Last week, the Office of Academic Affairs of the University of Texas System revised the regents' rules on faculty rights and responsibilities.
One of the revisions mandates that in the classroom, faculty members are "expected not to introduce into their teaching controversial matter that has no relation to his or her subject."
There were no accompanying guidelines defining what is controversial, nor was there a rationale for adopting the changes. It appears to be a hurried UT System response to the wave of censorship sweeping the United States and to incidents that have taken place at the University of Colorado, Columbia University and a few other institutions of higher learning.
A move to muzzle academics is well under way. Tenure, the only barrier preventing recrimination against faculty who teach and express their views on controversial issues, is also under attack.
Nowhere is this more evident than in Middle Eastern studies, where supporters of censorship have succeeded in pushing through the House of Representatives HR 3077, the International Studies in Higher Education Act. And although the act covers a host of international relations programs, it particularly scrutinizes Middle Eastern programs in the country.
Middle Eastern scholars are finding it very difficult to teach, write or lecture on U.S. foreign policy or Israeli politics. They are accused by those on the extreme right of "anti-Americanism" for criticizing U.S. foreign policy and by the supporters of Israel with "anti-Semitism" for criticizing Israel.
A number of Jewish organizations, irked by the uncensored exposure of Israeli policies in Palestine, accused Columbia University's Arab scholars of verbally abusing Jewish students and teaching anti-Semitic courses. The groups even made and distributed a documentary depicting what one called the "apologists for terror" in academia — as though opposing Israeli oppression of Palestinians is support for terrorism.
An independent university committee set up to investigate the charges against the four professors exonerated three of them of wrongdoing and found no evidence of any of the charges leveled against them. The committee found the fourth guilty of one instance of "inappropriate conduct." He is disputing the report. The committee also accused the small but vocal supporters of Israel with lack of civility and disruption of classes.
I am amazed at those who find it so easy to label people with different viewpoints as anti-American. A large number of Americans oppose President Bush's Middle East policy, and a substantial number loathe much of what he says or does. Is opposing wars predicated on dogma, lies and miserable decisions that needlessly consume American lives and wealth "anti-American"? I think not.
My astonishment is even greater when it comes to Israel. For goodness sake, most of the world recognizes the atrocities the Israeli state commits against the Palestinians.
Such Israeli policies need to be criticized and sanctioned by the U.S. government, not encouraged and rewarded. But for that to happen, a just U.S. government is needed, one that is brave enough to stand for what is right in all instances and not pick and choose, standing for what is right only when it serves its interest.
Criticism of Israeli policies is a far cry from anti-Semitism, and those who equate the two do a disservice to Israel and America. It has nothing to do with anti-Semitism and everything to do with civilized behavior and justice for an unjustly occupied people.
Furthermore, why should Palestinians or any Arab-American be forced to sing the praises of the Israeli state?
In this new era of intolerance, freedom of speech has become the primary target of the intolerant, and unless Americans are vigilant and support freethinking in institutions of higher learning, they will lose it.