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More McCarthyism Aimed Against Academic Freedom and Dissent

Organizations like Amcha Initiative deliberately conflate any contestation of Israeli state policies with anti-Semitism, indulging in the intimidation and harassment of academics who disagree with their outlook.

"Anti-zionism is not anti-semitism. Stop Israel!" A protest sign against Israel in Norrmalm, Stockholm. (Photo: Jeremiah Roth / Flickr)

Recently Truthout featured a piece by Chip Gibbons entitled, “‘Are You Now or Have You Ever Been a Signatory to a Boycott of Israel?’ The BDS Movement and the Return of McCarthyism.” In it, he outlines the censorious measures taken against those who support BDS, most particularly academic organizations such as the Association for Asian American Studies, the American Studies Association and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association. Gibbons mentions the legislation put forward in New York and Maryland (note that this also occurred in Illinois, Florida, Pennsylvania, Kansas and South Carolina), as well as the actions of the Jewish Community Center to vet and censor artistic and cultural performances.

Another practice that smacks of McCarthyism is the misuse of state and federal law to pressure universities to restrict criticism of Israel on campus. In a previous piece I wrote of the use of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to stifle and punish protests on campus under the pretense that such protests harm the feelings of “Jewish students.” In its rejection of the vast majority of such complaints, the US Department of Education declared that the kinds of protest events that were the basis of complaint “constitute expression on matters of public concern directed to the University community. In the university environment, exposure to such robust and discordant expressions, even when personally offensive and hurtful, is a circumstance that a reasonable student in higher education may experience.”

One of the most active groups that have been monitoring college and university campuses for any hint of criticism of Israel has called for the investigation and interrogation of teachers suspected of engaging in anti-Semitic behavior. The Amcha Initiative says its mission is “to investigate, document, educate about, and combat anti-Semitic behavior on college and university campuses in America and the institutional structures that legitimize it and allow it to flourish.” Its objectives are “to investigate and document the problem of campus anti-Semitism in our extensive database and through investigative reports; to organize and carry out campaigns to address campus anti-Semitism that include communicating with university, state and federal leaders about the problem and possible solutions, engaging grassroots activists, and collaborating with other legal and educational organizations; to educate the Jewish community and the general public about the problem of anti-Semitism on college and university campuses; [and] to foster grassroots activism to act locally and nationally to combat campus anti-Semitism across the country.” The problem is that in many cases, here as elsewhere, “anti-Semitism” is a code word that covers any criticism of Israel – a legitimate complaint against ethnic and religious prejudice is appropriated as a kind of Trojan horse to disarm political criticism.

In a letter to the University of California Board of Regents, the National Lawyers Guild described the ways Amcha tends to operate:

They concoct demonstrably false narratives about specific campus events involving criticism of Israeli government policies, describing them as if they targeted, even violently so, Jewish students. They then paint an overall picture of campuses in which Jewish students are under constant attack in a pervasively hostile environment – in direct contradiction of actual surveys of those students, who overwhelmingly report the opposite. They write to UC chancellors and CSU presidents, citing falsified events, to demand that they condemn the speech of advocates for Palestinian rights and shut down their campus organizations. They attack academic freedom of faculty members by similarly mischaracterizing expressions of personal views and pretending that the faculty purport to represent official university positions; and by proffering outlandish accusations against academic departments that sponsor speakers with whom they disagree, or that affiliate with academic associations that adopt certain positions on important issues.

A prime example of this kind of harassment is the case of Dr. Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi, an associate professor of Ethnic Studies/Race and Resistance Studies at San Francisco State University. In a letter signed by the Amcha Initiative, StandWithUs and others, the authors assert that Abdulhadi went on a “political solidarity tour” to Jordan, “1948 areas of Palestine” (i.e. Israel) and the West Bank, “a trip whose primary purpose was to build relationships between Palestinian and North American anti-Israel political activists in order to promote anti-Semitic academic, cultural and economic boycotts of Israel. Abdulhadi arranged for the delegation she led, which included SFSU Ethnic Studies Professor Joanne Barker and Abdulhadi’s husband Jaime Veve, to meet with at least one known terrorist, Leila Khaled, as well as with a Muslim cleric who had been imprisoned by Israel because of his ties to Hamas and who was again incarcerated by Israel a few weeks after meeting with Abdulhadi’s delegation, on charges of incitement to violence.”

Abdulhadi, on the other hand, describes her trip as involving her participation in “an international conference and to research, network, and collaborate with potential university partners towards a possible memorandum of understanding between San Francisco State University (SFSU) and Palestinian universities. My stated intention to research and network with scholars in the region and throughout the world is a legitimate and important use of state funding. As Senior Scholar at the Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Initiative (AMED), it is part of my job duties to establish educational and research collaboration on Palestine and between Palestinians in the US and elsewhere in the world. Research and discussion between actors in the US and Palestine is fundamental to my scholarship. It is one of the reasons why SFSU hired me in the first place. These relationships also create academic opportunities for students and my fellow faculty members at SFSU. I am also committed to nurturing AMED as a site for community engagement and knowledge production toward social justice – another reason why I was recruited for this position.”

As for her meeting with Khaled, Abdulhadi says, “Khaled is a Palestinian feminist icon. She is therefore relevant to my research and pedagogy, both of which aim to revise Palestinian women’s studies by critiquing conventional wisdom within the feminist canon. In my courses, I aim to provide a counter narrative to the orientalist depictions of Palestinian, and other Arab and Muslim, women as weak and docile – and men as bloodthirsty and misogynist. To this end, I screen several films including ‘Leila Khaled: Hijacker?’ and open these classes to the public.”

The university administration has supported Abdulhadi’s portrayal of the facts. In his May 28 report to the SFSU president, Dr. Ken Monteiro, dean of the College of Ethnic Studies, wrote:

Though confident in what we had originally authorized, I reviewed Dr. Abdulhadi’s travel claim and it is correct and appropriate. We hired Dr. Abdulhadi explicitly for her work in Palestine and with Palestinians in the Diaspora including, but not limited to, the USA. Her travel involved meetings and discussions with people who are related to her research. Her past, current and in preparation publications evidence publicly that her travel is the basis for her scholarship, scholarship that is internationally regarded.

The Abdulhadi case is certainly not the only one. The Amcha Initiative has made similarly frivolous complaints regarding campus speech critical of Israeli policies. Each of these complaints was either appropriately ignored or dismissed promptly by authorities. These include complaints to:

While it is heartening to see the defeat of such acts of intimidation and harassment, it is disturbing to see the price academics who disagree with Amcha and its ilk have to pay.

Colleges and universities are supposed to be places where there is a free flow of diverse ideas and perspectives. Few of us would object to administrators protecting students from emotional harm, yet most of us, I would hope, would see through the pretense of these acts of McCarthyism, which cynically affix “anti-Semitism” to all those who dare to protest Israeli state policies. In so doing, they impinge upon the academic freedom of these teachers and create a chilly and repressive climate on campus.

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