The relentless campaign to deny Arabs their right to political freedom in Palestine has now extended to denying them their right to academic freedom in the US.
The plan here, pursued by pressure groups headed by hard-right, Israel-can't-do-wrong nationalists like Daniel Pipes, Allan Dershowitz and David Horowitz, among others, is to go after their victims wherever they may be found in the world of academe, and turn their lives and careers into living hell. Pipes, for example, himself a former academic, runs an outfit called Campus Watch whose job it is to make sure that no professor shall utter an unkind word about Israel in a lecture hall. They gave hell to Walid Khalidi when Princeton offered him an endowed chair and equal hell to Khalil Shikaki before his appointment at Brandeis.
In short, when educators who question the unconventional wisdom attempt to communicate ideas, in this case about Israel, that are inconvenient, they find themselves targeted for public vilification and job loss. This is not just reprehensible because in this case you are saying that scholars should come under special scrutiny because of their ethnic backgrounds, but reprehensible also because here you are going against the grain of what intellectual life - the free flow of knowledge and ideas - is all about.
To paraphrase the Italian political philosopher Antonio Gramsci, the dumbest ideas are those that are taken for granted. If anything at all should be taken for granted, it is the notion that in order to evolve, transform and grow beyond its fixed meaning, a society will not tamper with a scholar's freedom to question and probe. Otherwise you live in a shoddy, intellectually impoverished society that repeats itself, moving around the treadmill of immemorially posited norms.
Moreover, as is well known, in the US that freedom is seen as sacrosanct, protected by the constitution. As Justice William Brenner wrote in an opinion in 1967: "Our nation is deeply committed to safeguarding academic freedom, which is of transcendent value to all of us and not merely to the teachers concerned. That freedom is therefore a special concern of the First Amendment which does not tolerate laws that cast a pall over the classroom".
The key phrase here is that the constitution "does not tolerate" interference, in this case, of outside groups, in a school's decisions over life-long tenure and teacher appointments. Consider then, in this context, the brouhaha over Bebbie Al Mountaser and Nadia Abu Al Haj. Several months ago, Al Mountaser, a fully qualified Arab-American educator, was appointed principal of a bilingual, city-funded school in New York dedicated to the study of Arabic language and culture. It took no time for those pressure groups in question to come down on Al Mountaser like a ton of bricks, mounting a campaign, in alliance with right-wing New York media, like the Sun and the Post, to paint her as an educator with a militant "Islamic agenda". Moreover, they contended, the school, conceptually, could be a "good idea" were the language taught was, say, Spanish not Arabic. In the words of Pipes, who was in the vanguard of the assault, "Arabic language instruction is inevitably laden with Pan-Arabist and Islamic baggage", referring to the school as "madrassa", which in Arabic means simply a school but in the US is taken to mean an institution that trains militant, Taliban-style Islamists. The end result of the campaign? Al Mountaser was fired as principal (but retained her job with the Education Department as an administrator). She was replaced by a new principal - who was Jewish and spoke no Arabic.
The case of Professor Al Haj, however, had a happy ending, though the campaign against her was no less bizarre and remorseless. Al Haj, an Arab-American born in New York to Palestinian parents, was up for tenure at Barnard University. Her academic credentials were impeccable: After doing undergraduate work in anthropology and epistemology, she received her doctorate in 1995, and turned her dissertation into a book called Facts on the Ground: Archeological Practice and Territorial Self-fashioning in Israeli Society, which was later published by the University of Chicago Press.
The campaign against her, which at its peak turned into a crusade, began in August, 2007, with a petition signed by nearly 1,900 people, many of them former graduates of Barnard who lived in colonies in the West Bank, claiming that Al Haj was an "Israel denier", a scholar of "demonstrably inferior calibre", and the rest of it. The tenure process was held up for months by Columbia University (the parent university of Barnard) as Al Haj's case was adjudicated. Needless to say the process was hellish for Al Haj as it was for her supporters, but finally concluded with the tenure committee refusing to knuckle under to outside pressure.
Throughout the whole ordeal, it should be noted, both educators garnered substantial support from liberal Jewish groups. (The Jewish community in the US is imbued with a great many political currents and sensibilities, and its members clearly do not think in lockstep.)
But if you were to take in other cases, this time outside the world of academe, all the way from the firing of the political columnist Alexander Cockburn by the Village Voice in 1982, because he accepted a $10,000 grant from the Arab-American University Graduates Association, to last year's hold-up of My Name Is Rachel Corrie, because it was perceived as a pro-Palestinian play, you realise there is a powerful machine out there whose goal is to deny Arab-Americans a genuine voice in society and a meaningful role in public life.
Fawaz Turki is a veteran journalist, lecturer and author of several books, including The Disinherited: Journal of a Palestinian Exile. He lives in Washington D.C.