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Israel’s War on American Universities

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Posted on Mar 16, 2014

By Chris Hedges

(Page 2)

The persecution of scholars such as Joseph Massad and Norman Finkelstein who challenge the official Israeli narrative has long been a feature of Israeli intervention in American academic life. And the eagerness of university presidents to denounce the American Studies Association call for an academic boycott of Israel is a window into the insatiable hunger for money that seems to govern university policy. The current effort to shut down student groups, however, raises traditional Israeli censorship and interference to a new level. Israel seeks now to openly silence free speech on American college campuses—all of these student groups have steadfastly engaged in nonviolent protests—and has enlisted our bankrupt liberal elites and college administrators as thought police.

The failure among academics to stand up for the right of these student groups to express dissenting views and engage in political activism is a sad commentary on how irrelevant most academics have become. Where, in this fight, are the constitutional law professors defending the right to free speech? Where are the professors of ethics, religion and philosophy reminding students about the right of all to a dignified life free of oppression? Where are the Middle Eastern studies professors explaining the historical consequences of Israel’s violent seizure of Palestinian land? Where are the journalism professors defending the right of dissidents and victims to a fair hearing in the press? Where are the professors of queer and gender studies, African-American studies, Native American studies or Chicano studies acting to protect the voices and dignity of the marginalized and oppressed?

This assault will not end with groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine. The refusal to hear the cries of the Palestinian people, especially those 1.5 million—60 percent of them children—who are trapped by the Israeli military in Gaza, is part of the wider campaign by right-wing operatives like Lynne Cheney and billionaires such as the Koch brothers to stamp out all programs and academic disciplines that give voice to the marginalized, especially those who are not privileged and white. Latinos, African-Americans, feminists, those in queer and gender studies also feel this pressure. Under a bill signed by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, books by leading Chicano authors have been banned from public schools in Tucson and elsewhere in Arizona on the ground that such ethnic studies promote “resentment toward a race or people.” It is language similar to what former Ambassador Oren has used to justify his call for criminal prosecutions of BDS activists—that they are advancing “bigotry.” The neoconservatism that grips Israel has its toxic counterpart within American culture. And if other marginalized groups within the university remain silent while Palestine solidarity activists are persecuted on campuses, there will be fewer allies when these right-wing forces come for them. And come they will.

Those of us who denounce the suffering caused by Israel and its war crimes against the Palestinians and who support the BDS movement are accustomed to sleazy Israeli smear campaigns. I have been repeatedly branded as an anti-Semite by the Israeli lobby, including for my book “War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning.” That some of these dissident voices, such as Max Blumenthal, who wrote “Goliath: Fear and Loathing in Greater Israel,” one of the best accounts of contemporary Israel, are Jewish does not seem to perturb right-wing Israeli propagandists who see any deviation from the Israeli government line as a form of religious heresy.

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“I have been on tour discussing my book, ‘Goliath,’ since October 2013,” said Blumenthal, with whom I spoke by phone.  “And on numerous occasions, Israel lobby groups and pro-Israel activists have attempted to pressure organizations into canceling my events before they took place. I have been slandered by teenage pro-Israel students, prominent magazine columnists and even Alan Dershowitz as an anti-Semite, and my family has been attacked in right-wing media simply for hosting a book party for me. The absurd lengths pro-Israel activists have gone to stop my journalism and analysis from reaching a wide audience perfectly illustrate their intellectual exhaustion and moral poverty. All they have left is loads of money to buy off politicians and the unlimited will to defend the only nuclearized apartheid state in the Middle East. As young Arabs and Muslims assert their presence on campuses across the country and Jewish Americans reel in disgust at Netanyahu’s Israel, we are witnessing pro-Israel forces wage a fighting retreat. The question is not whether they will win or lose, but how much damage they can do to free-speech rights on their way towards a reckoning with justice.”

“It would be heartening if prominent liberal intellectuals would agree with all of my conclusions, or would accept the legitimacy of BDS,” Blumenthal went on. “But the only reasonable expectation we can hold for them is that they speak up in defense of those whose free-speech rights and rights to organize are being crushed by powerful forces. Unfortunately, when those forces are arrayed in defense of Israel, too many liberal intellectuals are silent or, as in the case of Michael Kazin, Eric Alterman, Cary Nelson and a who’s who of major university presidents, they actively collaborate with fellow elites determined to crush Palestine solidarity activism through anti-democratic means.”

Hillel chapters, sadly, often function as little more than Israeli government and AIPAC campus outposts. This is true at Northeastern as well as at schools such as Barnard College and Columbia. And university presidents such as Barnard’s Debora Spar see nothing wrong with accepting Israel-lobby tours of Israel while Palestinian students must risk imprisonment and even death to study in the United States. The launching of campuswide defamation campaigns from supposedly religious houses is a sacrilege to the Jewish religion. In seminary I read enough of the great Hebrew prophets, whose singular concern was for the oppressed and the poor, to know that they would not be found today in Hillel centers but would instead be protesting with SJP activists.


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