Director’s Column: Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israelism in the News October 2009

The new release of The Uncivil University, Revised Edition (affectionately known to aficionados as “UU2”) comes at both a difficult and auspicious time. For all of the advantages which Jewish college students now enjoy (Jewish studies programs, Jewish student groups, Israel study options, etc.), anti-Semitic incidents continue to surge on many campuses. This would not be possible without the steady loss of two systems of norms. UU2 documents the erosion of campus civility norms which previously prevented the expression of such animus in higher education. At the same time, we have seen an assault on external civil and human rights norms which simultaneously demonizes Israel and denies Jewish students equal protection in education. This politicization has been essential to preventing Jewish students and faculty from resisting a problem which should be universally condemned. The importance and widespread character of this problem can be seen in the events of recent weeks, but so can elements of progress. Even while anti-Israelists harden their position within the university, some outside the university have begun to recognize how social institutions and bodies of work are manipulated to level attacks against the Jewish state.

The anti-Israel industry depends upon repeatedly marginalizing anyone who speaks out against anti-Semitism on college campuses. This can be seen, for example, in the recent Tikkun martyrology, “The Trial of Israel’s Campus Critics,” penned by two University of California professors, David Theo Goldberg and Saree Makdisi. “The tactics of the Israel Lobby,” they charge, “plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth.” The authors’ contempt for those who disagree is evident, and sweeping charges of duplicity against supporters of Israel call into attention to their own levels of intolerance. This has, unfortunately, been a persistent theme of campus anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism. Those who speak out against these problems are invariably attacked as bullies, censors and worse. In the same way, a group of professors from elite universities, styling themselves as the “Ad Hoc Committee to Defend the University,” have attacked the “defenders of Israel” for “undermin[ing] academic freedom and subvert[ing] the norms of academic life.” According to the Committee’s petition, “subverting the norms of academic life” refers to attempts made to identify anti-Semitic harassment and create avenues of redress both within and outside the university. In other words, they argue that the university is undermined when Jewish students and faculty assert their right to an equal education free of discrimination.

Similarly, when two University of California at Santa Barbara students complained about a professor, William Robinson, who emailed their class a derogatory message about Israel, the anti-Israel crowd angrily denounced them for trying to restrict the professor’s academic freedom. The students reported feeling “violated” by the “intimidating” and “disgusting” email. When the UCSB academic senate began an investigation – which was later abruptly dropped under considerable pressure – a campaign to discredit the accusers swung into full gear. A “Committee to Defend Academic Freedom at UCSB” quickly launched a well-organized effort to smear these students and their supporters at outside civil rights and advocacy organizations. One professor insisted that those who criticize Robinson be “publicly condemned” – in the name of academic freedom! Another urged that “the attacks must be condemned to protect faculty and students from wasting valuable time and energy defending themselves…” Although all charges against Robinson were dropped – and nary so much as an apology extended to his students – Goldberg and Makdisi actually use this case to support their argument against the “Israel Lobby.”

Meanwhile, for some time the human rights discourse has been powerfully mounted against Israel in repeated attacks on its existence, legitimacy, and actions taken in self-defense. The most recent incident concerns Judge Richard Goldstone’s 500-page report to the United Nations Human Rights Council. The report has been widely criticized for its biased portrayal of Israel’s actions in Gaza. Nevertheless, the Human Rights Council approved the report earlier this month, and the General Assembly is scheduled to debate it on November 4. The Goldstone report is far from unique in human rights discourse and follows the lead of numerous non-governmental human rights organizations that have become little more than a platform from which to condemn Israel. The efforts of the so-called human rights monitors have provided extensive fodder for anti-Israelists on campus to continue to forward their campaign of demonization.

Yet one can see, even within the human rights community, a burgeoning recognition of the degree to which anti-Israelism infects otherwise productive and positive institutions and efforts. Observing that the Human Rights Council has ignored those of Goldstone’s findings that are critical of Hamas, Goldstone has tried to distance himself from the UN’s actions. Goldstone’s revelation resembles the recent denunciation that Human Rights Watch received from its founder. In an important New York Times op ed this month, HRW Founder Robert Bernstein criticized his organization for losing perspective in its relentless criticism of Israel. Both Goldstein and Bernstein may be accused of naïveté, but at least they have come to understand, albeit belatedly, how their work has been used to manipulate the discourse of human rights against the Jewish state. It is time for university leaders to do the same at their own institutions.

In the face of these intellectual currents, UU2 faces a daunting challenge but also a window of opportunity. It has documented a disturbing range of anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli incidents in higher education in the face of intense pressure to delegitimize anyone who takes note of anti-Semitism in academia. But it also builds upon an increasing recognition that even our most finest institutions and efforts can be turned into machines of political bias. Among those threatened by the agendas of anti-Israel devotees, no social institution is more important than the university. The question is whether university leaders and its stakeholders, in particular government policy-makers, will take notice and stop the erosion of university civility norms. Given the work of UU2, they can neither deny the problem nor seek refuge in ignorance.