A widely recycled essay about "The New McCarthyism" charges that "a network of right-wing activists" is trying to curtail academic freedom by stifling views that are inconvenient for Israel and its supporters.
The author, Larry Cohler-Esses, cites a number of varied cases: Norman Finkelstein, who was denied tenure at De Paul university, Nadia Abu El-Haj whose bid for tenure has been attacked in numerous articles and a petition (but apparently has been approved regardless of the furor) and Debbie Almontaser, a New York City high school principle, who was fired after she had defended "Intifada" T-shirts, explaining that"stated that "intifada" means "shaking off" and the shirts represented women "shaking off" oppression.
Cohler-Esse's shot gun approach raises many issues. It is never clear whether Cohler-Esses is against the principle of interfering in academic debate on political grounds, or whether he maintains that in these particular cases, the facts were wrong.
The case of Almontaser can be dismissed out of hand. She was not teaching in a university or expressing academic opinions in a journal. She was given the responsibility of teaching high school youth at the expense of taxpayers, and she tried to defend what was, to all appearances, advocacy of terrorist violence. A school principal who announced that "burn, baby burn" was an innocuous slogan would justifiably find it difficult to keep his job. Almontaser's attempts to explain the real meaning of "Intifada" are like the attempts of some Muslims to explain that when Yasser Arafat yelled, or Osama Bin Laden yells, "Jihad!" they are only talking about an inner spiritual struggle. To most of the New York public, "Intifada" is associated with deranged fanatics blowing themselves to bits in public places, taking the lives of dozens of innocent people. There is no doubt that the people making the T-shirts and those wearing them were aware of that use of the word. If Almontaser did not know this, or did not understand the implications of what she was saying, then she is not qualified, or doesn't have the judgment, needed to be a school principal. Taxpayers have a right to decide that they will not pay for educating children in "Intifada," or expose them to the idea that "Intifada" is an acceptable way to solve disputes or initiate social change.
Cohler-Esses also insists on defending Norman Finkelstein. Finkelstein himself was at the center of a vile attempt to stifle debate and academic freedom. He initiated a campaign to discredit Professor Alan Dershowitz as a plagiarizer and "neocon" - based on unfounded charges. It seems too, that Finkelstein was a supporter of abortive attempts to boycott Israeli universities. That McCarthyite witch-hunt was fine with him. At the top of one article about the academic boycott, Finkelstein comments at his Web site,"Ribbentrop Shocked at Boycott of German Universities: Hitler worried it might slow down Final Solution." (see normanfinkelstein.com/article.php?pg=11&ar=1059).
Nobody is certain why Finkelstein was denied tenure, but the fact that he apparently had but one publication in a peer-reviewed journal just might have been a factor (when you look this up, be sure to count only results for Norman G. Finkelstein -- Norman H. is a different fellow). Finkelstein has apparently failed to get tenure at a succession of academic institutions. Given the abundance of anti-Israel and pro-Muslim tenured professors in North America and in the Middle East Studies association, it is hardly likely that Finkelstein's career was hurt by his crusade against Israel. Campus Watch, which is targeted by Cohler-Esses as a tool of the "McCarthyite" conspiracy, was not in existence for most of Finkelstein's career.
Not only Cohler-Esses, but also some generally more sympathetic commentators such as James Davila have criticized the attempt to decide tenure issues by petition in principle, as well as other aspects of the campaign against Nadia Abu El-Haj. Here, I will discuss only the issue of principle.
Of course tenure issues cannot be decided by petition. But that is not the same thing as saying that Barnard Alumnae, or the general public, are forbidden to in any way interfere with the tenure process, which is often falsely portrayed as somehow sacrosanct and infallible. Nadia Abu El-Haj is not a theoretical physicist engaged in obscure research about quantum wave mechanics. She has taken a political position about a controversial public issue, and her work has been reviewed in those terms by favorable reviewers as well as unfavorable ones. Elia Zureik notes fairly accurately:
Abu El-Haj sets out to understand the role of archeology, Israel's "past time," "in the formation and enactment of its colonial-national historical imagination and in the substantiation of its historical claims" (p. 2)....Indeed, just because El Haj and Zureik use the vocabulary of science, that does not mean that there are no grave political implications for their writings, especially if their writings generate and repeat falsehoods, such as the assertion that Israeli archaeologists destroyed the Muslim past with bulldozers, or that Israeli archeology played a role in the "obliteration of the Palestinian [Arab] presence." The claim that Israel used archeology to substantiate its national claims is itself a controversial political claim, and not just an academic one, and it is open to question. If El Haj and Zureik want to fight for "liberation" of Palestine in the halls of academia, then of course they have raised a public issue. El Haj's claims are made in a book, "Facts on the Ground." It is that book that is at issue, not her peer-reviewed publications. If she did not want public scrutiny, she should not have published the book.
I mention the direct role of Israeli archeology in the obliteration of Palestinian presence for two reasons: first, to underscore the connection between archeology and politics in Israel; second, to point out that just because archeology uses the vocabulary of science, this does not mean that there are no grave political consequences for these acts.
If a candidate for tenure had published a book "proving" the mental inferiority of Africans or women based on their "scientific" research, there would certainly be a public outcry against granting this person tenure, and that that outcry would likely take the form of petitions, newspaper articles and demonstrations. We cannot imagine either, that Larry Cohler-Esses or The Nation would be in the forefront of those demanding "academic freedom" and non-interference in the tenure process for that candidate.
The notion that scientists have "social responsibility," implying that the universities that employ them also have social responsibility, has long been a basis for criticizing atomic scientists, genetic engineering researchers and those in other fields, both by fellow scientists, and by lay-persons who have no real knowledge of the technical and theoretical issues involved. In fact, it is one of the bases for El-Haj's critique of Israeli archaeologists: she claims they participated in the colonialist settler project. If a candidate for tenure was teaching his students how to assemble a neutron bomb, wouldn't that be a valid ground for public criticism?
The proposition that the tenure process is sacrosanct and infallible is very questionable. Ideas and researchers are often judged by scientific fashion and by the prejudices of different department heads. Too often, the department decides what is science and who is a scientist, and invites external review from people who are known to be sympathetic to the desirable view, and to hold the "correct" views. For that reason, Albert Einstein was denied permanent academic positions for many years because of his unorthodox views. In the social sciences, such herd behavior is notorious. For many years in the United States, the "Functionalist" doctrines of Talcott Parsons held sway over sociology departments. Those who did not conform found it difficult to get published and to get tenure. Today, those dogmas have fallen into disrepute and much functionalist writing is considered to be tendentious jargon rather than science.
In this case, the Barnard anthropology department did not hide its own bias. The biographical item for Nadia Abu El-Haj (originally here: http://www.barnard.columbia.edu/anthro/bios_nadia.html, but now off the Web) was devoted almost entirely to reviews of "Facts on the Ground," with no reference to her peer-reviewed works. The reviews of Facts on the Ground presented by the Barnard biographical page, all favorable and rather politicized, reiterate Abu El Haj's false claims about Israeli use of bulldozers and the settler-colonialist project supposedly served by Israeli archeology. If the Barnard Anthropology Department has appointed itself to lead a political crusade against Israel, they can hardly claim immunity from political criticism on the grounds of academic freedom.
In closing, I will note the most obvious point. Paula Stern, Alan Dershowitz and Daniel Pipes are not McCarthyites because (are you ready for this?)... they are not U.S. Senators. Like The Nation, they are people arguing a point of view. When Jason Vest, used the pages of the Nation to proclaim that Zionists were fomenting a war against Iraq, nobody screamed "McCarthy!" though what he did was bad enough.
McCarthy and McCarthyism were dangerous because McCarthy was part of the US government apparatus. He had the power to subpoena people, to put them in jail, to ruin their careers and their lives. McCarthy was stopped before he could ruin the US army. But private protesters have neither the power of government, nor the responsibility that comes with that power. Nadia abu el Haj and her supporters can claim that "Bayit" did not mean temple in ancient Hebrew, or that Israel used bulldozers to efface Arab history in Israel. Scientology believers can claim we are inhabited by beings from outer space. Jason Vest can claim he has a list of Zionists in the State Department and petitioners who don't like this or that academic can present the facts as they see them. That is the right of citizens in a democracy.
Having the right to protest, however, does not imply that protesting is necessarily wise, constructive or helpful, and it is not a blanket permit for all types of protest, based on any and all grounds. Those issues will be examined in a later essay.
For additional background on the Nadia Abu El-Haj controversy see here, here, here, here, here and here among others.