America's New McCarthyism

Conservative activist David Horowitz, founder of Students for Academic Freedom, addresses a public hearing Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2006, at Temple University. AP

This column was written by Larry Cohler-Esses.

Meet Professor Nadia Abu El-Haj, a notorious Barnard College professor now up for tenure who:

  • claims the ancient Israelite kingdoms are a "pure political fabrication,"

  • denies the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in 70 CE and instead blames its destruction on the Jews,

  • does not speak or read Hebrew yet had the temerity to publish a book on Israeli archaeology that demanded such expertise,

  • is so ignorant of her topic that she quotes one archaeologist on how a dig might have damaged the ancient palaces of Solomon - oblivious to the fact that those palaces, if they existed, were far from the site in question.

    None of these charges are true. You could look it up. I did, in El-Haj's book "Facts on the Ground," about which these charges are made. The statements for which a network of right-wing critics assail her book are not there.

    I asked Paula Stern, the Barnard alum who has organized an online petition demanding that El-Haj be denied tenure, how she squared her petition's charges with El-Haj's book. "The petition takes pieces of criticisms from experts. It may not be quoted 100 percent accurate," she admitted. Still, more than 2,500 people, including many Barnard and Columbia alumni, have signed on to its claims. Tellingly, Stern, who now lives in the West Bank, voiced astonishment at being asked to justify her charges in terms of what El-Haj's book actually says. "I've spoken to many newspapers," she said. "No one has done what you've done."

    I looked that up, too. In the key media venues, at least, Stern was right; and not just with regard to her target. In case after case, a network of right-wing activists has started an online furor based on a mélange of distorted or provably false charges against someone involved in Middle East studies. They supported these charges with quotes yanked out of context or entirely made up and wielded a broad brush of guilt by association. Right-wing media megaphoned the charges, stoking the furor. And mainstream media ultimately noticed and responded, often focusing their stories on the furor rather than the facts.

    Under pressure from these assaults, some academic institutions buckle and a professor's career is derailed; in other cases it is permanently stained. More insidious, even when tenure puts an academic beyond the reach of his or her assailants, more vulnerable junior faculty and grad students take note. "There certainly is a sense among faculty and grad students that they're being watched, monitored," said Zachary Lockman, president of the Middle East Studies Association. "People are always looking over their shoulder, feeling that whatever they say - in accurate or, more likely, distorted form - can end up on a website. It definitely has a chilling effect."

    This is the modus operandi of the New McCarthyism. It targets a new enemy for our era: Muslims, Arabs and others in the Middle East field who are identified as stepping over an unstated line in criticizing Israel, as radical Islamists, as just plain radical or as in some way sympathetic to terrorists. Its purveyors include Campus Watch, run by Arab studies scholar Daniel Pipes; the David Project, supported by the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Foundation; and David Horowitz's FrontPage Magazine (in October Horowitz organized an "Islamo-Fascism Awareness Week" on campuses across the nation).

    Their efforts often appear to be linked. As first noted by blogger Richard Silverstein, the earliest web attack on El-Haj's book was posted simultaneously by Campus Watch and FrontPage, in October 2005. Alexander Joffe, identified as a professor at SUNY, Purchase, published a harshly negative review of the book in The Journal of Near Eastern Studies that same month. The prestigious journal did not note - and was not informed - that he was then-director of Campus Watch. Soon after, he became research director for the David Project. Less prominent researchers like Stern, the online PipeLine News and writers such as Beila Rabinowitz and William Mayer provide raw material to the more well-known portals, such as Pipes and Horowitz. Pipes's and Horowitz's material is, in turn, picked up by key conservative papers like the New York Post and New York Sun.

    There is an undeniable security threat, but as in the 1950s the New McCarthyites use it as a base for demagogy. Their distinguishing feature is not concern about this threat but cynical indifference to the truth or decency of their charges. Take the case of Debbie Almontaser, the New York City public high school principal forced to resign in August as head of a new Arabic/English secondary school. The furor revolved around her attempt in an interview with the Post to explain the meaning of, rather than simply condemn, T-shirts bearing the words Intifada NYC. This provoked a firestorm. United Federation of Teachers chief Randi Weingarten, a key supporter of Almontaser's school, condemned her in a letter to the Post. The next day Almontaser resigned - a move publicly welcomed by Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Almontaser has since stated she was told to resign or the school, which she founded, would be closed.

    In its obscuring, anodyne postmortem on the affair, the New York Times vaguely described Almontaser as a victim of the city's "treacherous ethnic and ideological political currents" rather than of specific charges that were demonstrably false - like Pipes's widely publicized claim, based on a truncated quotation, that she denied Muslims or Arabs were involved in the 9/11 attacks. The Times report on El-Haj adopted a similar hands-off stance, simply quoting supporters and attackers. It did not once compare the activists' charges with what El-Haj actually said in her book.

    As it happens, Almontaser's forced resignation was the city Education Department's second dive in the face of pressure from the New McCarthyites. Three years ago it dismissed Professor Rashid Khalidi, the esteemed director of Columbia's Middle East Institute, from lecturing teachers enrolled in professional development courses. The dismissal came in response to a Sun article claiming Khalidi had denounced Israel as "a 'racist' state with an 'apartheid system.'" Khalidi denied the quote fragments as they were used in the story. "I do not think Zionism is racist," he told the Forward. "When we talk about some of the contemporary laws, there are policies that I consider racist and discriminatory." Asked if the department had verified Khalidi's purported remarks before dismissing him, a department spokesman avoided answering Times columnist Joyce Purnick.

    Khalidi still has his day job, as does - so far - a nontenured Columbia colleague, Joseph Massad, who according to a special school investigative committee was falsely accused several years ago of discriminating against Jewish and Israeli students. The same cannot be said for Norman Finkelstein, who was terminated at Chicago's DePaul University in September after the school's president - in a rare departure from standard procedure - rejected the overwhelming tenure approval Finkelstein had received at both the departmental and college levels. Finkelstein's scholarly work has accused Jewish groups of exploiting the Holocaust and Israel of egregious human rights violations. He had incurred the special wrath of Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, whose book defending Israel Finkelstein had devoted an entire book to savaging. Dershowitz, in turn, tried unsuccessfully to prevent the University of California Press from publishing Finkelstein's book, and sent Finkelstein's tenure committees a dossier that he said documented his "most egregious academic sins, and especially his outright lies, misquotations, and distortions." Clearly, the tenure committees were not impressed by Dershowitz's claims. DePaul president Dennis Holtschneider, for his part, denied that Dershowitz's intervention affected his decision.

    Beshara Doumani, a University of California history professor, has mapped the systemic strategy of the New McCarthyism, highlighting that more than just its targets are new. First and foremost, private advocacy groups, not Congressional committees, are by and large today's means of pressuring academic administrations - at least, so far. These groups often retain important ties to government figures. But they are most focused on organizing alumni and students, with an eye toward generating public outrage and eventually government and donor pressure.

    "I'm worried about untenured professors trying to get tenure," said Doumani, co-chair of the Middle East Studies Association's Committee on Academic Freedom. "I'm worried about entire departments saying, 'We need people in Middle East positions, but we're not going to hire certain kinds of people. It involves too much headache, too much risk.' How do you quantify that? You can't. But it's going around. I can tell you, it's a real issue."
    By Larry Cohler-Esses
    Reprinted with permission from the The Nation

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