Confronting Anti-Israel Attitudes on Contemporary College Campuses

By Johnson, Robert David | Midstream, November-December 2004 | Go to article overview

Confronting Anti-Israel Attitudes on Contemporary College Campuses


Johnson, Robert David, Midstream


In the spring of 2003, I attended a conference at the U.S. Senate that brought together the Washington representatives of most major pro-Israel organizations in the United States. On the positive side, conference attendees noted that openly antisemitic acts have grown increasingly rare at universities, and when they do occur, they usually meet with strong condemnation from administrators and students alike. On the negative side, however, most participants presented evidence of growing anti-Israel bias in the classroom, especially from professors who seemed more interested in promoting a pro-Palestinian agenda or in criticizing contemporary Israeli policies than in teaching the subject matter of the course.

An unusual confluence of events accounts for increased anti-Israel attitudes in the nation's classrooms; addressing the issue therefore will require a multi-faceted response. While not the chief explanation for this problem, antisemitism--to the extent that it involves demands to treat Israel differently from all other nations in a way that harms Jews--does play some role. As my colleague David Berger has argued, antisemitism lurks behind calls of (mostly European) academics to deny Israeli scholars permission to attend scholarly conferences, or for the more general demands that colleges divest from businesses operating in Israel as a way of expressing opposition to Israeli foreign policy. Both initiatives seek to deny Israel and Israel alone the right of national self-defense.

The Middle East-related faculty of several major institutions, moreover, has a troubling record of antisemitic comments. For instance, Hamid Dabashi, chair of Columbia University's Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, has termed Zionism a "ghastly racist ideology" and contended that "the so-called pro-Israeli lobby is an integral component of the imperial designs of the Bush administration for savage and predatory globalization." (1) Rashid Khalidi, the university's first Edward Said professor of Middle Eastern Studies, has argued that the United States went to war in Iraq because neoconservative thinkers desired "to make the Middle East safe not for democracy, but for Israeli hegemony" by using the 9/11 attacks "to draft the United States to help fight Israel's enemies." (2) The syllabus for Professor Joseph Massad's class on Palestinian and Israeli politics and society stated, "The purpose of the course is not to provide a 'balanced' coverage of the views of both sides"; Massad's writings have dismissed Arab antisemitism as "a Zionist-inspired propagandistic claim" while terming Israel "a racist state that does not have the right to exist." (3)

To his credit, Columbia president Lee Bollinger has acknowledged the problem and pledged to take remedial action. In a recent interview, Bollinger agreed that "everybody in the academy knows Middle Eastern studies have had trouble over the years developing great scholars and teachers." He noted that Khalidi "has a particular point of view, pro-Palestinian nationalism" and lamented how at Columbia, "within the mix of people who are teaching about this area, we are not as comprehensive as we should be." (4)

Two factors more strictly related to the academic world join antisemitism in explaining the growth of marl-Israel attitudes on contemporary campuses. The first, illuminated most passionately by Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz, is the increasing tendency of professors to use Israel (which is, after all, the most faithful American ally in the world) as a proxy for their criticizing U.S. foreign policy. At first glance, Dershowitz's charge seems overstated: since few offerings appropriately deal with Israeli public policy in an academic fashion, any conflation of views toward Israel and a faculty member's opinion of U.S. foreign policy should have relatively little effect on course content. Broader developments within the academy, however, have opened the way for professors to use the pulpit of the classroom to communicate anti-Israel views.

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