The feud between a pro-Israel media watchdog and a University of Michigan professor is fueling claims of Jewish attempts to silence criticism of Jerusalem and academic misdeeds on the part of pro-Palestinian professors.
The president of the Middle East Media Research Institute, Yigal Carmon, has threatened to file suit against Juan Cole, a professor of Middle Eastern history, and the University of Michigan unless he retracts postings on his blog about the institute's alleged political affiliations and the extent of its funding.
Known by its acronym, Memri, the institute is a six-year-old organization that translates selections from the Arab and Iranian media and distributes them to media outlets and policymakers.
Earlier this month, Cole wrote that the institute was working "essentially on behalf of the far right-wing Likud Party in Israel" and receives $60 million in funding a year — two claims fiercely rejected by Carmon in a November 8 letter to the University of Michigan professor threatening legal action.
Carmon, a former counter-terrorism adviser to two Israeli prime ministers, says that neither he nor his group has an affiliation with any political party; Carmon was publicly opposed to the Oslo peace process during the 1990s, but he never has been affiliated with any Israeli party. Tax filings show that Memri had annual revenues of less than $2 million in 2002.
Carmon's threat against Cole comes as the debate on campuses across the nation, and particularly in Middle East studies departments, over the limits of debate on Israel. The David Project, an Israel advocacy organization, screened a movie at Columbia University in October documenting alleged instances of intimidation against Jewish students by some of Columbia's Middle East studies professors.
On his blog, "Informed Comment," Cole has harshly criticized Israel's actions in the territories. But unlike other pro-Palestinian professors who have come under criticism, Cole has not publicly questioned Israel's right to exist, nor has hecondoned terrorism. He opposed the a boycott of Israeli academics.
Cole characterized Carmon's threat of a lawsuit as an effort to quiet political dissent over Israel.
"They are basically people who want as much of the West Bank as they can get," said Cole, the recently elected president of the Middle East Studies Association. "Having a Web site like mine, which is providing a different perspective on the Middle East, is worrisome to them."
Carmon disputed that claim, saying the issue is the factual accuracy of Cole's work, not his political views. "He is free to disagree with us," the president of Memri said, "but he has to describe our work accurately."
Memri's main work, which is used by many prominent journalists, involves translating news items from Middle Eastern media sources. In the posting that landed him in trouble with Memri, Cole accused the institute of only translating items that show intolerance in the Arab world, while ignoring more moderate voices.
Carmon countered that the institute also translates voices favoring reform in the Arab world.
Two years ago, Cole threatened his own lawsuit, against Campus Watch, for putting up a dossier of his work on its Web site. The dossier has since been removed, but during the time it was up, Cole says, his e-mail accounts were cyber-attacked.
Now Carmon says that Cole's writing is causing similar attacks on the Memri Web site. Cole asked readers to write a "polite" email to Memri asking it to "withdraw the lawsuit threat and to respect the spirit of the free sharing of ideas that makes the Internet possible."