Last summer my neighbor took a course on the Arab-Israeli conflict from a professor who grew up in the Occupied Territories. On the first day of class her professor acknowledged that although he supported a bi-state solution, his sympathies lay with the Palestinian position in the conflict. During the semester he provided a thorough historical background to the conflict, encouraged discussion, and provided both Zionist and Palestinian texts in the syllabus. This is exactly the type of professor who should be teaching a class on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But if the controversial new Web site Campus Watch succeeds in its mission, professors like my neighbor¹s may no longer feel welcome at American universities. According to the pro-Israel Middle East Forum, the organization behind Campus Watch, "Middle East studies in the United States has become the preserve of Middle Eastern Arabs, who have brought their views with them." They label these views anti-American, alleging that "American scholars of the Middle East, to varying degrees, reject the views of most Americans and the enduring policies of the U.S. government about the Middle East." Campus Watch plans to solve this "problem" by monitoring Middle East studies on campus. Their Big Brother approach: use students to "gather information" on their professors so the Middle East Forum can "critique" these specialists and determine how Middle East studies is taught.
In September the site posted "dossiers" on professors or universities that were vocal advocates for Palestinian rights or potentially aligned with Islamic extremism. When that was greeted with charges of McCarthyism, the "dossiers" were removed, but not the invitation to "Keep Us Informed" and submit reports on Middle East-related scholarship, lectures, classes, demonstrations, and other activities.
Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, says that Campus Watch was created out of concern "about the focus on Israel and hostility toward Israel" on campuses. Pipes is right to be concerned. Anti-Israel activity is indeed on the rise on campus. But the disturbing tactics employed by Campus Watch are contrary to the very essence of a liberal education. According to Campus Watch the only good academic is one unwaveringly loyal to U.S. foreign policy. Is this the kind of professor you want?
Universities, as centers of learning, are meant to challenge our inherited ideologies, generate new ideas, and help us to define and articulate our individual beliefs. An oppressively one-sided class, from either perspective, can not enlighten. There are contending views on the history of the Middle East, views that any worthwhile course must acknowledge. If you don¹t agree with the lesson, challenge the professor. If the class stifles dissent or is inaccurate, petition the administration to start another section with a different emphasis. Just don¹t be fooled into thinking that reporting your professor to Campus Watch will contribute to a less biased curriculum.
Of course, it¹s not always easy to learn from a perspective that contradicts one¹s beliefs. An Israeli friend of mine recently took a course at an American university on the history of the modern Middle East. His Turkish professor was sympathetic to the Arab viewpoint. In class, my Israeli friend challenged the professor repeatedly, but he did not drop the class, and ultimately he learned a great deal. Demonizing the other side does not teach us anything; nor does listening only to like-minded people. We already know where we¹ve come from: unless we learn from and freely challenge other perspectives, we are not truly students.