BOB EDWARDS, host: Over the past few months the conflict in the Middle East has spilled onto America's university campuses. The debate has become heated at Harvard, where deep divisions have arisen among students and faculty. In May 283 professors signed a petition calling on Harvard to cut off financial ties to Israel. This led President Lawrence Summers last month to warn against anti-Semitism on campus. Now professors and students on both sides say they feel they're being silenced in the very place where free ideas should flourish. Geneive Abdo reports.
GENEIVE ABDO reporting:
One evening earlier this month, Harvard Students for Israel invited a Jewish activist who grew up in Egypt to talk about the hardships Jews face in the Arab world. It could have been a routine talk like the dozens of others held at Harvard every day, but this event inflamed emotions, shattering the cozy atmosphere that night at the Lowell House dormitory.
Unidentified Man#1: If the riches were not there, Egypt would have been with Hitler fighting, because they were pro-Nazi. And Anwar Sadat was in prison for ...(unintelligible).
Unidentified Man#2: Like Shamir maybe.
Unidentified Man#1: But you know what ...(unintelligible).
Unidentified Man#2: You are.
Unidentified Man#1: You don't know me. You don't know me.
Unidentified Man#2: I've listened to basically this piece of lies...
Unidentified Man#1: But you know ...(unintelligible).
Unidentified Man#2: ...from beginning to end.
ABDO: By the next morning, word of the activist talk was spreading through the campus. Rita Hamad, a leader in the Society of Arab Students, was receiving calls from members complaining about the speech. At noon, Rita ducked into the tranquility of the Harvard Coop, the bookstore where students read while listening to classical music, to reflect upon the evening's talk.
Ms. RITA HAMAD (Society of Arab Students): The reason they brought him was to, like, again, like, delegitimize what we've been trying to say. And in our support of the Palestinians and going against the Israeli government by, like, showing that we're anti-Semitic, they're trying to show that our motives, you know, are not political or, you know, humanitarian or anything. But it's purely, like--they're trying to say that we're racist basically because we have a history of racism, which isn't true.
ABDO: It's events like this which faculty and students say are undermining Harvard's tradition of open debate and the free exchange of ideas. And they point to similar trends on other campuses, including the creation of a pro-Israeli Web site designed to track the remarks of professors nationwide who oppose Israel's treatment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.
Here at Harvard, the controversy has focused in part on the divestment petition. Professor Paul Hanson was one of the signatories of the petition calling for the sale from the university endowment of an estimated $600 million of investments in Israel. It was the first time that such a petition was signed at Harvard about the Middle East. Hanson became a target among his colleagues. A law professor sent him a letter calling him a bigot. At the June commencement, one of his students refused to accept a diploma from his hand. And now Hanson receives e-mails calling him the Osama bin Laden of Harvard.
Professor PAUL HANSON (Harvard): I don't like to be called an anti-Semite. I'm being labeled that very broadly now according to all the e-mail that keeps coming in every day by people that have never read a single word of my writings, never have talked to me, never have seen me.
ABDO: Hanson says that while he is a tenured professor and therefore secure in his job, such threats are intimidating younger faculty members who are too afraid to speak out.
Prof. HANSON: I don't know that someone without tenure would be able to take that same position unless this were a superhero. There would be a very strong temptation not to express one's civil duty to speak out critically of our government. And that attacks the basic principle of a democracy, because academic freedom is just an extension of what is the right to freedom of speech throughout the society. And I do think that since the McCarthy era we haven't seen such an assault on academic freedom and freedom of speech as we are seeing right now.
ABDO: But supporters of Israel say the professors who signed the divestment petition are engaging in anti-Semitism, and this is why they're under attack. Ruth Wisse is a professor of Near Eastern languages and culture. She is openly critical of her colleagues who are challenging Israel's policies toward the Palestinians and Arabs in general.
Professor RUTH WISSE (Harvard): If you organize such a position, you are taking an active position against something and you are holding the Jews responsible for misery that the Arab world has created and that the Arab world consciously fosters. This is the height of anti-Semitism.
ABDO: Wisse says that despite criticism from her and other like-minded professors and students, no one is trying to stifle free expression. The reason tensions are running so high now is simply that supporters of Israel are finally defending themselves.
Prof. WISSE: No one is denying anyone's right to speak. It's just that the people who speak against Israel think they should have a free ride. They think that they should be able to criticize Israel and, 'What? Are there really Jews who are going to object to this?' The comedy of it all is that these people thought that they could just attack, attack, attack us. And now when you see that there's a little bit of resistance taking place, my goodness, they all say, 'Well, you know, this is trying to silence us.' Oh, is it? ABDO: University officials say there is no reason for faculty or students to be concerned that the charged atmosphere will stifle academic freedom. So far, they say there is no evidence that the debate is altering what is taught in the classroom. But Reverend Peter Gomes, who presides over Harvard's Memorial Church, felt the situation had become so grave that he used his pulpit earlier this month to warn that, as he put it, 'moral arrogance must not lead to the quashing of free expression.'
Reverend PETER GOMES (Harvard Memorial Church): Unpopular opinions have become even more unpopular in recent times at Harvard and that troubles me. We seem to have lost the mechanism by which strong and differing views can be stated and dealt with in a pluralistic community. The irony is that the more pluralistic we become, which we uphold as a virtue, the less easy it is to have that frank and open conversation which pluralism was designed to serve.
ABDO: Like many at Harvard, Reverend Gomes says he's worried that the conflict in the Middle East could cause tensions on campus to escalate further amid the looming threat of war against Iraq. Already, there are signs of an anti-war campaign on campus. Owen Murphy stands in front of the science center, calling on his fellow students, over the sound of a flowing fountain, to oppose an attack on Iraq.
Mr. OWEN MURPHY (Harvard): Take a stand ...(unintelligible) how we allow this kind of endless war. Tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands have already been mass murdered.
ABDO: In the past, Harvard has survived crises and controversies with its academic traditions intact. But now many fear that extremists on both sides have gone too far to turn back.
For NPR News, this is Geneive Abdo in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
EDWARDS: The time is 29 minutes past the hour.