Daring to Criticize Israel
by Stephen Lendman
Addressing this issue responsibly risks rebuke, ostracism, or job loss. For some, it’s a career ender. Scoundrel media writers and broadcasters are vulnerable. So are university professors.
Joel Kovel lost his Bard College position for writing books like “Overcoming Zionism” and calling Israel “a machine for the manufacture of human rights abuses.”
DePaul University denied Norman Finkelstein tenure. It then fired him for speaking out and writing books like “The Holocaust Industry.”
Political activism and honesty about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict also cost tenured professor Denis Rancourt his University of Ottawa job.
UCLA Professor David Delgado Shorter‘s now targeted. His academic freedom’s at stake. On April 4, department chair Professor Angelia Leung rebuked him. She said his web site was being reviewed for posting inappropriate material pertaining to the academic and cultural boycott of Israel. More on that below.
California Scholars for Academic Freedom (CSAF) include 134 academics at 20 state universities. “The group formed as a response to various violations of academic freedom that were arising from both the post-9/11/2001 climate of civil rights violations and the increasing attacks on progressive educators by neo-conservatives.”
Arab, Muslim or Middle East scholars are especially vulnerable. So is anyone criticizing Israel. CSAF’s “goal of protecting California scholars” broadened in scope. Its members “recognize that violations of academic freedom anywhere” threaten it “everywhere.”
On April 18, CSAF wrote UCLA Academic Senate chair Professor Andrew Leuchter. It addressed Shorter’s rebuke and the broader academic freedom issue.
It expressed concern that Leuchter “overstepp(ed his) authority (by) honoring of complaints by a clearly partisan political group over collegiality and protocol regarding treatment of tenured faculty at UCLA….”
The AMCHA Initiative made the complaint. AMCHA is Hebrew for “your people.” The organization “strives to bring together Jewish people from all over California so that they might speak in one voice in order to express their concern for the safety and well-being of Jewish college and university students.”
It also one-sidedly supports Israel and Zionist ideology. Its record includes harassing faculty members critical of Israeli policy. It airs views openly in the press. Targeting academic freedom shows how far it’s willing to go. Its history includes accusing UC campuses of ignoring anti-Semitism and allowing anti-Israeli protests. On issues regarding the Jewish state, it tolerates no criticism.
Shorter felt its wrath. At issue was also judging him ” ‘in the court of public opinion’ by releasing information to the press without his knowledge.”
In the 2012 winter quarter, he taught W33: Tribal Worldviews. He used a university provided web site for course material. It covered “indigenous uses of media around the globe to assert their claims of sovereignty.”
His site contains source materials and URLs related to struggles throughout the world. UN documentation on Palestine is included. They’re called indigenous people. In March, the course ended. So did access to the site. Only students could view it.
In response to Professor Leung’s concern, Shorter emailed her his syllabus and a URL about groups targeting US professors for their Palestinian course materials.
On April 11, Leung gave him a choice. Either teach about a petition or be a signatory, not both. In response, Shorter said he’d consider the implications of Leung’s demand.
He requested deferring comment until next academic year. Clearly, Leung was academically and constitutionally out of line. Academic and speech freedoms are inviolable.
UCLA and other US higher education institutions have other rules. So do Canadian and perhaps European ones as well. On April 12, Leuchter emailed his complaint. He copied signatories endorsing it. They included “US Senators and University Administrators.” He said:
“posting of such materials is not appropriate. Professor Shorter’s chair assures me that he understands his serious error in judgment and has said he will not make this mistake again.”
In response, AMCHA issued a press release. It claimed victory over an anti-Israeli professor. It quoted Leuchter verbatim. It made it appear that UCLA found “his actions were inappropriate.”
On April 13, the Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Education, and the Los Angeles Times contacted Shorter to comment about university disciplinary action. No one told him his private conversation was communicated broadly to outsiders.
On April 16, the LA Times headlined, “UCLA professor told not to link class material to anti-Israeli campaign,” saying:
Academic freedom’s at issue. So aren’t First Amendment rights. None are more important. All are risked without this one.
“Leuchter said (Shorter) agreed not to repeat” linking his web site to one “call(ing) for a boycott of Israel.” Shorter said “he made no such promise.” He awaits a more detailed campus policy explanation regarding issues this important. He added that linking “to the Israeli boycott was just a number of suggested links for the class to explore in his” course.
He didn’t provide them as required reading. In class, he also discussed other views. Since he changes courses annually, he didn’t know if he’d use the same links. Constitutionally he can use any he wishes freely.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin heads AMCHA. She’s UC Santa Cruz Center for Jewish Studies lecturer. She said by email:
“Although I believe it was appropriate for Professor Shorter to be cautioned about his misuse of his class website, our primary purpose in raising the case of Professor Shorter was not to demand that action be taken against him, but rather to force UC administrators and faculty to grapple with the question of whether the UC academic freedom rules protect a professor who uses his classroom and university resources to engage in political activities, including the boycott of Israel.”
Leuchter concurred, saying faculty may freely express views in classrooms or course material short of “advanc(ing) a political agenda.” Apparently he includes facts critical of Israel.
He said Shorter faces no disciplinary action. He described what he did as a judgment error. Perhaps repeating it will be cause for dismissal. It wouldn’t be the first time on US or other Western campuses.
CSAF asked why Leuchter never met or spoke to Shorter while defamatory information about him was being circulated. What kind of investigation was conducted, it asked? Clearly, “your actions….constitute a violation of the normal protocols of due process at the University of California or most other universities.”
CSAF wants definitive answers regarding UCLA policies and Academic Senate authority to investigate a faculty member without his knowledge, then requesting his chair rebuke and warn him. Doing so amounts to unwarranted “censure.”
CSAF also wants Leuchter to explain how he justified distributing information about Shorter behind his back to a partisan organization like AMCHA, and why he challenged his academic freedom.
Silencing anyone critical of Israel “makes a mockery of (UCLA’s) faculty protocol….” CSAF deserves answers regarding these vital issues.
A Final Comment
Perhaps Leung, Leuchter, and other like-minded academics need brushing up on what life in occupied Palestine is like. It’s not pretty, nor has it been for decades. Visiting to see things firsthand might help.
Spending time in Gaza during Israeli air and ground assaults might prove enlightening. So would learning about the effects of siege, watching Israeli soldiers use Palestinian children for target practice, and fishermen criminally assaulted at sea.
Maybe watching homes bulldozed, farmland razed, and trees uprooted repressively would be hard to forget. Seeing soldiers attack peaceful protesters with tear gas, rubber bullets, water cannons, and live fire would enlighten more.
Conversations with Palestinians might be best of all. Firsthand accounts from wives would explain life without husbands. Parents could talk about lost children. Sisters and brothers could say what its like without lost siblings. Discussions about thousands of political prisoners would reveal much about a repressive state.
Life in deep poverty without jobs would be described. So would daily fear of Israeli incursions, attacks, arrests, detentions, torture, and other unspeakable abuses for praying to the wrong God.
Enough time in occupied Palestine might soften views now held. Sunshine is the best disinfectant. So is seeing things firsthand to know what’s really going on.
Israel is criticized for a reason. Persecution, racism, occupation, and apartheid are unjustifiable. So are crimes of war and against humanity.
Compromising academic and speech freedoms puts all other rights at risk. Without them, classrooms are more indoctrination than education. Professors understanding that deserve praise, not rebukes or ostracism.
Freedom in America and other Western societies hang by a thread. Protecting it in classrooms may be step one to having a chance to save it.
Professors on the front lines of right over wrong are heros, not villains. Students lucky enough to have them know best of all.
Imagine if all academics taught the right way. Imagine a better world at peace. Instead of a dream, it could be reality. Imagine how different things could be.
If enough people cared enough and worked for it, it would be. It won’t happen any other way.
Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at email@example.com.
Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.