Israeli academic Neve Gordon was not too bothered by the image of himself transmuting into Hitler posted on Masada2000 - a website containing a "hitlist" of 7,000 people it deems "enemies of the Israeli state". He says: "I didn't take it seriously. It was totally pornographic."
More worrying, says Gordon, a professor of politics at Ben Gurion University, is that such sites have the same audience as the less sensational right-wing websites that target academics who express views sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. They also share, he says, a myopia about the nuances of the Middle East debate.
Campus Watch, in the US, and Israel Academic Monitor, in Israel, post articles that attack academics' work, encourage donors to these academics' institutions to withdraw funding and urge universities either to sack the academics or to thwart their progress up the career ladder - all in the name of free speech.
Gordon, who is on sabbatical at the University of California, Berkeley, has been targeted by both websites. He says that the Israeli site, written in English, is failing to have a big impact. "It is asking students to become collaborators and to report professors, but it needs a broader Hebrew audience." In contrast, Campus Watch, a slick site sponsored by the Middle East Forum in the US, has, according to Gordon and other US academics, strongly contributed to the post 9/11 campaigns to discredit left-wing academics.
Joseph Massad, assistant professor in modern Arab politics at Columbia University, New York, is at the sharp end of the pro-Israeli groups' zero tolerance approach. His bid for tenure is being opposed. He says: "The Campus Watch website appears to be the first salvo in a much larger campaign targeting US universities and especially academics doing work on the Middle East who have critical views of the policies of the state of Israel and of US Middle East policy. Since then, there have been more protracted campaigns, the latest of which is one targeting me that is spearheaded by a Boston-based Zionist group called the David Project and the right-wing newspaper the New York Sun. The campaign has led a congressman to ask Columbia to fire me."
Rachid Khalidi, professor of Arab studies at the Middle East Institute at Columbia and an American of Palestinian origin, has also been targeted by Campus Watch. He has a taped phone message that says: "Khalidi, Columbia, alumni love Campus Watch because they keep an eye on thugs like you. We have our eye on you. You'd better watch out."
Khalidi believes the aim of Campus Watch is to have a "chilling effect" on free speech - a term echoed by two other academics targeted by the website, Eric Foner, professor of history at Columbia and Yvonne Haddad, professor of the history of Islam at the Center for Muslim Christian Understanding at Georgetown University. Foner says: "The purpose of these sites is intimidation, not information. Encouraging students to report on comments professors make that they deem unfair or unpatriotic could have a chilling effect on education."
Khalidi adds: "There is a dearth of proper debate in the media and politics about the Middle East. The only place where these views can be found is in academia. They want to shut down this last window."
Khalidi claims Campus Watch is closely linked to a wider campaign of actions against so-called pro-Palestinian academics. He cites the recent attempt by some members of Congress to push through a law threatening funding to universities whose faculties do not stick to the defence of US government policies; changes in grant proposals demanded by rich university funders, such as the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, to affirm that beneficiaries do not support terrorism; and the back-door (recess) nomination of Daniel Pipes, founder of Campus Watch, to the government-funded United States Institute of Peace - an event, according to Foner, that proved the US Administration "at least retains a sense of irony".
Pipes, who is also director of the Middle East Forum, recently stood down from the board of USIP, which makes key research grants to academics working in Middle East studies, saying that "at times I felt frustrated".
Khalidi is delighted at the development and also pleased that key members of the institute attacked Pipes publicly for objecting to the institute hosting a conference with the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy last year.
But Khalidi concedes that academics can do little against the power of neoconservatives such as Pipes and the extensive and rich networks of pro-Israeli groups, such as the new Israel on Campus Coalition.
Pipes, for his part, succinctly defends Campus Watch's mission to "alert outsiders about the problems in Middle East studies and to challenge Middle East studies specialists to think about their field". He says the aim is "to improve and balance, not to cause anyone to lose a job". Asked if he is fuelling an unhealthy bias in the US media, he says: "You must be kidding", then refers to the website of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, which gives examples of numerous anti-Israeli reports.
The driving force behind the Israel Academic Monitor website is more forthcoming in his defence of his group's work. Steven Plaut, professor of economics at Haifa University, refers to his crusade against "the crazies" using the classroom "to impose their extremism on their students" and as a "bully pulpit for their political agendas". And he names US academic Noam Chomsky as an example of such people "who passionately hate their country".
To which Chomsky, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, replies: "He is borrowing from the lexicon of totalitarianism: Soviet dissidents were accused of 'passionately hating their country' because of their criticism of state policies. For the totalitarian mind, the state is identified with the country, its culture and its people."
Gordon is suing Plaut for libel for, he says, alleging that he is a Holocaust denier. Plaut denies libel and his supporters accuse Gordon of censoring free speech.
However, Gordon and other Israeli academics say that debate in Israel is far healthier than in the US. Khalidi comments that many Israeli journalists would not be published in American newspapers.
Anat Biletzki, chair of philosophy at Tel Aviv University, says that only a handful of radicals are really targeted by the Right, but adds that there is self-censorship. She gives an example of such "undercurrents of McCarthyism". "I was called to the dean when two students complained about me sneaking politics into my teaching. The university constitution says we are perfectly within our rights to talk politics in class. Two weeks later the rector called me up to say he had heard I talked politics in class. He said 'in times such as these we have to think twice about everything we say'. I said 'in times such as these there are things that have to be said'."
For now, European academics critical of Israeli government policies work in a less intimidating environment. Anoush Ehteshami, director of Durham University's Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, says the debate is more polarised in the US than anywhere else. "I have lots of contacts with colleagues here and in Finland, Germany and France. None of them has complained of intimidation."
Ehteshami says the "poisoned atmosphere" in the US since 9/11 is deterring UK academics from applying for posts across the pond. He knows two, but refuses to name them. "They don't want pressure to be 'patriotic'," he says.
But he adds that resistance to the neocons is taking hold, a view confirmed by Lynne Segal, professor of psychology at Birkbeck, London University, and a member of the international group Faculty for Israeli/Palestinian Peace as well as Jews for Justice for Palestinians in Britain. Such groups campaign in the name of academics who find themselves threatened, holding seminars and conferences and distributing their views to a wide audience.
"I think intimidation is possible. These are very troubling developments and we need to be watchful," Segal says.
Ehteshami says that, for now, inquiries by students about his political views are just "inquiries, not a challenge". He adds: "This is a witch-hunt that compromises academic integrity and freedom that, ironically, in the past the US was very proud of. God forbid it happens in the UK."
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