Joan Wallach Scott: Accused of Partisanship in Middle East DebatesHistorians in the News
[This piece was co-written with Judith S. Jacobson and Richard Landes]
Joan Wallach Scott has recently taken a high-profile position on academic freedom and the Middle East conflict. Given her prominence in the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) and her reputation as a serious and subtle historian, her writings on the academic dimension of the Arab-Israeli conflict betray a troubling partisanship.
Scott is currently the Harold F. Linder Professor at the School of Social Science in the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, having been a professor of history at the University of North Carolina and at Brown University, where she was founding director of the Pembroke Center for Teaching and Research on Women. She has also played a major role in the AAUP as the chair of its prestigious Committee on Academic Freedom and Tenure.
Scott’s pronouncements are manifestoes in the culture war now paralyzing serious intellectual work on the problems that face democratic societies in the 21st century. A lengthy article by Scott, titled “Middle East Studies under Siege,” appears in the current issue of The Link, a publication of Americans for Middle East Understanding. A detailed point-by-point critique of the article can be found here.
Scott’s article purports to be a plea for the protection of academic freedom. The besiegers, according to Scott, are “the well-organized lobby…systematically attacking Middle East studies programs.” She detects “a pattern of coordinated actions, organized through networks that tie to, if not directly emanate from, the pro-Sharon, pro-occupation lobby.” This lobby, Scott claims, has bullied courageous academics who speak out against Israeli abuses of human rights, has tried to cancel fair and balanced conferences that might include criticism of Israel, and has had a “chilling” effect on academic freedom reminiscent, she says, of the McCarthy era.
The Link article consists of critiques of the U.S. Patriot Act and David Horowitz’s Academic Bill of Rights, plus a series of anecdotes about incidents on campuses in the past few years. Her descriptions of these events systematically exclude facts and contexts that conflict with her point of view. A few examples appear below; interested readers are encouraged to visit the URLs above to read Scott's article and to access documentation that Scott’s undocumented text ignores.
To illustrate aggression against Muslim students, she reports that:
A week after the [9/11] attacks, at Orange Coast College, in Costa Mesa, California, Professor Ken Hearlson, a conservative, born-again Christian, was accused of calling his Muslim students Nazis, terrorists and murderers. And there were other incidents of this kind.
Note her strange circumlocution -- “was accused of.” The University, in response to accusations from the Muslim students in question, suspended Hearlson. Later, a hearing, reviewing transcripts of tapes of the class in question, found him innocent, and reinstated him. By “other incidents of this kind,” Scott presumably means other incidents of conservative professors harassing Muslim students. But her anecdote actually illustrates the case of Muslim students harassing a professor who criticized Muslim extremism, and indeed, that event is hardly unique.
Take for example, the case of Professor Thomas Klocek. In September 2004, DePaul University suspended him without a hearing after he engaged in an argument with pro-Palestinian students at a student activities fair, and the students complained to an administrator. Other professors, including one at the University of Pennsylvania and one at Columbia University, have lost their jobs after receiving warnings from colleagues not to be too outspoken on behalf of Israel. These events are not on Scott’s list, even though they clearly represent threats to academic freedom.
However, she devotes seven paragraphs to the case of a professor accused of harassing pro-Israeli students at Columbia University. Her saga begins with the David Project, an “off-campus, pro-occupation activist group” that funded a student film, Columbia Unbecoming. In the film, students accuse faculty in Columbia’s Department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures of demonizing Israel and of attacking students who questioned that demonization. Joseph Massad, a Palestinian-American assistant (recently promoted to associate) professor, was the faculty member most prominently mentioned.
Scott implies that because the film has never been publicly screened, the charges are trumped up. Given her interest and her responsibilities as the champion of academic freedom at the AAUP, she should know that a complete text transcript of the film soundtrack is available here. She should also know that the film has not been publicly screened because some of the students who appear in the film are still afraid of reprisals, even though they have graduated. Those students who had the courage to speak out publicly were not honored on campus but socially penalized as defenders of Israel.
Scott notes that a faculty Ad Hoc Grievance Committee exonerated the other professors named in the film and largely exonerated Massad; the committee’s report describes Massad as “categorical in his classes concerning the unacceptability of anti-Semitic views.” Neither Scott nor the grievance committee report explains that Massad is on record defining anti-Semitic to mean anti-Arab; nor does Scott inform us that the grievance committee itself was heavily weighted in favor of Massad and his colleagues.
As for the David Project, it is not pro-occupation, but opposes the demonization of Israel. Its founder, Charles Jacobs has spent most of the past decade trying to draw the world’s attention to contemporary slavery and the Jihadi genocide in Sudan, while Middle Eastern studies faculty have obsessed over Israeli aggression and Palestinian suffering. That obsession distorts responsible Middle East studies, but Scott ignores it.
Another Scott anecdote:
In May 2002, competing rallies by pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian student groups at San Francisco State University degenerated into an ugly clash of words. The administration sent a warning letter to the Jewish student group and cut off funds for one year to the pro-Palestinian organization.
“Competing rallies…degenerated into an ugly clash of words.” Such a statement appears to blame neither side and allows her to imply unfairness in the administration’s asymmetrical treatment of the two student groups.
Professor Laurie Zoloth, who was director of SFSU’s Jewish Studies program in 2002, but is neither “pro-occupation” nor a “lobbyist,” has described the background, how she and others had to walk a daily gauntlet of posters proclaiming that Zionism=Racism and Jews=Nazis. When Hillel and Jewish students sponsored a pro-peace and pro-Israel demonstration, an angry mob carrying posters depicting food cans with babies on them labeled “canned Palestinian children meat, slaughtered according to Jewish rites,” surrounded the Jewish students yelling “Go back to Russia;” “We will kill you;” and “Hitler did not finish the job.” Zoloth was unable to persuade the campus police to maintain the promised separation of 100 feet between the demonstrators and the mob, or to make any arrests. Ultimately, the campus police had to escort the cornered Jewish students to safety. A colleague of Zoloth’s described the Jewish students as having “provoked” the riot; the provocation, the colleague explained, was displaying the Israeli flag and pro-Israel posters.
Here is another Scott anecdote:
In September 2002, the administrator of the State University of N.Y. at New Paltz denied funds for a conference sponsored by the women’s studies program on the grounds that it would be “unbalanced” in its discussion of the effects of the Israeli occupation on children. Although one of the panelists was an Israeli child psychiatrist, the outside groups protesting the conference considered her to be too critical of the occupation.
In fact, the New Paltz conference took place. The stated topic was women and war and peace in Palestine-Israel, but the speakers uniformly demonized Israel. In her presentation, Israeli Jewish psychiatrist Ruhama Marton likened Israelis to “batterers” and the Palestinians to “battered wives.” She received an ovation for this absurd analogy. Scott presents the inclusion of a Jewish Israeli speaker who joined in the attack on Israel as “balance.”
Let us try to place these events in a larger context studiously avoided in Scott’s article. In October of 2000, the Palestinian Authority initiated a global campaign of vilification of Israel and intimidation of anyone who objected. A wide range of media outlets and NGOs in the West, including many campus groups, served as amplifiers, broadcasting and affirming these demonizing messages. Most authorities in the United States and Europe failed to respond to this abuse of free speech. The vilification intensified steadily, from the hate-fest of NGOs at Durban in September 2001 to calls for boycotts of and divestment in Israel following the false accusations of massacre at Jenin in April 2002. Lawns and plazas at many campuses like SFSU were filled daily with tables full of people and posters comparing Israel to the Nazis and spreading blood libels. Riots prevented pro-Israel figures from speaking on campuses such as Berkeley and Concordia.
What Scott, in rhetoric reminiscent of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and the late Senator Joseph McCarthy, calls a “well organized” Jewish lobby consists primarily of individuals horrified by the resurgence of a virulent anti-Semitism not seen in the West since the rise of the Nazis. These individuals, who lobby for fairness and accuracy in discussion of the conflict, are far from unified ideologically, even within the same organization. Many of them oppose the continuing presence of Israel in the disputed territories, and most of those who support it do so only reluctantly, for fear of the alternative -- a “free” Palestinian state run by genocidal hate-mongers.
Although Scott claims that the “pro-occupation” lobbying groups were active in the 1990s, the only evidence she cites is criticism of Edward Said, who had been a highly lionized academic enemy of Israel since the 1970s. In reality, the SFSU incident and other similar incidents in Spring 2002 marked a turning point; only after observing such naked aggression on campus did many individuals recognize the need to come to the defense of Israel. Scott scarcely mentions organizations like the Palestinian/International Solidarity Movement, which wages divestment and boycott campaigns against Israel, and she makes no mention at all of Arab/Muslim funding for such campaigns and other campus-based initiatives.
Scott implies that what professors of Middle Eastern studies teach about Islam and the Arab-Israeli conflict is largely accurate and reliable, and that any objections to it represent the intolerance of a privileged group (Jews) toward any criticism. But in Ivory Towers on Sand, Martin Kramer describes a field paralyzed by Saïdian political correctness, in which any negative characterization of Arab culture is dismissed as racism, and professors intimidate dissenters and disseminate indoctrination. Our Middle Eastern studies “experts” have failed us precisely when we need them most. They do not help us to understand Islamic terrorism, the history of Jihad and its apocalyptic world-view, the dynamics of radicalization in Western mosques, or the oppression of minorities and gender apartheid in the Islamic world. They primarily obsess about post-9/11 “Islamophobia” and the “racist Israeli state.”
Last spring, the AAUP joined other major academic, scientific, and professional organizations in opposing a resolution of the British Association of University Teachers (AUT), a trade union of academics, to boycott all faculty of the University of Haifa and Bar-Ilan University in Israel. The boycott resolution was subsequently reversed. However, recently the AAUP obtained funding for a conference on academic boycotts, to be held February 13-17 in Bellagio, Italy. Of about 20 individuals invited to the conference, eight were outspoken and aggressive proponents of the AUT boycott. Three, who were faculty or administrators at the targeted Israeli universities, were invited – or perhaps, summoned – with less than three weeks notice.
The AAUP claims to be unalterably opposed to academic boycotts. Therefore questions were raised about the rationale for the conference and its intended outcome. In response to those questions, on February 7, 2006, the Ford, Rockefeller, and Cummings Foundations, which were bankrolling the conference, asked that it be postponed. The materials distributed for the conference inexplicably included “a deeply offensive article by a holocaust denier,” as the AAUP described it in an apology posted on its website. When the article came to light, on February 9, the AAUP executive committee voted for postponement. But Scott has angrily protested that decision, arguing that critics of the conference are “lobbyists on behalf of the current Israeli regime.”
By now we recognize that tune. It is unfortunate that this kind of conspiracy theorizing is common in American universities, but shocking that Scott, who for the past few years has been responsible for guarding academic freedom at the AAUP, should show such commitment to it.
That Scott also resides at one of the most distinguished private academic institutes in the United States, where 21 Nobel laureates, including Albert Einstein have worked, illustrates the triumph of anti-democratic ideology over scholarship. We are only beginning to become aware of the extent and costs of this intellectual catastrophe.
The authors all serve on the Board of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME).
Judith S. Jacobson is vice-president of SPME, co-coordinator of its Columbia University chapter. She is an associate professor of clinical epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health, Columbia University.
Richard Landes teaches History and Millennial Studies at Boston University, and has recently launched a media oversight website (www.seconddraft.org) and accompanying blog (www.theaugeanstables.com).
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nikki keddie - 2/26/2006
I read Joan Scott's piece and found it excellent and accurate. I wonder why HNN so favors commentators who attack positions taken by the majority of professors in the Middle East field and think that objecting to the influence of neoconservatives and right-wing Israelis is a sign of anti-semitism. This week had two attacks on Cole and one on Scott. Why not reprint Scott's piece, which not all your readers have read, before printing an attack on it, and why not print one of many items that essentially support positions taken by Cole, who is not antisemitic?
Arthur E. Goldschmidt - 2/22/2006
I taught Middle East history at a large state university for 35 years and am certainly accustomed to reading and hearing all manner of accusations against most members of my profession, including myself, usually for not being in favor of some policy or ethnic group favored by the accuser(s), often ignoring the Ninth Commandment. I want to know if Professors Jacobson and Landes have substantive complaints about the teaching and or writing by professors in Middle East history. Do we brainwash our students? Do we tell or write lies about specific countries, factions, or ethnic groups? If they teach or write about the Middle East, do they follow the rules of accuracy and honesty?
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