An anti-Semitic atmosphere
On September 17, 2002, Harvard President Larry Summers delivered his traditional remarks in honor of the beginning of the academic year. However, in an admittedly unprecedented fashion, Summers decided to come out against the burgeoning anti-Semitism among academic communities.
Summers described himself as “Jewish, identified but hardly devout,” and said that anti-Semitism had always been remote from his experience, adding that he had long been wary of those who raise the specter of anti-Semitism in response to any disagreement over Israel.
He explained, however, that he felt forced to speak out publicly against anti-Semitism for the first time due to the upturn in anti-Semitism on campuses, and the attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state by comparing it to Nazi Germany and the calls for academic and economic boycotts against it. Whereas in Europe the anti-Semitism that has risen drastically in the past five years has been expressed in violent incidents, attacks on synagogues and Jewish institutions as well attacks in the media, but far less so in the universities, in the United States and Canada, an anomalous situation has come into being: Anti-Semitism in American streets and cities or in the press is virtually nonexistent, while the campuses there have turned into throbbing centers of anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic activity.
Many feel that the calm during demonstrations and in recently emerging public expressions of anti-Semitism on the American campuses is a cover for its malignant spread on the intellectual level.
The subject was first raised in a debate recently held by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, an independent body that looks into complaints of civil discrimination and makes recommendations to the president and Congress. Representatives of Jewish organizations that participated in the debate warned against the proliferation of anti-Semitism on campuses.
A new book was discussed, “The UnCivil University: Politics and Propaganda in American Education,” which is based on a study and interviews conducted in universities. The book presents a sad and disturbing picture of anti-Semitism disguised as an academic debate about the Middle East. Dr. Gary Tobin, one of the book’s authors and president of the Institute for Jewish & Community Research, San Francisco, explained that the main problem today does not lie in open or blatant anti-Semitism, but rather in atmospheres and teaching styles.
“The academic debate on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is framed in the politics of racial discrimination, and this is why it has so much currency on campuses,” says Tobin. “Jews are the white, colonialist oppressors and the Palestinians are the brown victims of colonization. So to be a white Jew in support of Israel you risk being branded as a racist. And that accusation is more insidious on a day-to-day basis than any mass rally.”
The study presents reports of insults and humiliations suffered by Jewish students due to their support for Israel, and describes how Jewish faculty members that support Israel are being forced out. In a corresponding debate held in the U.S. Senate last week, there was discussion of the anti-Israeli atmosphere that prevails in centers for Middle Eastern studies in American universities, some of which are funded by Arab money.
The hostile style forged by the late Professor Edward Said persists at Columbia University, and includes personal attacks involving Nazi images on individual students in the classroom who are accused of killing Arab children. In addition, maps of the Middle East from which Israel’s name has been expunged are used in these study centers as a matter of course.
In discussions held by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the Senate, particularly outstanding were the participants who spoke about the importance of maintaining the proper balance between freedom of academic speech and the need for protection against anti-Semitic incitement.
The Jewish community in the United States and Canada has been trying in recent years to attain a balance in the Middle Eastern studies departments by founding chairs for Israel studies, but is also demanding that institutions that are supported by federal funding strictly maintain conceptual pluralism in the academic debate, as required by law.
Thus, Jewish organizations are suddenly finding themselves facing difficult dilemmas involving academic freedom, on the one hand, and the need to fight anti-Semitism and the continuing trend of delegitimization of the State of Israel in an academic context, on the other