Debate rages across US on academic freedom
22 November 2007
By By Jeminah Steinfeld
American universities are engaged in a furious debate over whether anti-Zionist academics should be allowed to teach Middle East courses.
In the most recent case, Nadia Abu El-Haj, professor of anthropology at Barnard University, a subsidiary of New York’s Columbia University, won a battle for tenure in the face of fierce lobbying from several pro-Israel groups.
They had argued that Prof Abu El-Haj’s 2002 book Facts on the Ground — which claimed that Palestinian history had been destroyed by Jewish archaeologists — was academically flawed and disqualified her from a senior position.
The incident follows the dismissal of Rashid Khalidi as director of Columbia University’s Middle East Institute in 2005, following a newspaper article claiming he had denounced Israel as “a racist state”.
Elsewhere, anti-Zionist historian Norman Finkelstein, whose work alleges that Israel has exploited the Holocaust, accused a Jewish lobby this September of derailing his attempts to find tenure at Chicago’s DePaul University.
Speaking to the JC, his prominent critic, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, alleged that Dr Finkelstein had misrepresented facts to make his case. “He has no credibility except in Europe, and anyone who regards him as respected in his field is a rampant antisemite,” he claimed.
At the University of Michigan, a vocal pro-Israel lobby is campaigning to prevent the university’s publishing house from resuming distribution of Overcoming Zionism, by Joel Kovel, an author and anti-war activist.
Supporting the ban, Betsy Kellman, director of the Michigan regional chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, said: “This book is holding Israel to a very different standard than other countries.”
However, others fear a growing assault on academic freedom. Prof Khalidi warned the JC of “externally driven, partisan campaigns characterised by bad faith and misrepresentation. They distort what the Middle East faculty do and find credence among the gullible.”
Avi Shlaim, professor of International Relations at St Antony’s College, Oxford, told the JC that he believed that Mr Dershowitz was one of the “many prominent American Jews [who] defend Israel [with] an atavistic attitude of ‘my country, right or wrong’.”