Academic freedom, CampusWatch goes after Columbia’s Rashid Khalidi and PARC

Is space opening up or shutting down for professors who criticize Israel or express sympathy for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement?

One answer is that academic McCarthyite group CampusWatch is, unfortunately, still in business. In fact, they just published yet another hopefully meaningless attack on the Palestinian American Research Center (PARC) and keynote speaker at their October conference, the preeminent Middle East scholar (and famously, former-friend-of-Obama) Rashid Khalidi, Columbia University’s Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies. Why do they want PARC to stop receiving funding from the Department of Education? Because in his speech at a conference on Palestine, Khalidi criticized Israel, and worse, criticized Campus Watch! Comical, yes. Imagine, one of the country’s most respected Middle East scholars having the audacity to criticize Israel and CampusWatch at a conference called “Palestine: What We Know.” CampusWatch’s Jonathan Schanzer smears Khalidi with a charge he denies, that he was ever an official spokesperson for the PLO, and insists:

While Khalidi undoubtedly has the right to express his opinion, the American public has as a right to know that they paid for it. PARC receives controversial Title VI funding from the U.S. State Department and the Department of Education for “Palestinian studies.” By inviting Khalidi, PARC spent fungible taxpayer money to bring a notorious former spokesman for a terrorist organization to Washington to rail against Israel and complain about a group that critiques him.

Meanwhile, Nora Barrows-Friedman’s new article in the Electronic Intifada about academic freedom suggests the answer to the question, is there more space on campus for debate on Israel/Palestine?, is both yes and no.

UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Richard Falk, says:

“There seems to be diverging trends in relation to academic freedom for those who express sharply critical views of Israel or Zionism,” Falk remarked. “On the one side there is growing sympathy for the Palestinian struggle, and this is exhibited by the spreading BDS campaign. On the other side, there are increased efforts by organized Zionist groups to exert covert and overt pressure on university administrations to punish those seen as critics of Israel. As a result, we can expect some inconsistent outcomes in this period.”

Caught up in that tension are professors like UC Santa Barbara’s William Robinson who called down the wrath of the Anti-Defamation League and others for criticizing Israel’s attack on Gaza: in June 2009, the university threw out charges of faculty misconduct. And Columbia’s Joseph Massad and Barnard’s Nadia Abu El Haj who both survived extensive campaigns to deny them tenure.

But Barrows-Friedman introduces us to two lesser-known stories about professors who are still fighting for tenure.

Margo Ramlal-Nankoe, former professor of Sociology at Ithaca College in New York, said that after she started addressing issues of human rights abuses in occupied Palestine — especially after the start of the second Palestinian intifada — she was warned by faculty members at the college that she was “risking” her career and “would suffer repercussions from the administration.” Ramlal-Nankoe told The Electronic Intifada (EI) that the verbal threats eventually led to alleged racist and sexist attacks, and an open death threat from a faculty member who protested Ramlal-Nankoe’s support of a department colleague whose husband was Palestinian. “He [made] a cut-throat gesture with his hand across his neck to me,” Ramlal-Nankoe said. She was later denied tenure in 2007.

This is just the beginning of her tale, and Ramlal-Nankoe appropriately filed suit, which is still in process. Also filing suit,  and also unresolved, is Terri Ginsburg:

Film studies professor Terri Ginsberg, similarly fired in 2008 by North Carolina State University (NCSU) in what she says was a punishment for her outspoken criticism of “Zionism, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and US Middle East policy,” believes that institutionalized censorship on the Palestine-Israel issue in the academic realm is eerily reminiscent of the McCarthy era of the 1950s and ’60s. “So many of the dynamics and methods of discrimination perpetrated against today’s scholarly critics of Israel and US Middle East policy derive from and continue, in updated fashion, practices initiated and implemented during that shameful period,” she says.

As Falk says, my sense is that this is a transitional period and that the tide has already shifted on campuses, with defenders of Israel’s occupation already feeling desperately outnumbered. Hopefully the fact that the cases of Ginsburg and Ramlal-Nankoe started some time ago means that more and more administrators are refusing to succumb to such McCarthyite tactics.
-Cecilie Surasky

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