By Jonathan S. Tobin
Virtually every university or college allows its students to rate their professors and the results of these surveys are usually published. Their contents are always of debatable quality but give incoming students a rough idea of what they are up against when they choose teachers and their courses. The prevailing principle of caveat emptor is generally accepted if not always enjoyed by the faculty. Yet the publication of a guide that attempts to give students and their families an idea about whether college faculty and courses are engaging in and/or supporting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity in the classroom appears to have aroused the ire of an influential group of Jewish academics.
As the Forward reports today, 50 North American Jewish Studies professors have signed a joint letter denouncing the work of the AMCHA Initiative. AMCHA is a Jewish campus-monitoring group that seeks to expose those academics who support boycott initiatives against Israel or who otherwise engage in anti-Semitic activity. It then publishes this information on its website. Those students who wish to avoid being trapped in such classrooms and donors to academia can draw their own conclusions from AMCHA’s writings.
AMCHA’s existence can be credited largely to the fact that over the past few decades, Middle Eastern studies in this country has become largely the preserve of scholars who not only espouse anti-Zionist views but who use their academic perches to both propagate their ideology and to intimidate students who dare to disagree. This activity often crosses the boundary between academic debate into open anti-Semitism and has encouraged the growth of groups on campus that seek to silence or intimidate pro-Israel and Jewish students. At a time when attacks on such students are becoming more commonplace and pro-Israel views are struggling to be heard in academia, it would seem as if the least the Jewish community could do is to arm its young people for this struggle. Families deserve information about what is happening in such programs and what exactly is being shoved down their children’s throats. The same applies to those who are asked to fund such programs.
But to the group of Jewish studies professors who signed the letter attacking AMCHA, this sort of effort is nothing less than an attempt to start a new academic boycott of critics of Israel that is no less contemptible than those that seek to isolate Israelis. They believe AMCHA’s efforts stifle academic freedom. They also contend that the definition of anti-Semitic activity used by AMCHA is so broad as to be meaningless. Are they right?
Let’s concede that any debate about what is being taught on campuses must be conducted in such a way as to not be construed as suppression of academic freedom. The Jewish studies professors are correct when they say free exchanges of ideas are the lifeblood of any university as well as a free society such as Israel.
If their letter against AMCHA stuck to these principles, it might have made some sense. But they go further than that and make the following very interesting demand:
The institutions where we teach, as well as many others we know well (including those appearing on AMCHA’s list), offer a broad array of courses dealing with Israel and Palestinian affairs. None of these, whether supportive or critical of Israeli policy, ought to be monitored for content or political orientation.
In other words, what they are really afraid of is not so much that anti-Israel or anti-Semitic academics will find themselves ostracized as they are of the entire concept of accountability for institutions of higher learning. That ought to be a bridge too far even for those who are least likely to care about the spread of incitement against Israel and Jews on the college campus. Their stand is not so much against a putative Jewish thought police as it is against any scrutiny of what goes on at universities and colleges. That is an absurd stand that deserves the contempt of the public and donors to such institutions, not their support.
We also need to ask whether the academic critics of AMCHA are right about the criteria used by the group to determine what is or is not anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. If AMCHA were merely labeling criticism of Israel’s government as beyond the pale, they’d be right. But that’s not the case. Here are AMCHA’s criteria for defining such behavior:
• Denying Jews Their Right to Self-Determination
• Using Symbols and Images Associated with Historical Anti-Semitism
• Comparing Jews to Nazis
• Accusing Jews and Israel of Inventing or Exaggerating the Holocaust
• Demonizing Israel
• Delegitimizing Israel
• Holding Israel to a Double Standard
• Promoting Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions Against Israel
• Condoning Terrorism Against Jews, Supporting Terrorist Organizations
• Targeting Jewish Students for Discrimination, Harassment, or Intimidation
Do any of the group’s critics really want to argue that anyone who is guilty of behaving in this manner is not anti-Israel?
Let’s also understand that the attempt by this group to paint AMCHA as the forerunner of a new spirit of McCarthyism on campus is looking at the situation through the wrong end of the telescope. If anything, it is pro-Israel academics who are the endangered species on campus, not the Israel-haters. That is especially true in the field of Middle East studies where scholars who do not accept the anti-Zionist point of view or who in any way support the right of the Jewish people to self-determination and the right of self-defense in their ancient homeland find it impossible to get tenure or obtain employment. The fact that Arab and Muslim potentates increasingly fund many Middle Eastern studies departments makes this uniformity more understandable if not defensible.
More to the point, this is a moment in history when a rising tide of anti-Semitism that often seeks to cloak itself in criticism of Israel is sweeping through Europe and finding beachheads in North America, principally in academia. At such a time, it is more important than ever not only to combat this virus of hate but also to understand exactly who is promoting it and where such activity is condoned if not supported.
Let’s also understand that contrary to the aggressive and sometimes violent anti-Israel activities that take place in academia, all AMCHA does is publish a website which labels Israel-haters as such. Its critics are not so much disputing the problem of the growth of anti-Semitism that the BDS (boycott, divest, sanction) movement is fronting as they are merely asking that Jews keep quiet about it and not seek even to hold those who promote such hate accountable for their actions. That is a prescription for complacency that will only aid the movement these professors say they oppose.
Rather than seeking to silence AMCHA, Jewish academics need to find the guts to speak up against the growth of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic activity on campuses. If they don’t, sooner or later Jews will find that it won’t just be Middle Eastern studies where they are unwelcome.
This article was first published on Commentary Magazine’s blog on Oct. 1, 2014.
Jonathan Tobin is senior online editor of Commentary Magazine. He is a former editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.