The pro-Israel Middle East Forum, headed by Daniel Pipes, launched a website this fall called Campus Watch that criticized eight professors and 14 universities for their views on Palestinian rights and political Islam. Pipes has long argued that Americans pay too little attention to the dangers of political Islam, and the website is designed to call negative attention to those whose views on these issues differ from Pipes' own.
The site lists two professors from Columbia University, Hamid Dabashi and Joseph Massad, and one faculty member each from Berkeley, Georgetown, Northeastern, the University of Michigan, the State University of New York at Binghamton and the University of Chicago. The only trait these professors all have in common is criticism of Israel — otherwise their academic interests differ.
To counter what many see as an incipient "black list" of American scholars, a number of academics have asked to be included in the list. Judith Butler, professor of comparative literature at Berkeley, wrote ironically, "I have recently learned that your organization is compiling dossiers on professors at US academic institutions who oppose the Israeli occupation and its brutality, actively support Palestinian rights of self-determination as well as a more informed and intelligent view of Islam than is currently represented in the US media. I would be enormously honored to be counted among those who actively hold these positions and would like to be included in the list of those who are struggling for justice."
Those named in Pipes' original list said they were heartened by the support. "It's a new genre springing up, and I'm especially glad that it includes Jewish scholars," said Prof. Dabashi, head of Columbia's department of Middle Eastern and Asian language and cultures. "This is about McCarthyism, freedom of expression. It's very important that it not be made into a Jewish-Muslim kind of thing."
Many academics see Campus Watch as an effort to hamper free speech on the Middle East, and are deeply concerned by the website's "Keep Us Informed" section, in which Pipes invites the submission of "reports on Middle East-related scholarship, lectures, classes, demonstrations and other activities." Put bluntly, Pipes seems to be inviting students to turn in their professors.
Pipes said that he hoped the website would open new dialogue about Middle Eastern policy. "We weren't trying to rile people," he said. "For me, ‘dossier' was just a French word for file." His point, Pipes claims, "is that Middle Eastern studies at most universities present only one interpretation," which Pipes calls "left-leaning groupthink."
Some academics charge that Campus Watch has added to a concern that those in the field of Middle East studies are facing unfair scrutiny. "Last year, Martin Kramer wrote a book arguing against federal funding for Middle Eastern studies in universities, and that scared people," said Lisa Anderson, dean of Columbia's School of International and Public Affairs. Anderson is also about to become head of the Middle East Studies Association. Kramer is former director of Tel Aviv University's Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies. "Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer," says Anderson, "are part of the same group."
For a long time, a much larger, more diverse group has advocated another type of boycott. Europeans have been actively boycotting Israeli musicians, artists, and others who in previous years would have been welcome in Europe. This has reached the point where some people have abruptly canceled long-awaited events, due to worldwide concern for the Palestinian problem. Now, somewhat belatedly, such activities have begun in the United States.
This came to a head at Harvard University, when President Lawrence H. Summers used a prayer meeting to condemn what he described as growing anti-Semitism in the United States. He cited a campaign by some Harvard professors and students aimed at divesting the university's generous endowments in Israel. In his talk, Summers said that he was speaking "not as president of Harvard University but as a concerned member of our community." He added that "serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent," referring to the push for divestment and pro-Palestinian activities by student organizations.
Summers' speech was reported first in The Harvard Crimson, and was also posted on his website: president.harvard.edu/speeches.
Ever since arriving at Harvard University, Summers has been noted for his controversial views. Last year, Summers entered into a public debate with Harvard's Afro-American studies department, eventually causing Prof. Cornell West's departure to rival Princeton. "We are essentially being told there can be no debate," assistant professor of neurobiology John Assad said of Summers' accusations. Prof. Assad, who signed the divestment petition, added, "This is the ugliest statement imaginable to paint critics as anti-Semitic."
Taha Abdul-Basser, a graduate student in the department of Near Eastern languages and civilization and a member of the Harvard Islamic Society, questioned Summers' ability to separate his personal statements from his official duties. He was also "saddened to see that evidently support for the divestment campaign was being equated with something as ugly as anti-Semitism." In his statement, Summers strongly rejected divestment, but insisted he was not taking sides. "There is much to be debated about the Middle East," he said, "and much in Israel's foreign and defense policy that can be and should be vigorously challenged."
Harvard's divestment campaign is clearly related to the boycott against Israeli artists visiting the United States, which is still in its early stages. Indeed, the whole subject of boycotts and divestment is presently playing out in many different theaters. A very large number of Americans have for one reason or another canceled engagements in Israel. Their excuses are always polite and avoid the two real issues: one is that Americans do not feel safe in Israel, and the second is that Americans feel very uncomfortable becoming involved in Israel's discriminatory practices.
This even plays out in the athletic arena. In some cases Israeli teams have been forced to play home games in Cyprus rather than in Israel. In other cases Israeli teams simply have their invitations revoked. Thus there have been very few Israeli athletic or popular entertainment events in the headlines for several years.
Conductor Zubin Mehta, music director of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, complains that "fifty percent or more of the foreign artists have canceled."
According to Hebrew University philosopher and political scientist Yaron Erzah, "During the wars, there were always cancellations for reasons of personal security, but this time it's a very different story...There is a moral issue about coming to (Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon's Israel when it is engaged in actions which appear to be excessive."
At this writing, no university has moved to divest. But University of Illinois professor of international law Francis A. Boyle believes that the idea of divestment from Israel is one whose time has come. "It worked once to produce peace, justice and reconciliation," he says in reference to apartheid-era South Africa, "and I believe it can work again."
— Richard H. Curtiss is the executive editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.