Universities are centres of intellectual fermentation, of excitement and creativity. It is a time-honoured campus tradition that sometimes this excitement is expressed in political activism. People look back on university with fondness precisely because it was a time when they could indulge their indignation and idealism. A university community deprived of this energy would be a dreary, lifeless place. But lately there have been signs that this healthy component of higher education is mutating into something sinister. Last month, a mob rioted at Montreal's Concordia University, preventing former Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu from giving a speech. The crowd assaulted elderly professors it identified as Jewish. At Berkeley in California, pro-Palestinian students held a rally on Holocaust Remembrance Day and yelled "Go back to Germany" at Jewish students. At another California university, a campus group distributed flyers with pictures of soup cans bearing the words "canned Palestinian children meat, slaughtered according to Jewish rites."
Two weeks ago, a group of concerned scholars launched a Web site (www.campus-watch.org) to document what they believe is the corrosive nature of debate about the Middle East at North American universities. On Monday, for example, the site posted a notice about an upcoming student conference at the University of Michigan. Promotional materials for the event refer to "apartheid Israel" and equate Zionism with racism. Conference organizers also offer tacit endorsement of suicide terrorism.
Campus Watch is the brainchild of Daniel Pipes, a Harvard PhD and director of the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think-tank. Mr. Pipes says that the principal aim of the project is not to combat bigotry or even to defend Israel, but to expose the politicization of Middle East studies. He believes that American scholars of the Middle East harbour an anti-West bias that leads them to a) romanticize militant Islam; b) downplay the crimes of such regimes as Syria, Iran and Iraq; and c) exaggerate the crimes of Israel.
Campus Watch may be selective in what it chooses to highlight, but nevertheless it provides illuminating excerpts from the writings of many scholars-cum-activists. Only a few months before the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Prof. John Esposito of Georgetown University (and past president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America) ridiculed "terrorist 'experts' " for perpetuating an "irrational fear" of Islamic militants. Prof. Stephen Zunes of the University of San Francisco believes that the U.S. -- a "superpower (that) puts far more emphasis on weapons shipments and air strikes than on international law" -- is almost entirely to blame for Sept. 11.
The academics whose incriminating words appear on Campus Watch are crying foul. "It is a McCarthyite attempt to silence the few voices that speak out about the Middle East," complained Prof. Rashid Khalidi of the University of Chicago. No, it's not. The voices of anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism are not "few" but are the dominant perspective on many campuses. Campus Watch is not silencing them; it is simply mounting a belated critique. Evidently, Mr. Khalidi and others aren't used to being challenged and don't like it.
Shortly after Campus Watch was launched, Lawrence Summers, the president of Harvard, bravely denounced academic activists at his own university for designating Israel, among all nations, as the one country from which Harvard should withdraw its investments. Mr. Summers suggested that obsessive, one-sided criticism of Israel, or indeed any country, is intellectually dishonest.
Thanks to Campus Watch, those who promote this dishonesty now must answer for it.