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Middle East Issues





Faculty in the Trenches


"Administrations and students come and go, but many faculty spend as much as 35 years at campuses. SPME is comprised of scholars trying to impact anti-Israelism among their colleagues by challenging academic publications, publishing original research and working internally within institutions to help students. This is not sexy and swift work with instant results. This is tedious, brutal work."

– Ed Beck, President, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East

A substantial amount of the "tedious and brutal work" of combatting anti-Israel bias in academia is quietly being carried out behind-the-scenes by faculty members across the country whose expertise range from artificial intelligence to medicine to anthropology. Their individual efforts are supported and enhanced by Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, a grassroots organization founded around the beginning of the second Palestinian uprising against Israel, and consisting of 600 members and 19 campus chapters.

The group's mission, as described by its Web site (www.spme.net) "is to inform, motivate, and encourage faculty to use their academic skills and disciplines on campus, in classrooms, and in academic publications to develop effective responses to the ideological distortions, including anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist slanders, that poison debate and work against peace." Its work is guided by the belief that "the peace we seek in the Middle East is consistent both with Israel's right to exist as a sovereign Jewish state within safe and secure borders, and with the rights and legitimate aspirations of her neighbors."

In October, SPME organized the first ever conference "to academically analyze, examine and critique the post-colonial theories of Edward Said, Noam Chomsky and others as they have been applied to the Middle East," said Ed Beck, SPME president. The event, which took place at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, "brought together 25 world class scholars with papers from various perspectives," noted Beck, director of Susquehanna Institute, which provides educational consults. The speakers will edit their presentations based on the discussion and feedback at the conference, and the peer-reviewed papers will be compiled for an academic volume by a university or academic press.

From there, the volume will not sit on some dusty library shelf, but "will influence future generations of college professor, who will then influence future generations of students and leaders," stated Beck, a former assistant professor of psychology at Penn State-Harrisburg.

CAMERA On Campus Editor Tamar Sternthal recently interviewed Beck and a few of the SPME scholars on the front lines, an epidemiologist, an urban planner, and a linguist. They share their insights about what role they can and do serve in the battle for fair treatment of Israel on campus, and offer advice for students at the receiving end of distorted information about Israel in the classroom.

In general, what are the biggest challenges facing pro-Israel students and faculty on campus today?

Ed Beck, President, SPME: The biggest challenges facing pro-Israel students and faculty today is the paucity of knowledgeable and empowered faculty on college campuses to set the historical and contemporary facts of the conflict out in classrooms, not just in Middle East studies, but in the social sciences, political sciences, physical sciences, arts and humanities and professions. For the past 25 years, the academy has been infiltrated with a well funded, empowered and now entrenched anti-Israeli cadre of scholars, many of who are tenured and department heads who allow propaganda to pass as scholarship, thus poisoning the discussion for students. The Jewish community is investing in education, but not in scholarship which is woefully inadequate. Education is the physical process of conveying scholarship. SPME is about producing scholarship with which to educate an new generation of scholars who educate the students and future leaders.

Judith S. Jacobson, DrPH, MBA Associate Professor of Clinical Epidemiology Mailman School of Public Health Columbia University Vice President, SPME: The biggest challenges are, on one level, the widespread assumptions that the U.S. government and the state of Israel are evil, can do nothing good, and are responsible for everything that goes wrong. Not everyone at the university, perhaps not even a majority, subscribes to those assumptions. And even those who do will sometimes make exceptions when they cannot avoid doing so. But people who subscribe to those assumptions set the general tone of campus life and have been remarkably successful in silencing those who differ. Those who differ are accused of being "right-wing," that is, siding with the evil-doers, the oppressors, the perpetrators of apartheid and genocide.The absence of dialogue and the refusal to question or to tolerate questioning of assumptions are fundamental challenges to the intellectual life of colleges and universities. Faculty and students who dissent, or try to bring to campus speakers who dissent from the prevailing bias, find it extremely difficult to get space or an audience. Flyers publicizing such events are routinely torn down. Even mild disagreement, such as faculty member Thomas Klocek's comments to students tabling at DePaul University, can have serious consequences. [Click here for the full article]. Students who express dissenting views in the classroom face ridicule or worse. One purpose of the ivory tower used to be to give students a safe place in which to test their intellectual wings. Now students are learning to get along by going along.

Those affected are not only pro-Israel students but the uninformed and even anti-Israel students, as well as faculty and others. When toeing the party line is more important than pursuing truth, academic freedom has gone out the window, and the university loses its reason for being.The problem of bias and intolerance of dissent is pervasive in the humanities and social sciences but less so in the natural sciences and the professional schools.

How has SPME's presence elevated academia in general, brought about improvement at a particular campus, or with respect to a particular campaign?

Ed Beck: SPME has several fronts: colleagues, disciplines and the campus. All are important and all are essential for permanent environmental changes.

We measure our success in published papers and assistance to faculty members with sticky issues arising from Israel advocacy. Our efforts are often quiet and behind the scenes. Some of our victories include articles refuting bad scholarship in several major academic journals, the historic SPME conference on postcolonial theory and the Middle East, and our role in the attempted British boycott of Israeli universities. SPME was able to impress upon officials at Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities the importance of coordinated and strategic response. We convinced both universities to establish "affiliate" appointments with faculty from American universities, and then coordinated that program with each university's officials. More than a show of solidarity, this forced boycotters to also blacklist scholars from the U.S., Britain and many other countries.

In addition we've responded to many faculty and student inquiries about accurate information in publications and teachings. Our 19 chapters are beginning to grow and have influence, most noticeably at UC-Santa Cruz, University of Buffalo and Columbia.

Ernest Sternberg Professor Department of Urban & Regional Planning University at Buffalo, SUNY Buffalo Chapter Head, SPME: At my campus, several faculty members asked for and received adjunct appointments at Bar Ilan and Haifa universities, and sent emails notifying the boycotters, putting them into a position of having to boycott us as well.

How are SPME colleagues from different universities able to assist each other?

Stanley Dubinsky Professor of Linguistics Department of English Language and Literature University of South Carolina Board of Directors, SPME: Sharing information is one of the big ones. SPME has been particularly effective in making sure that its members know what is happening, both out in the world and in the academy. Another way we have been able to assist each other is to provide pressure from a respected source when one of our members encounters a situation that calls for intervention. A professor at "Y" university is likely to be moved to respond when they receive a diplomatic inquiry from a colleague at university "x."

Ed Beck: Merely encouraging the formation of a chapter is helpful. I have put faculty members from the same university in touch with each other. Faculty members tend to be isolated in their departments, and merely knowing the existence of a sympathetic colleague in a different department is helpful.

What advice would you give to a student who is feeling intimidated by a faculty member who is presenting distorted information about Israel?

Stanley Dubinsky: "Follow the chain of command" and keep records of all interactions. Step one, of course, is to approach the faculty member in question, and try to talk about one's concerns. If the student is rebuffed, or feels too intimidated to do this, then the next stop is the department's undergraduate director (if the department has one). The third stop is the department chair. After that, there is usually an undergraduate associate dean in the college or an ombudsman charged with handling these issues.

It is important to base the complaint on substance and to refrain from personal attacks, which will only provide a pretext to dismiss the claim. The early steps are about the going through the motions of following proper procedure, and will probably not get results. The faculty member in question may very well dismiss the complaint and respond defensively to it. The departmental representatives (undergraduate directors and chairs) will present a "sympathetic" ear, but are in the business of supporting and protecting their colleagues. If one does not follow the proper steps and go through the right channels, the complaint will be dismissed on technicalities rather than considered on its merits. After attempting to work through the department, it is time to approach the office of the college dean.

It is also important to have support. Engaging a Hillel director or someone from the Jewish community who can be consulted along the way will serve two purposes: it will provide the student with the psychological support needed to go forward, and it will engage someone on the outside who will ensure that the student is not treated dismissively. An inquiry from the Hillel director as to the status of a complaint is likely to insure that it isn't just brushed aside.

Ed Beck: * Accurately record the distortion verbatum and within the context

*Have someone help you make a determination if the offending incident is fabrication, falsification, inaccurate interpretation, hate speech or intimidation, and if it's an act of "moral turpitude."

* Make sure you have your facts for rebuttal.

* Become familiar with university academic appeals procedures and follow them meticulously. If you need an ombudsman, faculty mentor or counselor, seek one out.

* Try to resolve the matter informally with a private face-to-face meeting

* Never try to outwit or challenge professors publicly or in their classes. Wait for a private moment and then be respectful, dispassionate and factual. It is not enough to say he/she hurt your feelings, you must make your case as to why his/her presentation was inaccurate. Don't name-call. Criticize on the basis of accuracy and analysis.

* If you need help, contact SPME's CampusConsultNet

* Be prepared to possibly lose or to be treated as a problem within your department. It doesn't always happen and is less likely to happen if you are operating by the rules.

* Don't go public until you've exhausted all internal due process procedure.

Judith Jacobson: If a legal issue appears to be involved, contact the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).

How can a student who feels isolated build a supportive coalition?

Stanley Dubinsky: One of the most untapped resources is the potential link between Jewish university students and the Jewish community of the city in which they go to school. At many universities, Hillel is non-existent or not functional enough to provide support. Jewish communities for their part rarely reach out to students, as these individuals are perceived as temporary residents and unlikely to contribute much to the community in the longterm. This dynamic must change.

Copyright © 2006 by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. All rights reserved. This column may be reprinted without prior permission.

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