There has been a long history of repression by the U.S. government, college administrations and faculty against the Palestinian struggle and Arab organizers. In the 1960s the Palestinian issue arrived on the radar of the state when it became a source of solidarity for internationally-minded people in the United States and around the world. The General Union of Palestinian Students has long been a target of FBI intimidation. Islamic activists and secular nationalists alike have been subject to state harassment, arrest and deportation for decades on college campuses and in the community. They were a threat to U.S. empire precisely because they attempted to educate American people about the realities of colonialism and racism abroad. What’s more, their activity showed the possibilities of an effective people-to-people foreign policy inevitably in opposition to the aims and interests of the ruling class.
In Detroit in 1967 the Palestinian struggle became a crisis for the Wayne State University administration when John Watson, one the founders of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and then-editor of the campus newspaper the South End, ran a series of editorials against Israeli colonialism and supportive of Palestinian armed self-defense. Watson’s work expressed a vibrant current in radical Black politics at that time. It put forward perspectives that challenged the racist view of governments and ruling classes worldwide that Palestinians and Black people cannot govern themselves. It drew comparisons between the struggles of Arab peoples in the Middle East (and Detroit) and Black people in America. Watson was eventually forced out by the university administration and city government as they worked to regain control of the newspaper. What scared them was that students on campus were breaking the illusion of the separation of the university and the community—especially the false separation between mental and manual labor—making it possible to discuss ideas and plan for self-government in political, economic, judicial, military, and cultural affairs.
More recently at Concordia University in Montreal, students were expelled after they shut down the appearance of the Israeli politician, Benjamin Netanyahu. In addition, the administration banned organizing around the Palestine issue. Students and community were clear: a racist politician was not going to be treated as a respectable person on campus. Because Israeli apartheid is supported by the Canadian government and university administrations, this action directly raised the question of who is in control of the campus, students and the community or the administration and the state?
All of these inescapable issues have been faced again. In the past year Columbia University has been the scene of highly publicized purges on the part of Zionist and government forces targeting independent-minded Arab and Muslim scholars over the question of Palestine/Israel. This has been just one skirmish in a series of attacks around the country including issues of free speech, free association, the nature of scholarship, Israeli apartheid and anti-Semitism. These assaults are only a small part of a much wider and combined effort by the government and these groups to criminalize and discipline the Arab and Muslim communities at home and abroad.
Zionist and other anti-Muslim and anti-Arab organizations with strong ties to the U.S. and Israeli governments have established themselves as leaders in the purging campaign, providing both ideological and practical training for student front groups. This renewed focus on the university was signaled soon after the 9-11 attacks. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA), founded by Lynn Cheney, wife of vice-president Dick Cheney, set the tone with a report entitled “Defending Civilization: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done About It.” The Middle East Forum, directed by Zionist ideologue Daniel Pipes, soon followed. It launched a new initiative, Campus Watch, targeting professors in Middle Eastern Studies. More recently a Zionist Boston-based group, the David Project, has focused much of its energy on Columbia University alone. They produced a short film called “Columbia Unbecoming,” in which students claimed intimidation by Arab and Muslim professors teaching Middle East history. The David Project places multiculturalism in the service of empire and a sustained hierarchy of races in which Arabs and Muslims are relegated to the bottom politically and culturally. Their speakers bureau has gays and Jews from Iran and ex-slaves from Sudan who are ready to testify how comparatively democratic and progressive Israel is to “backward” Arab and Muslim societies.
In particular, the David Project accused Columbia University professor Joseph Massad of being “unfair” and “unbalanced” in his history classes on Palestine/Israel. The David Project’s student cadres have not been able to defeat the facts and ideas of Massad, but rather invented petty incidents about teacher-student protocol as the grounds for Massad’s sanction and potential firing. The president of Columbia University, Lee Bollinger, with the vocal support of some state and New York City officials, saw the David Project’s efforts as a perfect opportunity to set up a tribunal that tried and convicted Massad on “misconduct.” Massad will probably not receive tenure.
As in the past these events have highlighted ongoing tensions inherent at every college or university. Why do these institutions officially claim a kind of independence from the rest of society and yet it’s always the rich and powerful that seem to determine what happens there? Why do these places, officially dedicated to discovering the “truth” in a free market of discussion, debate, and study, seem to be organized around an unspoken necessity to sanction, centralize and otherwise control speech and association in the hands of the state, administration, faculty and police? How is the failure to address these questions connected to the increased momentum of these purging campaigns and the emboldening of student front groups to spread racist propaganda?
In an attempt to answer these questions, it is important to examine many factors. Of special focus is the nature of the university and its relationship to our wider society; the aims of the rightwing attack on certain ideas and organizing there; the limitations of the radical-progressive politics, which are often behind defending against these assaults; finally, why Palestine has become a central issue in this conflict today. There is need for a broader discussion beyond the specific facts of recent developments at Columbia University itself.
What is the relationship of the university to the wider society? The university is a place where countless professionals, managers, and officials are trained as spokespeople, theorists, technicians, and bosses who justify, plan and carry out the rule over everyday people in the workplace, in the community and school. At the smaller colleges it is a place where the control over the authority to decide what constitutes good work and seniority is decided by an empty piece of paper in a “degree” or certification. In these spaces the Right has been determined for decades to purge vestiges of progressive thought from the university. They hope to erase progressives’ delusions about paternalistic ideas suggesting the possibility of establishing a benevolent capitalism from the middle class through the training of a new intellectual elite.
How do these realities relate to Palestine solidarity? The defense of the Palestinian movement, or any people’s movement, cannot be carried out within the official protocols and hierarchies of official campus life. It is within those boundaries that democracy and anti-racism mean subordination to the control of the state and administration inside and outside the classroom as professional arbiters of universal truth. It is also important to recognize that college administrations and the state use the promotion of diversity of opinion and tolerance to defeat political criticism. Under this guise they promote their own anti-democratic ideas that rationalize existing social relations as neutral intellectual inquiry and the search for truth. Because they are responsible for existing social relations, their ideas and presence lack all validity in a space of true democratic discussion and debate. It is for this reason that the authority of Zionists, administrators, and state officials to speak about or be the arbiters of Palestine advocacy (or any issue for that matter) must be publicly and energetically challenged and demystified.
Part of the ongoing legitimacy of Israel finds its source in administrative ideologies and practices where the most obvious oppressions or the most righteous collective self-activity on the part of a people in their own self-defense is obscured, minimized and negated in a haze of “dialogue,” “civility,” “balance,” or “objectivity.” The truth is that none of these values are practiced by official society. Its loyalty is to its own interests of state power and money as a class above society. Behind a screen of “universality” it purges and criminalizes.
An active defense of individual professors entails a necessary offense against campus administrations, and faculty with connections to the state that supports apartheid. The attacks on Joseph Massad and other professors have been enabled by the half-hearted critique of the outlook of these people. Open and closet racists among faculty, administration officials and local politicians go largely unchallenged. A successful defense of a professor under attack needs to confront the right of an unaccountable administration and faculty to exist above students and the community as a caste. This hierarchy has facilitated attacks on individual professors where their fate is decided in the bureaucratic process that these same official bodies of the college control.
Much of the response to the attacks on Arab and Muslim professors has importantly and necessarily been in their individual defense against being fired or slandered. However, it cannot be ignored that attacks on individual professors are in fact attempts to criminalize anti-racist and democratic ideas as a whole that are seeking to destroy the legitimacy of Israeli apartheid. Importantly, it is the free association of students and the wider community that is equally at stake.
One of the challenges in defending professors who come under attack is to understand that it cannot be done solely on the grounds of free speech in the abstract. There is no free speech where political and economic affairs are not under the control of the majority of people to carry out the ideas contained within the words being spoken. Free speech and discussion is a great ideal we should hold as necessary for self-government; in our society today it is a legal fiction. Another idea that makes things difficult is the one that says academic scholarship should be objective. Again, there should be a difference between genuine research and rhetoric. This is an ideal we can strive to create. Yet the reality is that much knowledge and experience is systematically oppressed within the university on a racial and class basis. Right-wingers may be surprised, but conservative, liberal and progressive professors and administrations do this. The radical progressive vision of the university must be more closely examined.
It is undoubtedly true that a reactionary culture has descended on most college campuses nationwide and that organized rightwing forces have been making inroads there. This has been especially true with advancement of the neoconservative vision of American imperialism. As potential heirs to any shift in the allegiance or philosophy of the university bureaucracy, the stakes have been high. The neo-conservative historical moment arrived with the twin tower attacks. They have promoted with zeal their dream of reforming the ruling class, the civil servants and the professional classes, in order that these may once again claim their natural mandate to rule by mobilizing the masses in the name of national greatness and the external threat. However, the progressive vision of the university, which the neo-conservative ideology so rigorously attacks, does not fundamentally differ from its purported enemy. Instead of national greatness the progressive vision is a middle class one. As well this class promotes “rights” and “participation” on the part of working people. In this vision the university remains a training ground for a class above society as managers of capital and the state. It only advocates a different set of policies from the neo-conservatives for this class.
Let’s be clear: social democratic middle class thought is not the same as insurgent social movement instincts on the part of everyday people toward direct democracy in times of social crisis. In such times, ordinary people often grasp initially for a democracy rooted in social equality in theory; in practice after severe alienation they begin to reconstruct society by taking matters into their own hands building the self-governing institutions they need without regard for permission and guidance by those who aspire as a class to enter the rules of hierarchy. The neo-conservative movement, despite McCarthyistic tendencies, has also borrowed key ideas from the intellectual traditions of Leninism, social democracy, and Cold War liberalism. These importantly include forming intellectual vanguard cells that define friends and enemies of “the people;” a vision of American empire which claims to benevolently promote liberty abroad; and the promotion of empire and a multi-racialism domestically as the key to governance of a re-engineered white supremacy and empire for our precarious times.
So what does this have to do with the function of the university in society and the recent attacks on the free speech and association that have happened there on matters of Palestine solidarity? It is critical to remember that progressive thought has always been opposed to free speech and association. Historically, the social democratic apparatus has grown in direct response to insurgent attempts by working people to take control of political and economic affairs—this is the true meaning of free speech and association. Without this awareness we are left with the absurd “right to dialogue” and be neighborly to one another.
This has been the history of struggles over education and all struggles throughout society. It doesn’t matter who is in this or that particular representative office. The progressive-liberal vision, much like the Right, attempts to cover its own ambition to plan society from above through the cloak of neutrality and freedom. Both the Right and Left wish to grant our “right” to cultural autonomy and free speech in direct proportion to their legitimacy to centralize, implement and plan social, economic and political power in their own hands as a class above society. Neither is opposed to the management from above of working folks, racism and empire, but simply fight among themselves over how their visions will help train students to rationalize and carry these affairs out. It must be remembered that the progressive vision has been behind the development of the modern schooling system, the democratic welfare state, and the modern face of American imperialism.
To keep this history in mind is to begin to understand one aspect of why such politics animating Palestine solidarity efforts are unable to successfully defend free speech and association. Many sincere young people and concerned teachers have fought the recent purges on the same grounds that these attacks have been justified. In the specific case of Massad, many supporters and sympathizers have appealed to the notions of the university as a politically neutral place, and to the legitimacy of the official hierarchies and the bureaucracy to control the university. This has had the unfortunate effect of putting Massad’s fate into the hands of elites and racists. But this is only one blind spot of radical-progressive politics. The other factor is the question of Palestine itself, which exposes the inability of these politics to clearly stand up to Israeli apartheid and support an anti-imperialist position that understands that no state and ruling class has a claim to legitimacy.
That Palestine/Israel has become a focus in this ongoing purge in America’s universities and colleges is tied to important developments of the ideology of American official society. This is another factor that must be examined when considering these unfortunate attacks on free speech and association at the college campus, exactly where the next generation of officials, professionals, and politicians are trained.
In 1948 the United States government supported the recognition of Israel just as it was beginning to take over the Western imperial mandate over the Middle East. By 1967 its attention had permanently turned from reestablishing the state and capitalist order of Europe to the rest of the world. At the same time the old racial and class order was passing in the U.S. through a combination of immense state violence and accommodation.
Each of these crises for American imperialism combined with the uneasy truce of domestic social conflict had a tremendous impact on the ideology of official society. The successful averting of civil war and revolution in the United States from the 1920s through the 1960s by the ruling class seemed for them to herald the divine rightness of their mandate to lead the world. America’s progressives and liberals joined with conservatives (even at times being subject to repression by them) in the tacit assumption that oligarchic democratic capitalism was the best of all possible worlds.
Here is where the role of Israel in the plans of American official society becomes clear. For them Israel becomes a creation in the image of the United States. It cannot be forgotten that Israel and the U.S. share a long history of subversion of nationalist elites and peoples’ movements in colonized nations they collectively deem threatening. American official society became more reactionary as it embroiled itself in imperialist wars throughout the Third World. It is through this experience that U.S. official society begins to identify more closely with the Israeli racial experiment. This was equally true on the home front. Behind the potential collapse of Israel’s racial experiment as one of the favored sons of history are the profound disturbances of America’s own society that always calls into question its own racial and class order. The U.S. regime had to be re-engineered as a form of white supremacy and empire that respected historically oppressed people as partners in hierarchal governance. It is true that in some hallways and villages across the red, white and blue there are still many whiteys in high places that didn’t get the memo. Nevertheless a national consensus has been forged and the ruling elites are not turning back.
This is the backdrop to the contemporary urgency of the U.S. state, Zionist and other rightwing organizations to dominate the university in relation to the Palestine question. The powerful sponsors of this purging campaign—Washington and Tel Aviv-based bureaucrats, politicians, elites and agents—understand the importance of the university as a vital cultural and social propaganda arm of the state and official society. It is true the Zionist offensive in the university has adapted methods used widely by the Right in the era of McCarthyism. However, they have stirred in some sugar and spice. Now they are for “diversity,” “dialogue,” and “free speech.” Those who disagree with white supremacy and empire, rejecting them as legitimate paradigms, have become branded as “intolerant.” And it’s this shucking and jiving that solidarity activists have had to navigate. Most have not done so successfully.
With the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising, student and community solidarity efforts in the United States began to make inroads on public opinion about Palestine. This development took both the Israeli government and American Zionist groups by surprise. Within a year they desperately sought to clamp down on such activity. Their propaganda, student and alumni fronts, as well as their alliance with government officials and campus administrations, were publicly aimed at the handful of Arab and Muslim scholars and, behind the scenes, against Muslim, Arab and Palestine solidarity student organizations. In many respects this was a replay of the period of the first Intifada. However, the activity in communities and campuses was more widespread. The attack on Joseph Massad has been the first such open and sustained attempt to purge a professor solely for political beliefs without alleging “criminal” activity.
The university is an arm of the state and official society. However, its control of students and attempts to hold up the barrier between campus and community is always faltering. What worried the Israeli government, Zionist organizations and their campus front groups was that, with the outbreak of the Intifada, “unofficial” ideas and organizing that exposed Israeli apartheid and its relationship with American society were being produced and critically examined by students independent of the official college apparatus. What’s even worse, they worried that these ideas would be taken into the community, as they have. A public campaign to criminalize such student organizing was soon underway with the help of campus officials. These officials have had a presiding interest in this because of their own support for the institutional and financial ties to Israel and U.S. imperialism. Student organizing against Israeli apartheid was exposing the crisis of the officials’ own legitimacy.
From the perspective and necessities of fundamental change there is no real difference between the liberal-progressive and neo-conservative intellectuals. It is argued that these progressive academics should be defended because they provide a sympathetic voice, or even some institutional protection to student organizing and social justice causes. This is only true to the extent that student and community power is the basis for these progressive intellectuals’ existence. It is equally true that behind the neo-conservative and their allies’ façade of debate in the free market of ideas is the threat of mobilizing the state and its police forces against their enemies. In their attacks on certain academics and students they have proven this. It is for this very reason the neo-conservative attack should be smashed.
However, all defenses of particular academics should be made with the goal of expanding the autonomy and control of the college by the students and the community, not reinforcing the hierarchal status of the faculty as a class above society. Further, the attack on Arab or Muslim academics, or Middle East programs, is a sideshow to the racist attack on the Arab and Muslim community both domestically and abroad.
Defense of any particular academic or department should not be made on the basis of protecting that person or department as a professional academic, but as protecting against an assault on students and the community. It should be the students and community that decides whether a teacher stays or goes. The process of destroying the neo-conservative advance must bring about the expanded power of the students and community, not the strengthening of a permanent class of intellectuals and academics on high.
It is often said by progressives that education is a right, not a privilege. You’ve heard the formulation, “build more schools, less prisons,” and the band played on. But being professional educators above society, from a view where everyday people can be self-governing, is a privilege. Tenure, like unions, for teachers is not a bad thing. But professors cannot be expected to be protected by their unions and bosses anymore than working people. However, a democratic and anti-racist educator in a white supremacist and capitalist world doesn’t just critique such regimes to entertain herself or a narrowly defined “critical thinking” professional community. Rather such have the duty to contribute to their destabilization and their ultimate toppling, staying paid and employed however long they can. Arguments should be made not in defense of academic freedom when professors are attacked but more importantly in the name of everyday folks’ and their students’ freedom to speak and voluntarily associate to express their own views, choosing teachers who may have special talents and contributions to represent them, but who are ultimately answerable to their sovereign control.
Whether courses are offered or books written by tenured professors telling the truth about Israel/Palestine is not the fundamental issue. To think in this manner is to suggest Black studies and women studies programs came before the civil rights, Black Power or women’s movements. Defense of more democratic and anti-racist minded professors come from an independent sense of a more democratic-minded constituency, building them with courage from below where they don’t yet exist. Anti-racist and democratic-minded students, even a few, have tremendous popular, if not infrastructural power, to turn a hypocritical educational institution upside down. Students can be the allies of insurgent professors not if they are dependent on them but if students and the community understand the fact that they themselves hold leverage for free speech and association.
The liberal-progressive academics have always been ambiguous spectators of student and community movements. Their growth has been in proportion to the lack of mass movements in recent decades. Before the right-wing threat they have rolled over. Because of their irrevocable institutional allegiance to the idea of the progressive university they balance their own defense with the desire to continue to secure their grants and access to the state. Only students and the community are capable of defending their gains in education from the attack by the state. Hoping to survive the rising tide the professors drown in trying to only save themselves.