The problem with the tactic of intimidation is that it can backfire, igniting fiery courage. That's what the organization Middle East Forum, which describes itself as "promoting American interests in the Middle East," is discovering.
The people behind the forum's "Campus Watch" web site hoped to throw a wet blanket on the prairie fire of solidarity with Palestinian freedom sweeping campuses across the United States. It posted "dossiers" on eight professors and 14 universities for their political positions on the Middle East, particularly pro-Palestinian sentiment and criticism of Israel. A Big Brother "Keep Us Informed" on-line questionnaire openly sought to solicit more dossiers.
One target of "Campus Watch" was Ammiel Alcalay, a Hebrew professor at Queens College. "It's that whole mode of terror by association, with the Cold War language of dossiers, and we're watching you," said Alcalay. "It's not so intimidating for people like me, with tenure, but it makes graduate students and untenured professors very nervous, and makes it even harder to talk about Israel." (New York Times, Sept. 27)
It doesn't take a Ph.D. to figure out where the Middle East Forum stands politically. Here's how its own web site describes the institution: "The Middle East Forum, a think tank, works to define and promote American interests in the Middle East.
"The Forum holds that the United States has vital interests in the region; in particular, it believes in strong ties with Israel, Turkey, and other democracies as they emerge; works for human rights throughout the region; seeks a stable supply and a low price of oil; and promotes the peaceful settlement of regional and international disputes."
The "Campus Watch" web site appeared on the information highway just one day after Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers delivered a well-publicized speech denouncing the campaign to divest from Israel as anti-Semitic.
That accusation drew outrage across the country and around the world. And so did the Middle East Forum web site.
According to the Times, "In a show of solidarity with those named on the Web site, nearly 100 outraged professors nationwide--Jews and non-Jews, English professors and Middle East specialists--have responded to the site by asking to be added to the list."
Judith Butler, a comparative literature professor at Berkeley, circulated her response on the Internet. "I have recently learned that your organization is compiling dossiers on professors at U.S. 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 U.S. 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 whose names are listed on the site expressed how buoyed they felt by the display of unity. "It's a new genre springing up, and I'm especially glad that it includes Jewish scholars," said Professor Hamid Dabashi, who heads Columbia University's department of Middle Eastern and Asian language and cultures. "This is about McCarthyism, freedom of expression."