Input or Intrusion?

Pro-Israel groups oppose a job candidate at Wayne State and a tenure candidate at Barnard, setting off new debates on academic freedom.
November 21, 2006

Hiring and tenure decisions are typically decided (and appropriately decided, most in academe would say) by academics. A series of lobbying campaigns by pro-Israel groups, however, have some scholars worried that those who criticize Israel are being subjected to political tests and having their jobs endangered.

At Barnard College, Nadia Abu El-Haj, an anthropologist who is coming up for tenure, is under attack by some alumnae and pro-Israel groups for a book, published by the University of Chicago Press, that was critical of Israeli archaeology and its use in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At Wayne State University, similar groups are pushing the university not to hire Wadie Said for a faculty position in the law school. In that case, critics of Said are attacking him and his late father, the literary theorist Edward Said, saying that both Saids' activism on behalf of the Palestinian cause has amounted to support for violent groups.

These debates follow the cancellation last month of a lecture by Tony Judt, a professor at New York University, at the Polish consulate in New York City, amid charges that the Anti-Defamation League had encouraged Polish officials to call off the talk. And in June, Yale University turned down Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor who is a leading figure in Middle Eastern studies, for a position -- after a lengthy period in which critics of Cole argued that he was not a suitable choice for the position, in part because of his criticism of Israel. And Princeton University has faced criticism over a possible hire as well.

This weekend, the Middle East Studies Association, of which Cole is the president, voted to expand the work of its academic freedom committee -- which has focused on helping scholars in the Middle East -- to engage in efforts on behalf of colleagues in the United States.

"The subtext of these controversies is whether it is going to be allowed for Palestinians to hold positions in academe in the United States. Is it going to be allowed for people who are not Zionists to hold positions? Is there a Zionist litmus test in the United States?" said Cole in an interview Monday. He characterized the pro-Israel groups' activities as "the privatization of McCarthyism" and said that they represented the most serious threat today to academic freedom in the United States.

Winfield Myers, director of Campus Watch, a pro-Israel group that publicizes information about professors who are critical of Israel, said that Cole and others in Middle Eastern studies are distorting what is going on and that his group respects the right of faculty members to decide academic appointments. Myers said, however, that non-academics have every right to make their views known and that Middle Eastern studies professors are trying to prevent that from happening. "It is ultimately for faculty to decide. We're not saying 'approve this guy and turn this other fellow down,' " Myers said. But he said that academics do not have the right to make these decisions in a "cocoon of silence" in which information about scholars' "politicized work" isn't well known.

The professors who are being criticized were not available for comment on the criticism, much of which is taking the form of e-mail campaigns urging alumni and others to weigh in against them with senior administrators. In the case of El-Haj, much of the criticism concerns her book Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society.

Material published on Campus Watch states that the book's aim is to undermine the historic connection between the Jewish people and Israel, that the critique of Israeli archaeology is poorly researched and written, and that the author's anti-Israel bias undercuts her work. The material also questions whether El-Haj knows enough about Israel and has enough mastery of Hebrew to conduct any anthropological work about Israeli society. The material includes Barnard President Judith Shapiro's e-mail address and phone number.

Wayne State President Irvin Reid has had his contact info -- as well as that of Frank H. Wu, the law dean -- widely distributed by those seeking to prevent Said's appointment. The Web site of the pro-Israel group Stand With Us states that Said "shares his father's views" and is "supportive of his father's legacy of 'post-colonial,' 'Orientalist' slander against Israel." Said is also criticized for his participation in the defense team of Sami Al-Arian, the former University of South Florida professor who reached a plea agreement with the government on various charges against him after a jury rejected some charges and was divided on others.

David Horowitz's magazine is also coming out against Said. (Defenders of El-Haj and Said make much of the tone of the Web sites attacking them, but some of the Web sites defending them aren't exactly subtle in their tones either. One site defending Said says "the Negro President of WSU Irvin Reid is a staunch supporter of the racist state of Israel" and that because of his "unconditional support for the settler-colonial state of Zionist Israel," he has no business running a university in Detroit, home to a large Arab-American population.)

It is unclear what impact the campaigns will have. The academic job market is tough enough that when someone doesn't get a position, there are any number of reasons that could explain that decision. Winning tenure at Barnard or a faculty position at Yale aren't easy things to do regardless of whether one is being criticized on pro-Israel Web sites. At the same time, some of those who have lost their shot at jobs -- like Cole at Yale -- had strong faculty backing and appeared well positioned to gain certain positions prior to the lobbying campaigns.

Wu, the law dean at Wayne State, said that lobbying administrators there will have no impact. He said that the tradition at the law school -- which he supports -- is that job offers come only after two-thirds of the faculty agree. Wu said he has never tried to influence the faculty vote, and would never do so -- or attempt to block a candidate who gained that level of support. Wu said he feels so strongly about this principle that he does not even vote as a faculty member. "We have a celebrated tradition of shared governance and academic freedom," he said. Sending him an e-mail about Said's candidacy would have about as much impact, he said, as sending an e-mail about Said to the dean of Harvard Law School, where Said is not a candidate for anything.

If the pro-Israel groups start lobbying professors, Wu warned that the effort might backfire. He said that his faculty holds a range of views politically and that professors likely don't all agree on whether it's appropriate for members of the public to seek to influence their hiring decisions. "Some might welcome [the e-mails]. Some might be offended. Some might be so turned off by the e-mail coming in that they may be persuaded to take a position that they might not have otherwise," Wu said

Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, said flatly that outside groups do not have a role in these hiring and tenure decisions. "Non-academics and external advocacy groups should not be permitted to intrude in hiring and tenure cases in the academy, he said. "Academic freedom also requires recognition that scholars alone have the right to pass judgment on the quality of a professor's credentials. No scholar should have to be subjected to political litmus tests conjured up by partisan groups."

A Barnard spokeswoman said that the college has received around 25 letters and e-mail messages from alumnae about El-Haj. The spokeswoman said that the college would never comment on the status of a tenure review. Judith Shapiro, Barnard's president, has posted on the alumnae Web site a letter about the dispute. In her letter, Shapiro noted that a review of El-Haj's work would include outside evaluations, by experts in the field. Shapiro -- a cultural anthropologist herself -- did not offer an opinion on El-Haj's work. But she defended the type of work done, saying that "it is a legitimate cultural anthropological enterprise to show how archaeological research can be used for political and ideological purposes," and noted that such critiques are not unique to the Middle East.

And while Shapiro said she welcomed feedback from alumnae, she also said she wanted to share "my concern about communications and letter-writing campaigns orchestrated by people who are not as familiar with Barnard as you are, and who may not be in the best position to judge the matter at hand."

Cole said that in both the Barnard and Wayne State disputes, good scholars are having their careers unfairly maligned. (In both cases, he said that he knows their work, but isn't a personal friend.)

El-Haj is "very well respected" and the issues she raises in her work are important ones, Cole said. A long-standing concern of Palestinians, he said, is that Israeli archaeologists dig through materials that cover centuries of key developments in the region to focus on the period of ancient Israel. "Getting rid of this professor would be like replicating what she is writing about in terms of what was done on the ground," he said.

And while Cole is no critic of Edward Said, he also said it was unfair and inappropriate for people who didn't like his ideas to take that out on his son. "This shows that it's a blood feud," he said.

Ari Drissman, president of the Wayne State chapter of Students for Israel, said that there were legitimate reasons to oppose Said's appointment. Drissman said that the environment at the university is "very tense" for students who support Israel, who are barraged with anti-Israel leaflets that are "without any facts." He characterized the publicity being given to Said's background as similar to a background check done by a business before hiring a new employee.

And Myers of Campus Watch used similar language. He stressed that all the groups are doing is publicizing information, not trying to intrude on actual decisions. As for his opinion, he said that El-Haj's work is "part of an ongoing effort to delegitimize the modern Israeli state," and that Said has "some rather radical politics."

In getting out the word about these people, Myers said, his group "is not part of some effort to silence the Arab voice." Rather, he said, his group is trying to open up debate. If Middle Eastern studies scholars are offended by the work of Campus Watch, Myers said, "they aren't used to getting criticism," adding that information put out by all groups -- his own included -- should be open for critique.


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