When the University of Chicago brought in counselors from the Anti-Defamation League this fall to train dormitory advisers in sensitivity to ethnic and religious minorities, it was one of many signs that another front in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has opened on America's college campuses.
The highly unusual move came after allegations that supporters of Israel had been harassed on the Chicago campus and reflects similar concerns reported by Jewish students and professors nationwide. Meanwhile, some scholars of the Islamic world said they also have become targets of intimidation.
Although most of the skirmishes have been rhetorical rather than physical, university leaders are increasingly concerned that the Middle East has become such a bitterly charged topic that legitimate debate is distorted or stifled, poisoning the academic environment.
Last week, more than 300 college and university presidents issued a statement through the American Jewish Committee saying they feared that hostility over Israel threatened to erode the tradition of classroom civility and rational discourse upon which scholarship and learning depend.
Indeed, on one North American campus, the subject virtually has been put off limits.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was to speak at Concordia University in Montreal on Sept. 9, but his appearance was canceled after several thousand pro-Palestinian demonstrators laid siege to the lecture hall. Tear gas was used to subdue protesters who broke windows and stormed the building, and a number of students were arrested.
Declaring that the university needed a cooling-off period, Rector Frederick Lowy proclaimed a moratorium on events relating to the Middle East, including "public speeches, rallies, exhibits and information tables."
The university presidents' statement expressed concern over how Jewish students and supporters of Israel have been treated in recent months, citing various threats and defacement of property.
On the University of Colorado's Boulder campus, for example, a sukkah, or festive holiday booth, set up by the Jewish student organization Hillel was defaced with swastikas. Anti-Semitic graffiti were scribbled on a Jewish fraternity house.
But the leaders also said something more insidious is occurring.
"We are concerned that recent examples of classroom and on-campus debate have crossed the line into intimidation and hatred, neither of which have any place on university campuses," the statement said.
At Harvard University this fall, President Lawrence Summers publicly noted that professors and students have a perfect right to question Israel's policies. Discussing thorny issues, after all, is at the heart of what universities are about.
But too often, he said, that criticism is now betraying simple prejudice. "Profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities," Summers said.
Activists feel like outcasts
Jewish student activists said the kind of campus climate Summers described-- which includes growing demands that universities divest their portfolios of financial holdings in Israel--has made them pariahs while silencing others.
"It has become fashionable to be extremely anti-Israel on campus," said Talia Magnas, a recent graduate of the University of Chicago who pressed the school's administration on the issue. "I felt that by publicly supporting Israel, I took myself out of the academic discourse."
The Council on American-Islamic Relations said it has received relatively few allegations--about a dozen--of discrimination against Muslim students and professors in the last year. One student at Central Missouri State University alleged that after a heated classroom exchange, a university administrator called the Muslim student "un-American."
But John Woods, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Chicago, said some Jewish activists have unfairly targeted scholars, assuming that someone who studies Arabic is automatically anti-Israel and potentially anti-Semitic.
Woods particularly objects to the Web site www.campus-watch.org, where scholars who back Israel have posted notices since September about professors and university departments considered anti-Israel. Thinking the enterprise smacks of McCarthyism, Woods recently sent an e-mail alerting colleagues to what he considers an intimidation campaign.
Amy Newhall, executive director of the Middle East Studies Association, noted that Campus Watch urges students to report on their professors, potentially discouraging lecturers from talking freely--especially those not protected by tenure.
"Now, professors have to worry that someone is secretly monitoring them," Newhall said.
Campus conflict over the Middle East began to worsen toward the end of the previous academic year. In May, when the Hillel chapter at San Francisco State University attempted to hold a peace demonstration, San Francisco police officers had to escort Jewish students off campus after a threatening crowd surrounded them. A similar clash at the University of California at Berkeley, on Holocaust Remembrance Day, led to the arrest of 79 pro-Palestinian demonstrators.
The Berkeley administration also felt obliged to take a hand in the case of a controversial freshman course offering, "English 1A: The Politics and Poetics of Palestinian Resistance." The last line in the course description read, "Conservative thinkers are encouraged to seek other sections"--implying that dissent from a pro-Palestinian position would not be tolerated.
The English department later acknowledged "a lapse in oversight of its reading and composition courses," and the university stressed that students are not excluded from any courses on the basis of political persuasion.
'Reduced to silence'
Some Jewish student activists at the University of Chicago alleged that a similar pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli bias has crept into course offerings there. They said the university doesn't offer a course in the history of Israel, which, they said, only shows up as a "problem" in courses dealing with other Middle Eastern countries.
"The Israeli perspective has been reduced to silence," said Yehuda Halper, a third-year student active in the campus group Chicago Friends of Israel.
When an alumnus took the issue to the administration, Provost Richard Saller took a hands-off approach. "The university's long-standing policy does not call for the central administration to take an active role in presenting different views for the sake of balance," he wrote in a letter.
Halper and other student activists also presented a list of other complaints, which prompted the invitation to the Anti-Defamation League to offer sensitivity training. Yet Saller said only a few of the students' allegations could be substantiated.
"We have had a couple of incidents, in the form of defacing of posters," Saller said. "In other cases, we were either unable to confirm them, or they were impossible to verify."
Yet Woods said the campus has not been immune to the tensions other universities have experienced. Last spring, an Israeli student came into his office and broke down crying.
"He said that another professor had equated Israelis with Nazis," Woods said. "I called a town meeting of the [Middle Eastern studies] center to discuss the need for civility."
He added that the professor in question later left the university for unrelated reasons.
University officials and Jewish students are now engaged in dialogue aimed at reducing tensions on campus.
Similar motives inspired the college presidents' recent statement, said one of its principal organizers, Stephen Trachtenberg, president of George Washington University.
"Those of us who are old enough to recall World War II," Trachtenberg said, "know that it's better to get into a defensive mode sooner rather than later."