October 22, 2019

Should campus racism be discussed?

In early October, a number of prominent Jewish studies professors signed a letter stating their opposition to the AMCHA Initiative, a group with the mission of monitoring anti-Semitism at institutions of higher education in America. A study just released by AMCHA indicates, among other findings, that the Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES) at the University of California, Los Angeles, may have violated the law by promoting anti-Semitic discourse and anti-Israel bias.
As a longtime professor at UCLA and a first hand eye-witness to the politicization of CNES, I was keenly interested in the Jewish professors’ reaction to the AMCHA report, which presents a serious challenge to Jewish leadership on campus.
I was disappointed that they chose to postpone a substantive discussion of AMCHA’s findings and focused instead on attacking the motivation for conducting the study in the first place and the character of AMCHA’s organizers. They were also perturbed by AMCHA’s decision to circulate a list of Middle East studies professors that the organization considers anti-Israel.
It was disappointing, because the letter could have been more credible had it been supported by a counter study showing AMCHA’s findings to be invalid or, at least, less alarming than reported. No such study was cited.
Alternatively, the 40 professors could have reported to us, and to their students, about their own efforts to curb anti-Israel propaganda on their campuses, the methods they applied, and how effective those efforts were.  I wish they had.
The professors’ letter focuses instead on AMCHA’s technique of monitoring public lectures, symposia and conferences, saying that this “strains the basic principle of academic freedom.” I take issue with this stifling interpretation of academic freedom. Studies based on videos and eye-witness reports  are extremely valuable, and are often used by universities to gauge the impact of their programs.
Last year, when I presented the UCLA chancellor with my personal observations of how Israel was being demonized in CNES programs, he asked whether I have “supporting documentation” of such activity over a more extended period of time.
I wish I could have handed him the results of a study like the one AMCHA organized, which, theoretically, should have been conducted by the university itself. It wasn’t. Nor was it conducted by the Center for Jewish Studies, though the issues involved and the facts reported threaten to change Jewish life on campus for generations. AMCHA went to the trouble of producing such documentation, and sure enough, 40 professors rose up to scold the organization for documenting open public symposia, instead of paying attention to the racist content of those symposia and asking whether the silence of conscientious professors is still justified.
Another interesting thing I learned from the UCLA chancellor was that, with the exception of a few professors like me, leaders of the Jewish community on campus have not complained about the CNES program.
Indeed, I do not recall the Center for Jewish Studies at UCLA discussing whether it is appropriate for an academic unit that calls itself “Center for Near East Studies” to take an entire country, a home to about 50% of the Jewish people, strip it from its historic roots in the region and proclaim it an evil and temporary colonial power, ineligible for membership in the Middle East community of nations, redeemable only by extinction, dubbed “one state solution.” Is this genocidal ideology protected by academic freedom? Of course it is! But is it befitting an academic unit chartered with providing balanced perspectives of all Near East societies?
And is it ethical for us, professors, to hide such pathology from parents, students, donors and the community at large? I have seen UCLA students who have taken classes in modern Middle East history and say they have not heard about the 1948 Arab attack on Israel. I believe that we, as faculty, have an obligation to assess and minimize the damage that indoctrinated students (and their professors) are causing to the reputation of our university.
I do not recall the Center for Jewish Studies writing protest letters when two notorious Israel demonizers, Gabriel Piterberg and Sondra Hale, were chosen to co-direct the CNES, replacing Susan Slyomovics, who started CNES on its relentless anti-Israel campaign. These two co-directors of CNES are active promoters of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, and have signed petitions to boycott Israeli academics (including this writer) who are collaborating with Israeli universities. The CNES has consistently provided BDS speakers and activists with publicity, academic cover and legitimacy.
This silence by Jewish studies professors may well have been responsible for the wait-and-see attitude of the UCLA administration towards the continuing deterioration of campus climate, where Jewish students as well as Jewish professors are afraid to reveal their sentiments and identity.
The professors’ letter expresses grave concern over “stifling of debate” and over “the importance to provide opportunities to students to consider the world around them from a wide range of perspectives.” This concern is real and should be guarded vigilantly. However, I have seen how CNES stifles debate in its programs. And when pointing this out I have been told that the Israel Studies Center would be a better home for “alternative views”. But let us recall, the Higher Education Act, Title VI, obligates each academic center to present diverse perspectives; it is not enough that the university as a whole offers such opportunities.
Once we agree on the importance of open debate, we should also agree that the anti-Israel, anti-coexistence character of programs like CNES should be a subject of discussion. Moreover, I believe there is now substantial evidence for characterizing the BDS movement as racist, one that uses genetic lineage and other ethnic characteristics to deny Jews that which is granted to other collectives. So the appropriateness of BDS activists to serve as directors of academic centers at UCLA and other colleges and universities should be broached. I fail to see why my esteemed colleagues consider these topics taboo, bordering, heaven forbid, on “witch hunting” or “black listing”
And once we are discussing taboos, should we not be free to discuss the appropriateness of letting the History Department at UCLA entrust the teaching of modern Middle East history to two Zionophobic professors? Imagine the academic outcry were the Law School to entrust the teaching of Islamic law to two Islamophobic professors. This finally brings us to discussing the greatest taboo of all, whether Islam, by virtue of being a religious narrative, deserves a greater protection on campus than Zionism — a historical narrative that most Jews cherish as a centerpiece of their identity as a people. Whence did religion acquire a monopoly on human sensitivity?
There remains still a practical question that the professors’ letter has not addressed: If the BDS movement is indeed racist, what do we call its leaders and how should we guide students who are confronted with them on campus?

Judea Pearl is a Chancellor Professor of Computer Science at UCLA and president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation.  An earlier version of this piece was submitted to Forward Magazine.