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Mideast Campus Debate Fuels Charges of Anti-Semitism

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
September-October 2002

The debate over events in the Middle East is growing on college and university campuses across the country. Some charge that critics of Israel are guilty of “anti-Semitism,” while others argue that such charges are a tactic to stifle open discussion.  

In September, Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers said that he saw anti-Semitic actions on the rise in academic communities. “Serious and thoughtful people are advocating and taking actions that are anti-Semitic in their effect if not their intent,” said Summers, referring both to the push for divestment and to actions by student organizations at Harvard and other campuses to raise money for groups found to have ties with terrorist groups. (New York Times, Sept. 21, 2002).  

Summers added that, “Where anti-Semitism and views that are profoundly anti-Israel have traditionally been the primary preserve of poorly educated right-wing populists, profoundly anti-Israel views are increasingly finding support in progressive intellectual communities.”  

Earlier this year, nearly 600 professors, students, staff members and alumni from Harvard and M.I.T. signed a petition urging Harvard and M.I.T. to divest from Israel. Similar efforts have been mounted at about 40 other universities.  

The Harvard/M.I.T. petition said that “universities ought to use their influence - political and financial - to encourage the U.S. government and the government of Israel to respect the human rights of the Palestinians” by divesting from Israel and from American companies that sell arms to Israel. Others at Harvard and M.I.T. fought back with a petition opposing divestment.  

Taha Abdul-Basser, a graduate student at Harvard and a member of the Harvard Islamic Society, said: “I was saddened to see that evidently support of the divestment campaign was being equated with something as ugly as anti-Semitism. Some of the professors who supported the campaign said they saw a difference between the two, and I certainly do, too.”  

Professor Elizabeth Spelke, who signed the divestiture petition, declared: “Labeling the petition anti-Semitic is a strategy to detract from the criticism of Israel. It turns the substance of a political debate into a debate of morals and supposed racism.”  

Eli Kramer wrote in The New York Times (Sept. 24, 2002): “As a member of Harvard’s Jewish community, I disagree with the way ... Lawrence Summers described the rise of anti-Semitism on campus. I have been the co-organizer of a campus Arab-Jewish dialogue on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some of Harvard’s strongest-minded supporters of the Palestinian cause, people whom I consider friends of mine, come to our discussions and passionately criticize Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s government and Israel’s occupation in general. Never once have I felt that such criticism had even the slightest trace of hatred directed at me or anyone else, simply by virtue of our membership in a religious group.”  

Harvard psychology professor Patrick Cavanagh signed a letter with six other Harvard and M.I.T. faculty members which said: “The ... divestment petition calling on Israel to return to its 1967 borders and to renounce torture, deportation and assassination, has been described by Lawrence Summers ... as ‘anti-Semitic’ and ‘anti-Israel.’ It is neither. Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian territories threatens the security of Israelis, Palestinians and Americans ... Do we unfairly target the Middle East’s only democracy? Israel is no democracy for three million Palestinians in the occupied territories, and sadly, it is held to no standard when criticisms are branded anti-Semitic. In the name of peace, we call for an end to the occupation and for open discussion of these issues.”  

At the same time, a Web site started in September by the Middle East Forum, a group strongly supportive of Israel, cited eight professors and 14 universities for their views on Palestinian rights and political Islam. The New York Times (Sept. 27, 2002) reports that, “In a show of solidarity with those named on the Web site, nearly 100 outraged professors nationwide - Jews and non-Jews ... have responded ... by asking to be added to the list ...”  

Among the professors named was Hamid Dabashi of Columbia University, who said: “This is about McCarthyism, freedom of expression. It’s very important that it not be made into a Jewish-Muslim kind of thing. I am most concerned for my Jewish students, that they might feel that they shouldn’t take my class, that the atmosphere would be intimidating, or that they couldn’t express their opinions.”  

The Times reports that many academics are concerned about the Web site and see it “as an effort to chill free speech about the Middle East, and are particularly perturbed by the ‘Keep Us Informed’ section, inviting the submission of ‘reports on Middle East-related scholarship, lectures, classes, demonstrations and other activities’ in other words, they say, inviting students to turn in their professors.”

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