Hateful comments do not represent all of academia

Elements of the Jewish community have evidently decided that the latest front in the War on Terror and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are Middle East Studies programs around the country.

Capitalizing on a few isolated incidents, they have turned a tempest in a teapot into Hurricane Katrina. Martin Kramer of the Institute for Near Eastern Studies, who is one of those leading this quixotic charge, has even claimed that the bias in such programs is responsible for U.S. intelligence failures in predicting the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and 9/11!

There are, without a doubt, anti-Semites and anti-Israel faculty members on university campuses. And there have been highly unpleasant incidents at a handful of schools. But it is interesting that those most vociferous in claiming pervasive or endemic anti-Semitism — like Kramer, Daniel Pipes and Gary Tobin — don’t actually teach at American universities. From the outside, it may appear that a hateful comment by a professor represents the whole institution. From the inside, the picture is often very different.

For example, when Palestinian professor Joseph Massad at Columbia University addressed an Israeli student in a fashion that certainly deserved censure, those eager to find an anti-Semitic conspiracy ended up turning him into a martyr and guaranteeing him tenure. Colleagues at Columbia have told me that their prior doubts about this instructor were drowned out by the din of external propaganda.

At my own university, U.C. Davis, I’ve received several ominous phone calls from those certain that the growth of Middle Eastern Studies on the campus is a stalking horse for anti-Semitism. But what is going on at Davis disproves this contention.

A course that I developed on the History of Modern Israel has been included in the Middle East Studies curriculum, and a member of the Jewish Studies Committee has been involved in the development of the new program from the outset. Far from excluding Israel, several of my colleagues in Middle Eastern Studies have been eager to develop comparative studies and courses between Israel and its Arab neighbors. So, at least at Davis, we are working hard to create a model of collaboration between Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies.

The bill recently passed by the U.S. Senate to establish oversight of Middle East Studies departments receiving Title VI money, while not inherently a bad idea, runs the risk of engendering government intimidation of academic programs. The strength of our university system lies in its ability to govern itself and to encourage the free inquiry of ideas. As the disastrous loyalty oath controversy in the 1950s showed, when government tries to exert control over universities, the result is the weakening of academic institutions.

Like any other human community, universities are susceptible to intellectual fads and “group think.” Diversity of opinion is definitely desirable on the Middle East as on any other subject. But such diversity will not come from a government Diktat, but instead from the self-regulation of the academic marketplace.

It is certainly legitimate for those outside the universities to express their views and criticisms. But they should know what they are talking about before they do so. In particular, they need to distinguish between political opinions and academic work.

Good scholars may broadcast all kinds of ideas when they write op-eds and give speeches. The real test is whether such opinions infiltrate their academic writing and teaching in illegitimate ways. There are, of course, always those for whom politics are the tail wagging the academic dog. But most academics who hold strong views are able to do so without compromising the academy’s standards of objectivity.

Finally, on the question of anti-Semitism on the college campuses, it is, of course, necessary to remain vigilant. At Davis, for example, a Palestinian lecturer (from another U.C. campus) was invited by a student group to give a talk. He singled out three Jewish students and told them that for them to attend his talk was like the Ku Klux Klan attending a talk by the NAACP. Vigorous intervention by Hillel and the Jewish Studies Program got the administration’s attention and strong measures were quickly taken to censure such gross intimidation. Yet, as outrageous as this incident was, it would be a mistake to generalize that anti-Semitism is rife on the Davis campus. The overwhelming majority of Davis students harbor no ill will toward their Jewish counterparts.

Before we say that the sky is falling, let’s keep some perspective. As someone who regularly lectures in France, I think I know what real anti-Semitism looks like on a university campus. And as someone who teaches the Holocaust, I have a sense of what it was like to be a Jewish student at the University of Berlin in 1933 or the University of Warsaw in 1938. We are very, very far from those situations and in a time when we have real enemies, let’s not inflate those who only marginally exist.

David Biale is Emanuel Ringelblum professor of Jewish history and director of the program in Jewish studies at U.C. Davis.