Daniel Pipes is a pencil-neck, an American policy wonk, an academic and polemicist. Tall and gaunt, with a long, sad face, his manner is low-key and his pro-Israel opinions far from incendiary, if unappealing to many. Only in the timid groves of academe, where the politics of the Middle East are so firmly tilted toward romanticizing the Palestinian intifadah, could he ever be considered a radical and a controversial speaker.
But Pipes put York University back on its heels last week, with the institution very nearly caving to a fierce campaign which would have prevented the author and occasional TV talking head from speaking on campus, at the invitation of York's Jewish Federation of Students. It was largely at the intervention of the Canadian Jewish Congress that York's administration permitted the scheduled appearance to go ahead yesterday, albeit moved from the (independently run) Student Centre to a gym in the athletic building, where several security cameras were installed specifically to record the event, lest any confrontation ensue between supporters and detractors.
No such thing happened, and Pipes' critics generally restrained themselves, with a few affixing black electrician's tape across their mouths — this, apparently, in protest against what they consider Pipes' attempts to gag criticism of Israel on American campuses, although the irony of similarly trying to shut up Pipes was apparently lost on these scolds. Outside the building, about 100 protesters did the usual chanting thing, further inflamed by the arrival of mounted police officers, there to ensure that the demonstration didn't get out of hand, à la Concordia University, where seething anti-Israel sentiments led to angry clashes last summer and ultimately resulted in the cancellation of an appearance by former Israel prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — a low point for free speech in this country but a huge victory for increasingly antagonistic Muslim student groups.
Pipes is director of the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum. He also founded an outfit called Campus Watch, which monitors what he considers anti-American and anti-Israel (and anti-Semitic) activities on American campuses, including aggressive Palestinian proselytizing by professors, the investing of honorary degrees upon extremists, and the withholding of tenure against those who speak on behalf of Israel.
Academia is La-La Land, of course, which is one of its attractions. But while Pipes' methodical cataloguing of anti-Israel expression on campuses is distasteful — as are all Media Watch campaigns that vigorously track alleged bias on every issue from TV violence to sexual objectification to dozens of other pet peeve issues — it's hardly an unreasonable or unexpected response to the overwhelming anti-Israel campaigns that have become common subtexts around the world. It might behoove Israel-bashers, for instance, to condemn the entrenched curriculum in most Arab countries where Israel doesn't even exist on schoolroom maps and where virulent anti-Semitism is taught from kindergarten to university.
The Concordia scandal aside, Canada has largely been unaffected by academic chill, whereby voices of dissent or unpopular opinions are frozen out and silenced. I like to think that's testament to our continuing high regard for energetic debate and a recognition of diversity on campus.
Surely universities are, by definition, open-minded and respectful of freewheeling opinion. Students should be idealistic, they should believe in a finer world, and they should be able to express themselves in a manner which would not be acceptable anywhere else, without fear of getting clobbered by the cops or roughed up by those in opposition or intimidated by the apparatus of the state. They're supposed to shout at one another and get all passionate and march to the president's office (as they did yesterday at York U) and burn their draft cards. Oh, wait, there is no military draft, not here and not in the U.S. But you take my point.
How is it, then, that gagging free speech — the right to express opinions that don't coincide with one's own — has become a rallying point at so many universities around the world? And much worse than that, much more institutionalized, more palpably intolerant than that.
In Manchester last year, two academics from a pair of university-based journals were sacked because they also happened to work at Israeli universities. In defending that decision, Mona Baker — a professor of linguistics at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology — said the two academics were fired not because of their nationality (they were Israelis) but because of their professional association with those Israeli universities. So, denying a job to an Israeli might be unacceptable, in Ms. Baker's confusing view, but firing them because they happen to teach at an Israeli university is quite all right.
If Ms. Baker was a lone academic nut bar, this would not be so alarming. But she's part of a much larger and more dangerous movement of sanctimonious pointy-heads who seek, by their own admission, the moral and academic isolation of Israel, specifically because they disapprove of Israel's conduct towards Palestinians.
It was two English professors, trashing the very notion of academic freedom, who launched a very effective academic boycott of all Israeli institutions last year. More than 700 academics worldwide signed on to the boycott, begun by Manchester Open University professor Steven Rose in a letter to the Guardian newspaper. Britain's Association of University Teachers responded eagerly, not just condemning what they characterized as Israeli aggression but backing the boycott motion. And it doesn't matter if the Israeli academics who suffer professionally from such a boycott were themselves critical of Israeli policy, as indeed the two fired Manchester academics were.
It's to the credit of British students that they came out, full-force, in opposition to the boycott. The National Union of Students attacked the boycott, and the sacking of the two academics, as inherently "racist." Said Mandy Telford, president of the NSU: "We wouldn't support the infringement of (people) being able to study because of where they live and where they are."
Students have much to teach their teachers — and that would include those York academics who threw their weight behind the campaign to muzzle Daniel Pipes.
They're unfit to teach anybody anything — unless intolerance and totalitarianism are now university credits.