'We have our eye on you...so watch out'
Published: 28 January 2005
Do websites such as Campus Watch seek balance or do they undermine
integrity? Michael North reports
Israeli academic Neve Gordon was not too bothered by the image of himself
transmuting into Hitler posted on Masada2000 - a website containing a
"hitlist" of 7,000 people it deems "enemies of the Israeli state". He
says: "I didn't take it seriously. It was totally pornographic."
More worrying, says Gordon, a professor of politics at Ben Gurion
University, is that such sites have the same audience as the less
sensational right-wing websites that target academics who express views
sympathetic to the Palestinian cause. They also share, he says, a myopia
about the nuances of the Middle East debate.
Campus Watch, in the US, and Israel Academic Monitor, in Israel, post
articles that attack academics' work, encourage donors to these academics'
institutions to withdraw funding and urge universities either to sack the
academics or to thwart their progress up the career ladder - all in the
name of free speech.
Gordon, who is on sabbatical at the University of California, Berkeley,
has been targeted by both websites. He says that the Israeli site, written
in English, is failing to have a big impact. "It is asking students to
become collaborators and to report professors, but it needs a broader
Hebrew audience." In contrast, Campus Watch, a slick site sponsored by the
Middle East Forum in the US, has, according to Gordon and other US
academics, strongly contributed to the post 9/11 campaigns to discredit
Joseph Massad, assistant professor in modern Arab politics at Columbia
University, New York, is at the sharp end of the pro-Israeli groups' zero
tolerance approach. His bid for tenure is being opposed. He says: "The
Campus Watch website appears to be the first salvo in a much larger
campaign targeting US universities and especially academics doing work on
the Middle East who have critical views of the policies of the state of
Israel and of US Middle East policy. Since then, there have been more
protracted campaigns, the latest of which is one targeting me that is
spearheaded by a Boston-based Zionist group called the David Project and
the right-wing newspaper the New York Sun. The campaign has led a
congressman to ask Columbia to fire me."
Rachid Khalidi, professor of Arab studies at the Middle East Institute at
Columbia and an American of Palestinian origin, has also been targeted by
Campus Watch. He has a taped phone message that says: "Khalidi, Columbia,
alumni love Campus Watch because they keep an eye on thugs like you. We
have our eye on you. You'd better watch out."
Khalidi believes the aim of Campus Watch is to have a "chilling effect" on
free speech - a term echoed by two other academics targeted by the
website, Eric Foner, professor of history at Columbia and Yvonne Haddad,
professor of the history of Islam at the Center for Muslim Christian
Understanding at Georgetown University. Foner says: "The purpose of these
sites is intimidation, not information. Encouraging students to report on
comments professors make that they deem unfair or unpatriotic could have a
chilling effect on education."
Khalidi adds: "There is a dearth of proper debate in the media and
politics about the Middle East. The only place where these views can be
found is in academia. They want to shut down this last window."
Khalidi claims Campus Watch is closely linked to a wider campaign of
actions against so-called pro-Palestinian academics. He cites the recent
attempt by some members of Congress to push through a law threatening
funding to universities whose faculties do not stick to the defence of US
government policies; changes in grant proposals demanded by rich
university funders, such as the Ford and Rockefeller foundations, to
affirm that beneficiaries do not support terrorism; and the back-door
(recess) nomination of Daniel Pipes, founder of Campus Watch, to the
government-funded United States Institute of Peace - an event, according
to Foner, that proved the US Administration "at least retains a sense of
Pipes, who is also director of the Middle East Forum, recently stood down
from the board of USIP, which makes key research grants to academics
working in Middle East studies, saying that "at times I felt frustrated".
Khalidi is delighted at the development and also pleased that key members
of the institute attacked Pipes publicly for objecting to the institute
hosting a conference with the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy
But Khalidi concedes that academics can do little against the power of
neoconservatives such as Pipes and the extensive and rich networks of
pro-Israeli groups, such as the new Israel on Campus Coalition.
Pipes, for his part, succinctly defends Campus Watch's mission to "alert
outsiders about the problems in Middle East studies and to challenge
Middle East studies specialists to think about their field". He says the
aim is "to improve and balance, not to cause anyone to lose a job". Asked
if he is fuelling an unhealthy bias in the US media, he says: "You must be
kidding", then refers to the website of the Committee for Accuracy in
Middle East Reporting in America, which gives examples of numerous
The driving force behind the Israel Academic Monitor website is more
forthcoming in his defence of his group's work. Steven Plaut, professor of
economics at Haifa University, refers to his crusade against "the crazies"
using the classroom "to impose their extremism on their students" and as a
"bully pulpit for their political agendas". And he names US academic Noam
Chomsky as an example of such people "who passionately hate their
To which Chomsky, professor of linguistics at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, replies: "He is borrowing from the lexicon of
totalitarianism: Soviet dissidents were accused of 'passionately hating
their country' because of their criticism of state policies. For the
totalitarian mind, the state is identified with the country, its culture
and its people."
Gordon is suing Plaut for libel for, he says, alleging that he is a
Holocaust denier. Plaut denies libel and his supporters accuse Gordon of
censoring free speech.
However, Gordon and other Israeli academics say that debate in Israel is
far healthier than in the US. Khalidi comments that many Israeli
journalists would not be published in American newspapers.
Anat Biletzki, chair of philosophy at Tel Aviv University, says that only
a handful of radicals are really targeted by the Right, but adds that
there is self-censorship. She gives an example of such "undercurrents of
McCarthyism". "I was called to the dean when two students complained about
me sneaking politics into my teaching. The university constitution says we
are perfectly within our rights to talk politics in class. Two weeks later
the rector called me up to say he had heard I talked politics in class. He
said 'in times such as these we have to think twice about everything we
say'. I said 'in times such as these there are things that have to be
For now, European academics critical of Israeli government policies work
in a less intimidating environment. Anoush Ehteshami, director of Durham
University's Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies, says the
debate is more polarised in the US than anywhere else. "I have lots of
contacts with colleagues here and in Finland, Germany and France. None of
them has complained of intimidation."
Ehteshami says the "poisoned atmosphere" in the US since 9/11 is deterring
UK academics from applying for posts across the pond. He knows two, but
refuses to name them. "They don't want pressure to be 'patriotic'," he
But he adds that resistance to the neocons is taking hold, a view
confirmed by Lynne Segal, professor of psychology at Birkbeck, London
University, and a member of the international group Faculty for
Israeli/Palestinian Peace as well as Jews for Justice for Palestinians in
Britain. Such groups campaign in the name of academics who find themselves
threatened, holding seminars and conferences and distributing their views
to a wide audience.
"I think intimidation is possible. These are very troubling developments
and we need to be watchful," Segal says.
Ehteshami says that, for now, inquiries by students about his political
views are just "inquiries, not a challenge". He adds: "This is a
witch-hunt that compromises academic integrity and freedom that,
ironically, in the past the US was very proud of. God forbid it happens in