BERKELEY, Sept. 18-- As the campanile rings out the noon hour at UC Berkeley, close to 30 student groups line Sproul Plaza. Booths set up in two lines facing each other vie for passing students' attention. Hundreds of students pass the booths. Few stop.
David Singer, dressed in a white and blue long-sleeve t-shirt, stands behind the Israel Action Committee booth straightening flyers.
At the opposite end of Sproul Plaza, Christopher Cantor chats with a passerby. He's one of three students staffing the Students for Justice in Palestine booth.
Here in the heart of the 1960s free speech movement, these two students and their respective groups have a lot more than just 20 tables separating them.
Last Wednesday, the Middle East Forum, a Philadelphia-based think tank, launched a new website as part of their on-going efforts to "define and promote American interests in the Middle East." The website offers academics and students the opportunity to report anti-Israel and anti-US biases heard in lectures, classes and elsewhere on universities across the country.
"Campus Watch goes hand in hand with a hostile environment against free speech on college campuses," said Cantor. "Universally, everyone thinks it is disgusting."
"I absolutely support Campus Watch," says Singer, co-chair of the Israel Action Committee. "It is a fact that there is a bias on campus, a bias against Israel. This being an institution of education, there is nothing wrong with pointing out that the bias exists."
Campus Watch keeps dossiers on 14 campuses and eight individuals around the United States. These online dossiers collect articles reporting anti-Israel and sometimes anti-Jewish bias at universities. Three Bay Area universities have been singled out including UC Berkeley, San Francisco State University and Stanford University
Though not even a week old, Campus Watch has generated a torrent of controversy.
"It's an intimidation tactic reminiscent of McCarthyism," said Berkeley Rhetoric professor Judith Butler. In a recent message to the email newsgroup Academics for Justice, Butler suggested that her colleagues who objected to Campus Watch write to the website. Butler herself emailed and asked 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 during these times."
"If people show they are unafraid of their views, these tactics won't work," said Butler.
Campus Watch was created in part as a response to a growing campaign to encourage universities to end their investments with companies that do business in Israel. Founder Daniel Pipes has a Ph.D. in history from Harvard, is a columnist for the New York Post and has written eleven books, most recently, Militant Islam Reaches America.
As a member of many progressive Jewish organizations calling for peace, Butler takes issue with the way in which Campus Watch lumps anti-Semitic comments in with criticisms aimed more generally at Israel and its policies.
"I am very opposed to anti-Semitism," said Butler. According to Butler, many of the professors targeted "are in fact respected academics dealing with complex issues."
As an example of what Campus Watch looks for, the website highlighted the work of Stanford Middle Eastern history professor Joel Beinin. Beinin, who also serves as head of Middle East Studies Association, is quoted on Campus Watch: "The sight of American-supplied F-16 fighters and Apache helicopters bombing civilian targets and carrying out over 50 extra judicial assignations has raised anger over the American-Israeli alliance to new levels."
Like Butler, Beinin also sees the danger posed by Campus Watch, but is not immediately concerned.
"For now, this is no big deal," said Beinin. "Daniel Pipes and his Middle East Forum are on the far right margin of American politics. They are even marginal to the Bush administration. While there is a potential threat to academic freedom and more broadly freedom of expression from efforts of this sort, so far they have had no impact that I am aware of."
"Most of my colleagues in the History Department and elsewhere on campus who know about this agree that Campus Watch is an unhealthy McCarthary-esque effort to stifle debate and intimidate dissidents from the Bush-Sharon consensus on Middle East policy," said Beinin in an email message. "Several have written me to express their support."
The Middle East Forum sees things differently. The Campus Watch website says, "Academics seem generally to dislike their own country and think even less of American allies abroad." They also argue that Middle East studies have become overrun by Middle Eastern Arabs who "actively disassociate themselves from the United States."
According to Campus Watch, these professors' opinions "have an extensive but subtle influence on the way Americans see the Middle East." From high school teachers to television viewers, many people across society take their cue from these scholars, according to Campus Watch.
In addition to alerting concerned citizens about syllabi, funding, university events and debates, Campus Watch is working to identify faculty in Middle Eastern studies departments to critique their work for bias and errors. Campus Watch is also working to establish a network of professors to promote American interests on campuses across the country.