Like most of what he writes and says, Ali Abunimah’s new book, The Battle for Justice in Palestine, is provocative, erudite, impassioned, aggressive, and certain to make even some political allies uncomfortable with their tacitly held beliefs (beginning with the book’s very first sentence: “The Palestinians are winning”). One need not agree with all of his views to find the book well worth reading. So much ink has been spilled on Israel and Palestine that at times it seems impossible to encounter anything new or stimulating, but the arguments Abunimah assembles here are so thoughtful and forceful, and placed within a comprehensive, long-cultivated coherent perspective, that it’s almost impossible to read it without thinking about all sorts of old questions in new ways. That this outlook is so rarely heard in Western establishment media circles makes it all the more valuable.
Below is an excerpt regarding the coordinated campaign on American campuses to suppress pro-Palestinian advocacy and Israel critiques by equating them with hate speech. This, he argues, is part of a broader effort to render any fundamental critiques of Israel illegitimate in leading American opinion-making institutions. The excerpt has been adapted by Abunimah for publication here, with minor editing and the omission of the book’s ample footnotes:
The War on Campus
American public support for Israel remains strong, but the “growing cracks” in that support are most evident on campus, according to the David Project, and universities across America form “the leading venue for anti-Israel activity and the spread of anti-Israelism.” The case for working to stop this dangerous trend is clear: universities are not only “where the thinking of America’s future political leadership is molded” but also “where the worldview of a large swath of influential people outside of the political class as well as the population at large is largely formed.”
These warnings are contained in the David Project’s 2012 white paper, A Burning Campus? Rethinking Israel Advocacy at America’s Universities and Colleges. This document can be seen as the university-focused counterpart of the Reut Institute’s 2010 blueprint for suppressing Palestine solidarity activism and criticism of Israel more broadly. The David Project, a four-million-dollar-per-year organization focusing on Zionist advocacy on campuses, was founded in 2002 and became notorious in the early 2000s for its witch hunt against Columbia University professor Joseph Massad as well as its aggressively Islamophobic rhetoric. Under new leadership, the group has entered the mainstream of Israel advocacy in the United States and now boasts partners including AIPAC, the Hasbara Fellowships, Hillel, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, the Jewish Federation of New York, and Taglit–Birthright Israel, the organization that sends thousands of young North American Jews on free trips to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
The white paper criticizes earlier approaches to suppressing Palestine solidarity activism and academic inquiry related to Israel on campus, and lays out a new framework. The old approach involved confronting and debating. The new strategy, directly inspired by the Reut Institute, emphasizes making friends and influencing people. Surprisingly, the paper demolishes the notion, long promoted by Zionist groups, that American college campuses are rife with anti-Semitism. “Most American campuses are not hostile environments for most Jewish students,” the paper acknowledges.“Racial antisemitism of the kind most associated with the Nazis is not likely a serious problem on any American college campus.” Claiming otherwise “does not jive with the lived experience of many Jewish students, who know they can identify as Jews and largely not suffer repercussions.”Consequently, “depicting campus as hostile to Jews has not to date proven to be an effective strategy for decreasing anti-Israelism.”For anyone committed to the struggle against racism in any form, the lack of anti-Semitism on campus can only be good news. But for Zionist organizations it makes the campus environment a more challenging, though no less central, battleground. To solve the problem posed by the absence of anti-Semitism, the David Project has promoted a new term, “anti-Israelism,” which it describes as “a specific form of bigotry targeted against the modern state of Israel.”This redefinition—as we shall see—is a crucial element in the effort to restrict campus discussions of Israel’s racist practices or its claim to have a right to exist as a Jewish state.
In the rest of the world, where Israel is generally unpopular, pro-Israel advocates are fighting to halt efforts to turn it into an “international pariah akin to apartheid South Africa.”But in the United States, where support for Israel is much broader, the David Project argues, the “battle” is to “maintain long-term two-party support. It’s not good enough that we stop the US from becoming anti-Israel. We have to make sure the US remains pro-Israel.”Yet the analysis predicts “long-term bipartisan support for a strong relationship between Israel and the United States cannot be assured if the environments of key universities and colleges are largely negative toward the Jewish state.” Simply put, allowing higher education to continue “in a milieu of pervasive negativity toward Israel by further generations of students may significantly weaken long-term American government support for the Jewish state.” A related danger is that “anti-Israelism” would spread since the university “often serves as an incubator for social trends that go on to have a wide impact in society at large.” These are high stakes.
The David Project identifies four “primary trends” that must be tackled if the dire situation is to be turned around. These are “a long-standing campus predilection toward relativism, postmodernism, and the views of the global left”; “the promotion of anti-Israelism by professors”; “Jewish student apathy and ignorance”; and “the unwillingness of administrators to treat anti-Israelism in the same manner as they treat other forms of bigotry.”
These supposed “trends” provide a useful framework to understand some of the tactics that have been used—some but not necessarily all practiced or advocated by the David Project itself—to cultivate and co-opt “influencers” and “campus celebrities” whom Israel lobby groups identify as key potential allies. These include witch hunts and attacks on individual professors; using criminal and civil legal proceedings to define protest and criticism of Israel as “bigotry” or hate speech; fostering Islamophobia and other forms of intimidation and bullying; and “positive” strategies—similar to pinkwashing and greenwashing. Yet despite all these tactics, which have at times taken a hard toll on individual students and faculty, campus Palestine solidarity movements continue to grow and forge promising new alliances.
The David Project sees the war on critics of Israel as a war on the left more broadly. It argues that campus has long been used by “a segment of ideologically committed faculty and graduate students to promote radical left politics, within which the Palestinian cause is increasingly popular.” The university is also the “most likely mainstream venue in American society to reflect the trends of the global left, absorbing the ethos of the United Nations and related international organizations, as well as human-rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, all of which have long histories of undue focus” on Israel. This dangerous receptivity to the human-rights values developed in the wake of the horrors of the Second World War and the Holocaust is only made worse by the ideological flaws of university faculties: “By overwhelming percentages, professors self-identify on the left of the political spectrum,” the David Project asserts. It also faults “a bias against Western views of history and social progress, seeking to empower voices perceived to be on the margins of history.” This assertion echoes the critique University of Chicago professor Alan Bloom made in his influential 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, which faulted the abandonment of canonical “Western” thought for opening the universities to 1960s radicalism and cultural relativism. Bloom’s thesis became the rallying cry for the Reagan-era conservative attack on universities that has continued to the present. Because “Israel defines itself and is defined as a part of the West,” the David Project claims, “this kind of thinking also lends itself to a bias against Israel and Israeli perspectives.” In other words, universities that foster respect for human rights and international law, teach students to think critically, and encourage them to seek out marginalized voices and narratives, represent a grave danger to Israel. Although this threat might arise anywhere, the David Project singles out Columbia University and the University of California, Berkeley, as examples of universities that “can serve as the most important and influential node” in the “anti-Israel” network. These campuses have been targets of relentless attacks from various Zionist groups
Not all academic disciplines represent an equal threat to Israel in the eyes of the David Project. The most dangerous are the humanities and social sciences, alleged hotbeds of radicalism and leftism. The white paper predicts that a long-term decline in these disciplines and the rise of business and economics departments, whose faculty tend to be more politically “balanced,” is likely to be beneficial to Israel. The popularity of business schools also provides an opportunity for Israel to be marketed as a high-tech “startup nation,” and the David Project notes that some business schools “offer special-themed courses and trips to Israel, sometimes after students take a longer course focusing on Israel’s business history and climate.” The David Project also sees another promising development in the rise of for-profit colleges, which tend to offer majors focused on employment skills, especially among students of disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. The fact that the for-profit education industry has offered poor education at high cost, often preying on financially vulnerable students, is not mentioned as a concern. These “emerging campus trends” offer Israel advocates a strategic opportunity since narrowly vocational or business- focused majors “are not generally concerned with political issues, making the introduction of anti-Israel narratives into course work less likely, whatever the proclivity of individual professors.” If teaching critical thinking, fostering respect for human- rights values, and nurturing the humanities and social sciences are dangers to Israel, then dumbing down and privatizing education is good for the Jewish state.
There is no place at any university for professors to physically or verbally assault students, to use epithets against them, or to coerce them into adopting particular viewpoints, former Columbia University provost Jonathan Cole sensibly observes. Students and employees alike should be protected from discrimination based on race, ethnicity, religion, sex, or sexual orientation. These prohibitions properly give rise to codes of conduct at universities and other places of work that allow victims to make grievances and to seek protection and redress. But, Cole warns, “the codes that place limits on conduct must never be directed at the content of ideas—however offensive they may be to students, faculty, alumni, benefactors or politicians.” Cole accuses the David Project of doing precisely that by trying to “blur the distinction between speech and action” and accusing “professors of inappropriate action and intimidation when they are actually trying to attack the content of their ideas.” He also notes that most of the attacks have been leveled against social scientists and faculty in the humanities, the very disciplines singled out by the David Project’s white paper as areas where most “anti-Israel” teaching allegedly takes place. The damage done by the assault on academic freedom will not be limited to those disciplines most targeted, he warns, but will harm everyone in the university community.
There are disturbing parallels between the kinds of witch hunts against individuals suspected of anti-Israel views and the campaigns to root out alleged Communists during the 1940s and 1950s. Most universities then, as now, did not show great courage in standing up to intimidation by government and other outside groups, while some were actually complicit.
One of the rare exceptions, a forceful defender of academic freedom and a public opponent of the anticommunist crusades, was Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1951. “The question is not how many professors have been fired for their beliefs, but how many think they might be,” Hutchins said in 1947. “The entire teaching profession is intimidated.” This can be updated: the question now is not how many professors have faced the Israel lobby’s vilification campaigns, legal threats, and attempts to interfere with their careers and in what they can and can’t teach inside the classroom and say or do outside it, but how many think they might be targeted if they don’t self-censor when it comes to the topic of Palestine and the Israelis.
As noted, the David Project is frank about the failure of Zionist groups’ efforts to falsely portray US campuses as hotbeds of anti-Semitism and proposes the new term “anti-Israelism,” which it defines in the following manner:
The key belief of anti-Israelism is that Israel is an illegitimate state with no moral claim to past, present, or continued existence under its own definition as a Jewish state. Anti-Israelism is usually, but not always, combined with longstanding anti- Jewish claims that the Jews are not a people, and therefore do not have the same rights (i.e. self-determination) as other peoples do. An “anti-Israelist” is a believer in anti-Israelism.
As also noted, the David Project defines “anti-Israelism” as “a specific form of bigotry targeted against the modern state of Israel.” It follows, then, that any questioning of Zionism’s political claims or the policies or practices of Israel necessary to maintain “its own definition as a Jewish state” is “bigotry.” This would mean by extension that calling for full and equal rights for Palestinian citizens of Israel is bigotry; calling for Palestinian refugees to be allowed to exercise their right of return is bigotry; criticizing the Jewish National Fund’s openly discriminatory land allocation policies is bigotry; and so on. “Jews are a people with a right to self-determination in their historic, ancestral homeland, a right expressed through the modern state of Israel,” the white paper asserts. “Claims to the contrary, or that Israel cannot both define itself as a ‘Jewish’ state and a democracy that protects the rights of all of its citizens, are wrong and dangerous and therefore beyond the pale of reasonable debate.” The significance of this attempt to redefine substantive arguments and support for the rights of the Palestinian people as a form of hate speech should not be underestimated. In the absence of anti-Semitism, the David Project’s goal is nothing less than to censor such discussions on campus by bringing them within the purview of disciplinary procedures normally reserved for cases of harassment, abuse, and discrimination.
There might be some comfort in recognizing the David Project’s as a concession that Zionist advocates cannot win arguments. But irrespective of the term used, the goal remains the same: to stifle and censor discussion of Israel. These tactics have been aggressive and costly for students and faculty alike.
The attacks on speech and academic inquiry related to Israel should be seen in the broader context of the assault on the independence of universities in the years following the September 11, 2001, attacks. Cole notes two significant shifts: first, in contrast to the McCarthy period, the attacks are now spearheaded by private groups, albeit with strong government support; second, the primary target is increasingly the university as an institution, rather than an obsession with rooting out individual faculty suspected of disloyalty or thought crimes. Outside advocacy groups, Cole observes, “have long had the resources to lobby government figures, and to organize alumni and students, with the goal of generating public outrage and eventual pressure on the university to abandon some of its basic commitments.” But during the George W. Bush era, “they had a powerful voice in the White House and the ranks of their followers swelled, largely because of the 9/11 attacks and the fears of terrorism that came to the surface.”
The most damaging attacks on universities centered on the question of Palestine and often involved the collusion of members of Congress from both the Democratic and Republican parties, as well as targeting both public and private sources of support for academic research.
What Cole dubs “the most troubling case” has had a lasting impact. In 2003, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency published a series of articles by Edwin Black alleging that grants made by the Ford Foundation to support Palestinian nongovernmental organizations had been “misused” to fund “terrorism” and the distribution of “anti- Semitic” and “anti-Zionist” material. Some of the Palestinian organizations that had received funds participated in the 2001 United Nations conference on racism in Durban, South Africa, which was boycotted by the United States and Israel. But, Cole notes, Black’s articles “did not present any evidence that the Ford Foundation had violated American laws or that its funds for Palestinian groups were being misused for support of ‘terrorist’ activities.” Indeed, there was “not one piece of direct evidence that suggests that the flow of Ford dollars went to support ‘terrorists,’ unless [one] considers all Palestinian groups ‘terrorist’ supporters.” But the facts made no difference to the massive campaign that ensued as leaders of major Zionist organizations, including the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, denounced the Ford Foundation and demanded congressional investigations. This outcry triggered threats from Democratic congressman Jerrold Nadler, who circulated a petition signed by twenty colleagues demanding that the Ford Foundation stop funding “anti-Israel hate groups.”
The foundation, which had been “one of the few willing to endure criticism and still fund Palestinian groups,” crumbled under pressure. Ford admitted it had been wrong, even though the allegations were simply false, and “embraced ‘advisors’ from the Jewish organizations to help assess” its grants. The fallout of the attack had a direct impact on universities because the Ford Foundation is also a major funder of their research. Capitulating to the Israel lobby groups, the foundation imposed a condition that universities receiving funding had to sign a letter including this statement: “By countersigning this grant letter, you agree that your organization will not promote or engage in violence, terrorism, bigotry or the destruction of any state, nor will it make sub-grants to any entity that engages in these activities.” The term “destruction of any state” is a clear indication that, even though it is not named, this policy is all about Israel. Zionist organizations routinely claim that any advocacy for Palestinian rights that calls for the implementation of international law on the right of return of refugees, or abolishing laws that privilege Jews at the expense of Pales- tinians, is tantamount to calling for the “destruction of Israel” or even, in the David Project’s new definition, bigotry. Although nine universities objected and negotiated a separate deal with the Ford Foundation, Cole laments that the policy stood with little outcry overall. Because of the Ford Foundation’s size and influence, its imposition of content-related limitations on its grants was emulated by other major donors to university research, including the Rockefeller Foundation.
In this and other instances, the freedom to engage in Palestine-related speech, research, and teaching came under direct, intense attack, but these attacks were also used as levers for a much broader assault on the independence of universities by individuals and organizations intent on curtailing dissent or critical inquiry related to US global power and hegemony. These incidents serve as warnings that any institution where uncensored speech about Palestine takes place may find itself at the center of a congressional and media storm accusing it of supporting anything ranging from “anti-Americanism” to “terrorism” and the “destruction of Israel.”