically conservative - often more so than in Israel - and it has long been frustrated with the inherently left-wing bias perceived in Australian universities. It hopes that this public challenge to the nation's universities will ultimately lead to less strident criticism of Israel in academe.
But the pro-Israel lobby also risks overplaying its hand and being perceived as using bullying to impose its own agenda. Their complaints inevitably will be interpreted by some as an attempt to muzzle academic debate rather than simply encourage greater diversity of ideas on campus.
Regardless of one's views on the war in Lebanon, which ended in August, the reality is that the conflict has done great harm to Israel's international image. This will naturally be reflected in academic studies, just as it has in the media and in mainstream public opinion.
The question is to determine when such views go beyond reasoned argument and into the realm of anti-Israeli bias. The answer, like so many Middle Eastern issues, lies squarely in the eyes of the beholder.
Danby accuses Vincent of selectively inviting guest lecturers who are pro-Arab and anti-Israel. "Speakers at Macquarie University this year have included the Syrian ambassador, (left-wing journalist and author) Robert Fisk, former Australian ambassador Peter Rogers and a United Arab Emirates minister, Sheikha Lubna al-Qassimi," Danby says. "All of these people seem to be putting only one side of the debate."
Vincent argues that his speakers have included "a variety of Israelis who are very much in tune with current Israeli thinking". He says that earlier this year he invited Israeli's ambassador in Canberra to speak but the offer was never taken up.
But Vincent has been under growing pressure since NSW schools last year dropped a simulation exercise devised by his centre after parents complained it was creating racial tension and painted terrorists in a sympathetic light. Parents alleged the exercise, in which students played Arabs and Israelis, gave positive descriptions of groups such as Hamas's Qassam Brigades and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad without telling students that the groups were listed terrorist organisations.
Tertiary students who take Vincent's course Introduction to Middle East Politics are also asked questions that some may consider loaded against Israeli and US policy in the Middle East. These include: "Israel is sometimes accused of intransigence, why is this?"; "Should local opposition to (a democratic Iraq) be dismissed as terrorism?"; and "What is the neo-conservative agenda, and is it still in place in President Bush's second term?"
Yet the same questionnaire also asks: "Do the governments of the Arab world lack legitimacy? Why?"
Vincent fears that this debate, if unchecked, could take Australia down the path of the US, where an aggressive website called Campus Watch asks students to expose academics who they believe are anti-Israel.
The website, run by influential Israel supporter Daniel Pipes, admits that it pays special attention to those academics who are up for tenure or promotion. "Campus Watch is frightening," Vincent says. "I am sure some people in Australia would like to have Campus Watch here."
But Danby distances himself from Campus Watch, saying there is no parallel with that organisation and the present debate in Australia. "We need to have a balanced view on the issue of the Middle East. As pressure has been on the ABC (not to show bias), so should it be on these faculties of Middle Eastern studies."