By William I Robinson. This article was first published on Truthout.
Professor William Robinson of UCSB was the target of a campaign of intimidation, silencing, and political repression that included techniques described in the “Hasbara handbook” by the Israel lobby in contravention of academic freedom and university rules. He describes the experience here.
The latest Israeli carnage in Gaza has provoked worldwide condemnation of Israel for its continued war crimes and its illegal occupation of Palestinian territories. In response, the Israeli state and its allies and agents are stepping up campaigns of intimidation, silencing, and political repression against opponents of its policies. Israel may continue to win military battles – after all, it has the fifth most powerful military on the planet – but it is losing the war for legitimacy. In the wake of its bloody attacks on schools, hospitals and United Nations refugee centers in Gaza, support has intensified around the world for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign. The BDS campaign in the United States has taken off, above all, on university campuses, which is why the Israel lobby is so intent on targeting academia.
Five years ago, I was attacked by the Israel lobby in the United States, led by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), and nearly run from the University of California at Santa Barbara (UCSB), where I work as a professor of sociology, global and Latin American studies. The campaign against me lasted some six months and garnered worldwide attention, but I am hardly alone. Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of professors and student groups have been harassed and persecuted for speaking out against Israeli occupation and apartheid and in support of the Palestinian struggle. Some of these cases have been high profile in the media and others have gone relatively unknown. The latest victim, Steven Salaita, a respected scholar and professor of English literature and American Indian Studies, was fired in August from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, for denouncing on social media the most recent Israeli atrocities in Gaza.
The persecution to which I was subjected involved a litany of harassment, slander, defamation of character and all kinds of threats against the university by outside forces if I was not dismissed, as well as hate mail and death threats from unknown sources. More insidiously, it involved a shameful collaboration between a number of university officials and outside forces from the Israel lobby as the university administration stood by silently, making a mockery of academic freedom.
The disciplinary procedure initiated against me by UCSB officials involved a host of irregularities, violations of the university’s own procedures, breaches of confidentiality, denial of due process, conflicts of interest, failure of disclosure, improper political surveillance, abuses of power and position, unwarranted interference in curriculum and teaching and so on. As I would discover during the course of the ordeal, individuals inside the university and in positions of authority had linked up with agents of the lobby outside the university in setting out to prosecute me.
Dozens, perhaps hundreds, of professors and student groups have been harassed and persecuted for speaking out against Israeli occupation and apartheid and in support of the Palestinian struggle.
I may well have been run from the university if it were not for graduate and undergraduate students (together with a handful of committed colleagues), who early on in the persecution set up the Committee to Defend Academic Freedom that launched a worldwide campaign in my defense. This in turn sparked a good portion of the faculty into action, several months into the campaign of persecution against me, to defend my academic freedom. This campaign also generated widespread support for me off campus, pressure that eventually forced the university to back down and the Israel lobby to give up and move on to targets of harassment elsewhere, thereby demonstrating that this lobby is not invincible, and indeed, is increasingly vulnerable. The entire story is documented on the committee’s website. During the course of the six-month campaign the committee and I were able to piece together the events that are here reconstructed – in part and in brief – to the best of my knowledge.
Operation Cast Lead and the Israel lobby’s Inside-Outside Strategy
On January 18, 2009, Israel concluded its month-long Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, which left 1,400 Palestinians dead and thousands more wounded, up to 80 percent of them civilians. The following day, one week into our winter quarter classes, I forwarded to the LISTSERV for my course on the sociology of globalization optional reading materials drawn from the international press for classroom discussion that evening on the Israel-Palestine conflict. The reading materials included among other items a Reuters news article reporting that a Jewish editor of the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle had been sacked for publishing an article by a Jewish-American journalist who visited the West Bank and denounced the occupation. They also included a photo-essay that had been circulating on the internet and that juxtaposed Israeli atrocities in Gaza and Nazi atrocities in Warsaw, along with a commentary of my own, including this paragraph:
The Israeli army is the fifth most potent military machine in the world and one that is backed by a propaganda machine that rivals and may well surpass that of the US, a machine that dares to make the ludicrous and obnoxious claim that opposition to the policies and practices of the Israeli state is anti-Semitism. It should be no surprise that a state founded on the negation of a people was one of the principal backers of the apartheid South African state not to mention of the Latin American military dictatorships until those regimes collapsed under mass protest, and today arms, trains, and advises military and paramilitary forces in Colombia, one of the world’s worst human rights violators.
My course on the sociology of globalization takes up vital and controversial issues that impact global society and each class meeting starts with a discussion of some current affair, such as Operation Cast Lead. However, two students of the 80 enrolled in the course, whom I have never met and did not know, apparently did not feel that they should receive any course material that challenged their beliefs. Instead of attending class that evening, they made contact with the Hillel organization on campus who then took them to meet with the ADL, the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, Stand With Us, and several other Jewish organizations and faculty members of campus. The ADL and these other organizations then went into action.
External monitoring and censorship of course conduct is a violation of faculty academic freedom and was not a legitimate part of the university’s complaint procedure.
First, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Zionist organization in Los Angeles, sat down with one of the students to film her, with her face blotted out (the film stated the student “has asked to protect her identity for fear of reprisal”), as she claimed she was intimidated by my course material, and then posted the film on YouTube under the title “Jewish Students Shocked by UCSB Professor’s Demonizing Email.” The Wiesenthal Center called for me to be punished and accused me of anti-Semitism until they learned that I am of Jewish background, and then charged instead that I was a “self-hating Jew.”
Next, the students met with the local ADL chapter in Santa Barbara, and were apparently instructed by the ADL and its affiliated groups to contact the Charges Office at UCSB and lodge a grievance against me. The Charges Office is set up by the University to receive grievances over possible violation by faculty members of the Faculty Code of Conduct (e.g., sexual harassment, racial bias, etc.). The Charges Office is expected to investigate possible violations, and to dismiss frivolous charges, that is, charges that clearly do not involve a violation of the code.
What I did not know at the time, but would soon learn, is that two of the three officers of the Charges Office belonged to the Zionist community in Santa Barbara that had already begun to combine against me, and that at least one of them, Aaron Ettenberg, had already made contact with the outside groups working with the students. Ettenberg, was a former president of the Santa Barbara B’nai B’rith, the parent organization of the ADL. Neither of these two revealed their affiliations or recused themselves due to the blatant conflict of interests. To the contrary, we would soon learn that Ettenberg met with Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaeffer, director at the time of the Santa Barbara chapter of Hillel, a Jewish organization linked with the ADL, and an outspoken leader of the pro-Israeli Jewish community in Santa Barbara, to consult with him about my case prior to the university’s decision to investigate me.
This explains why, on February 9 the director of the local ADL Chapter Cynthia Silverman sent me a letter protesting my course materials and accusing me of violating a number of items of the Faculty Code of Conduct. How did the ADL come into possession of my course material? Copies of this ADL letter were sent to my department chair, to UCSB Chancellor Henry Yang, and to then-UC President Mark Yudof (himself an outspoken Zionist). The campaign now picked up steam. Three days later, Martin Scharlemann, who was the chair of the Charges Office, summoned me “urgently” to meet with him to discuss the complaint that the students had lodged with the Charges Office. I was by told by Scharlemann’s staff assistant, Stephanie Smagala, that it was “imperative” that I come down that very afternoon due to “an urgent situation.” I did not understand at the time why such alarm, why Scharlemann was treating this as an emergency situation, whereas this was but a routine student grievance evidently not involving any urgent matter such as sexual assault, possible violence, or anything remotely of that nature, and strictly referred to two students’ disagreement with the content of course material, a course that they had dropped.
At the same time as the university’s Charges Office was organizing its prosecution, I was contacted through a mediator by Rabbi Gross-Schaeffer, who had previously met with Charges Office member Aaron Ettenberg. This mediator, a colleague of mine, then set up a confidential meeting between the two of us. “We [the Israel lobby] will pull back if you meet our conditions,” he told me. You need to “ask for repentance, to apologize for what you have done.” I told Gross-Schaeffer that I had done nothing morally objectionable and more so, I had not violated any rules, codes or procedures at the university and was acting fully within my rights of academic freedom. “Well apparently there are people at the university that disagree with you and are prepared to move forward against you if you do not repent,” he replied.
The charges against me were entirely contrived. There is absolutely nothing in the Faculty Code of Conduct that even remotely suggests that my course material violated any item of the code. In my February meeting with Scharlemann and his staff assistant Smagala, the two asked several questions entirely inappropriate and outside of their jurisdiction, including as to whether I had placed on the course syllabus the topic of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, which suggested that the two believed they were empowered as part of the complaint procedure to examine the content of my course and to determine what was and was not relevant to that content.
Such external monitoring and censorship of course conduct is a violation of faculty academic freedom and was not a legitimate part of the university’s complaint procedure. Although the materials I distributed were relevant for my course, even if they had not been, their inclusion in the course reading material would not have violated the Faculty Code of Conduct. Neither Scharlemann nor Smagala had any right to assess what was relevant for my courses on globalization (or indeed any other topics of sociology).
The charges amounted to a blatant attempt at political censorship and an illegitimate use of the university’s grievance procedure.
These gross violations by the Charges Office, as well as the contact between the Charges Office and outside pressure groups from the Israel lobby and other irregularities and violations of university rules and procedures as this persecution unfolded were brought to the attention of university officials of the highest levels, right up to Chancellor Yang and Executive Vice Chancellor Gene Lucas, upon whom it was incumbent to defend my academic freedom and the integrity of the university. Yang chose, however, to ignore my insistence that he and the university defend my academic freedom and put an end to what was becoming a charade. In fact, he expressed more anxiety about the harassment campaign organized by Stand With Us and its members’ threats to withdraw funding from the university if I were not fully prosecuted.
A week later, Scharlemann notified me that the two students had filed formal written complaints and I was expected to reply and defend myself. The farcical and politicized nature of the attacks against me now became apparent. Here is an excerpt from one of the student complaints (the full complaints are posted on the website):
An important issue is the distinction between the legitimate criticism of policies and practices of the State of Israel, and commentary that assumes an anti-Semitic character. The demonization of Israel, or vilification of Israeli leaders sometimes through comparisons with Nazi leaders, and through the use of Nazi symbols to caricature them, indicates an anti-Semitic bias rather than a valid criticism of policy. I found these parallel images intimidating, disgusting, and beyond a teacher role as an educator in the university system. I feel that something must be done so other students don’t have to go through the same intimidating disgust I went through . . . He has also violated the universities policies by ‘participating in or deliberately abetting disruption, interference, or intimidation in the classroom (Part II, Section A, Number 5). Robinson has done so through this intimidating email which had pushed me to withdraw from this course and take another one . . . By Robinson using his university email account he attaches his thoughts with that of the university and they become a single entity sharing the same ideas.”
The second letter repeats the accusation of anti-Semitism, a definition lifted verbatim from the US State Department and then continues:
In all the years of schooling and higher education I have never experienced an abuse of an educator position . . . To hide behind a computer and send this provocative email shows poor judgment and perhaps a warped personality. The classroom and the forum of which higher education is presented needs to be safe and guarded so the rights of individuals are respected. handle [sic] . . . The fact that the professor attached his views to the depiction of what my great grandparents and family experienced shows lack of sensitivity and awareness. What he did was criminal because he took my trust and invaded something that is very personal. I felt as if I have been violated by the professor. Yes I am aware of Anti-Semitism, but to abuse this position in an environment of higher education where I always thought it to be safe, until now, is intimidating. This professor should be stopped immediately from continuing to disseminate this information and be punished because his damage is irreversible.
The actual charges contained in the students’ letters were simply absurd; they included a long list of charges copied straight from the Code of Conduct, including those against romantic relations with students, despite the fact that I had never met the students in question, and charges against the use of university property for commercial gain, which had no bearing whatsoever on the case. The letters of complaint, in fact, opened up with the bizarre charge that I actually violated my own right to present controversial material. They included the charge of discrimination, even though my only act for which the students submitted a grievance was to have sent reading material uniformly to the entire class, for which reason by definition discrimination was not involved. The litany of charges included also violations of the canons of intellectual honesty, speaking in private capacity while creating the impression that I represented the university, and so on. And all these accusations were generated by nothing more than an optional reading sent by internet to the entire course LISTSERV and that represented some 1/10th of 1 percent of the assigned reading material for the course.
“Apparently, they have decided enough vulnerability exists in the university community . . . They’re making this (the Robinson case) into a litmus test to silence criticism of Israel.”
In matter of fact, the students’ grievance was based strictly on their objection to the content of course material. This fact, indeed, is not in dispute, as is apparent from the text of their letters. According to the University of California procedures, a grievance procedure is available to students who feel that they may have been disadvantaged, graded unfairly, or otherwise discriminated against on account of disagreements with the professor’s views, not when the students merely disagree with a professor’s views, or with the views expressed in course readings. To the contrary, the very preamble to the University’s Faculty Code of Conduct states that the primary purpose of the code is to protect faculty’s right to academic freedom, e.g., to protect faculty from frivolous complaints by students.
I was bewildered at the time as to why Scharlemann refused to reject the claims as frivolous. Given that there was no substantiation of the students’ long list of complaints and that the only basis for the students’ complaint was an optional reading they received by email that criticized the Israeli government as part of a course on global affairs, what could Scharlemann possibly have found in these student letters to have led him not to inform the students that it was frivolous? I only learned subsequently that behind Scharlemann and several other university officials involved in my persecution was the malicious intent of a web of individuals outside the university representing the Israel lobby and coordinating with the students and university officials.
For much of March and into April Scharlemann ignored my request for him to substantiate the basis of his decision to press forward rather than dismiss the case. The university waited more than two months before actually informing me of exactly what was the charge against me, that is, exactly what aspect of the Code of Conduct I was alleged to have violated. On April 5, Scharlemann sent to me what is known as a “charges sheet,” which accused me of distributing “highly partisan” material to my students “accompanied by lurid photographs” and “was unexpected and without educational context,” that I had engaged in “coercion of conscience” as a result of which “two enrolled students were too distraught to continue with the course.”
In fact, the University’s Faculty Code of Conduct nowhere states that course material must not be “partisan” or that “lurid” images are violations of the code. Indeed, not a single one of the charges against me are stipulated in the code as violations. The charges amounted to a blatant attempt at political censorship and an illegitimate use of the university’s grievance procedure. I asked Scharlemann for explanations, e.g., what he meant by “lurid photos.” In my letter requesting further explanation, I wrote:
‘Lurid’ is defined by Webster’s as ‘vivid in a harsh or shocking way.’ In what way is the introduction of images vivid in a harsh or shocking way a violation of the Faculty Code of Conduct? Why would photos of military conflict not be ‘harsh and shocking’? And why would their presentation in a University course be a violation of the Faculty Code of Conduct? . . . By suggesting that images that document shocking events and “partisan” material should not be introduced into a university course your charges sheet appears to advocate – beyond the suppression of academic freedom – outright political censorship. The Faculty Code of Conduct does not, in any way, proscribe “partisan” material or images that are vivid in a harsh and shocking way. To the contrary, the code establishes as the right of faculty the ‘right to present controversial material relevant to a course of instruction’ and its very Preamble states that the intent of the code is to protect academic freedom.”
Scharlemann ignored my letter, and more seriously, so did all of the university administrators to whom I wrote demanding an explanation for this political persecution and demanding that the university protect and defend my academic freedom. Instead, this Charges Office proceeded to establish a special investigative and prosecutorial committee (known on my campus as an Ad Hoc Committee) to further investigate my alleged violations and apply possible sanctions.
Enter the ADL’s (and Mossad’s) Abraham Foxman
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), with 34 regional offices in North American, a staff of 400, and a $32 million annual budget, is one of the core organizations of the Israel lobby in the United States, exposed by US political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt in their study “The Israel lobby and US Foreign Policy.” The ADL has a long and sordid history of spying on, slandering and vilifying critics of Israel -victims of its infiltration have included the NAACP, the ACLU, Greenpeace, the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination League, and thousands of private citizens, among others – in cooperation with Israel’s foreign intelligence service, Mossad. ADL director Abraham Foxman is an international lobbyist for Israel who has met frequently with national and world leaders, including all US presidents since Richard Nixon, and who brags that he has direct access to the office of the Israeli Prime Minister.
On March 19, Foxman arrived at UCSB for a meeting hosted by Religious Studies professor Richard Hecht and attended by Deans David Marshall and Michael Young and several faculty members. Cynthia Silverman by his side, Foxman demanded that the university take action against me. Some of the meeting participants told me that Foxman requested the meeting at UCSB for the sole purpose of demanding that university officials investigate me for introducing course materials critical of Israeli state policies. In fact, the only agenda item of this meeting was my case. History professor Harold Marcuse, who attended the meeting, later stated: “When the meeting started, Foxman quickly launched into what I would call a rant about what he said was an anti-Semitic email that professor Robinson sent to his class. We then had an open discussion about Foxman’s comments and the charges against Robinson. In my recollection, that was the only thing we talked about at the meeting. Nothing else was discussed.”
Alongside the ADL, the organization Stand With Us launched a nationwide and worldwide campaign to pressure the university to fire me, including a petition drive and a letter-writing campaign. Stand With Us’ founding mission is to counter criticism of Israel on university campuses worldwide, according to its website. Created in 2001, its site openly calls college campuses a “modern-day battlefront” for Israel. “Today Israel faces a new global threat, one that is fought in the media, on university campuses, and in the court of public opinion,” reads the Stand With Us home page, while its Bay Area chapter is even more candid: “Our mission is to stand up to anti-Israel speech wherever it may surface,” reads the site. “We are (unofficially) representing the state of Israel.”
In late 2008, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee announced that it would target US universities, especially big state universities, starting with the University of California.
Stand With Us representatives threatened a campaign to have pro-Israel donors cut off financial donations to UCSB if I were not prosecuted. For instance, Stand With Us sent a letter to Vice Chancellor Gene Lucas dated March 16 and posted at ww.standwithus.com. The letter states that Stand With Us board member Leah Yadegar was in contact with the two student complainants. It stated that Yadegar then “distributed the email widely to UCSB donors, media, and Jewish organizations, including Stand With US,” and that Stand With US board member Howard Waldow, a UCSB donor, discussed my case with Chancellor Yang at a reception.
At the time, Roz Rothstein, international director for Stand With Us, told the UCSB student newspaper, The Daily Nexus, that the campaign against me could set a precedent for more action against Israel critics at other universities. My colleague Richard Falk, who was a visiting professor of global studies at UCSB and the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in the Palestinian territories, commented at the time that Rothstein’s remarks indicated a “disturbing” escalation in pro-Israel pressure on college campuses in general, and at UCSB in particular. “Apparently, they have decided enough vulnerability exists in the university community for them to mobilize pressure campaigns,” Falk said. “They’re making this (the Robinson case) into a litmus test to silence criticism of Israel.”
Falk was right; the Israel lobby had made my case a litmus test. On the other hand, I was carried away by support from around the world as international pressure mounted on the university to put an end to my persecution. The university received letters in support of me and demanding that the charges be dropped from dozens of professional associations and community organizations, among them, the National Lawyers Guild, California Scholars for Academic Freedom, the Middle Eastern Studies Association of North America, the editorial board of the UK-based scholarly journal Race and Class, the Global Studies Association, and the March 25 Coalition, an immigrant rights coalition in Southern California. It also received petitions signed by thousands of people from around the United States and the world, and countless letters from individuals from all five continents, a sampling of which have been posted. The Committee to Defend Academic Freedom organized a teach-in on May 21 that left standing room only in the auditorium and media in attendance from around Southern California.
A Secret Absolution
The Ad Hoc Committee set up to investigate me in April concluded its investigation into me on May 15 and found that I was not in violation of the Faculty Code of Conduct. Yet Chancellor Yang kept these results secret from me and from the public for another six weeks, until June 24. Since Chancellor Yang and his immediate underlings, including Vice Chancellor Gene Lucas, ignored my correspondence with them, I do not know from the horse’s mouth what their motives were for continuing to apply political pressure on me for another six weeks. Were they waiting for a major Jewish donation to the university to be consummated before publicly announcing their dismissal of the charges against me? Was the Israel lobby still conspiring on how to move forward in persecuting me?
On June 10, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Education (FIRE), a Pennsylvania-based nonprofit, had come to my defense in the name of First Amendment rights and academic freedom. One of their Attorneys, Adam Kissel, wrote the chancellor warning him that if all charges against me were not dropped by 5 pm on June 24, his organization would launch a major media campaign and a law suit against the University of California. An hour or so before this deadline, the university chose to inform me of the decision, made six weeks earlier and kept secret, that the charges against me had already been dropped.
But the administration was also under mounting pressure from my colleagues. Spurred on by my students, whose mobilization in my defense included a sit-in at the chancellor’s office and threats of more sit-ins, an international petition drive, and other public protests, my colleagues mobilized against the improprieties. Some 100 faculty members and 20 heads of departments signed a petition protesting the university’s handling of the accusations against me. And on June 8, some 80 faculty members filled a Senate meeting and passed a motion to investigate the irregularities surrounding my case. By this time, my case had garnered worldwide media attention and the university was in the spotlight as public pressure mounted. Yet the university administration refused to put an end to the witch-hunt. Instead, Chancellor Yang sent me a message via an intermediary: “Stop embarrassing the university.”
“Scholars whose work is critical of Israeli policies have been denied jobs, denied tenure, and in general have their lives made difficult not because of academic criteria, but because of political interference.”
Following the dismissal of charges against me, I submitted a 40-page grievance to the UCSB Academic Senate. According to the Senate’s bylaws, a committee should have investigated the litany of irregularities, violations of procedure, breaches of confidentiality, conflicts of interest, failure of disclosure, improper political surveillance, abuses of power and position, and other acts of misconduct against me as a faculty member, some of which has been discussed here and all of which can be found at the website, including original letters and documents pertaining to the case. Nonetheless, the Senate chose to investigate exactly one single violation – that of Ettenberg’s undisclosed conflict of interest – and then exonerated him. How did they reach this decision to exonerate? According to the Senate’s letter to me in response to my grievance, they simply asked him if he had a conflict of interest and he said he did not!
Whereas the allegations against me took just a few minutes to make, and the Senate investigation into breaches of my rights took but one word to dismiss, I had to suspend my research and professional activities and put on hold my personal life for the duration of the six months, in which I had to defend myself against frivolous allegations. Indeed, across the country whenever such persecutions are launched the burden falls on those that are targeted to defend themselves, often tying up the individual’s time and life for months and generating great emotional stress.
UCSB has yet to honor my demand that the institution apologize for the ordeal it put me through and the damage done to my professional reputation.
Nazi Propaganda Minister Goebbels’ Tactics on US Campuses
Yet that ordeal is but a fly in the face of the horrific crimes to which the Palestinians are subjected on a daily basis by Israeli occupation, apartheid, and periodic massacres. It is, in addition, something faced by dozens, perhaps hundreds, of faculty and students who chose not to back down in the face of McCarthyist repression in their commitment to speaking truth to power.
In late 2008, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee announced that it would target US universities, especially big state universities, starting with the University of California. AIPAC director Howard Kohr acknowledged at the 2009 annual convention the erosion of Israel’s legitimacy, warning that there was a huge and growing international campaign against Israeli policies. “No longer is this campaign confined to the ravings of the political far left or far right,” he said, “but increasingly it is entering the American mainstream.”
In their 2009 article in Tikkun, University of California at Irvine professor David Theo Goldberg and UCLA professor Saree Makdsisi noted that “no fewer than 33 distinct organizations – including AIPAC, the Zionist Organization of America, the American Jewish Congress, and the Jewish National Fund – are gathered together today as members or affiliates of the Israel on Campus Coalition,” whose stated objective is to generate “a pro-active, pro-Israeli agenda on campus. There is accordingly, disproportionate and unbalanced intervention on campuses across the country by a coalition of well-funded organizations, who have no time for – and even less interest in – the niceties of intellectual exchange and academic process.” They note that “scholars whose work is critical of Israeli policies have been denied jobs, denied tenure, and in general have their lives made difficult not because of academic criteria, but because of political interference.”
They go on to observe how this apparatus systematically uses disinformation and misinformation, blatant fabrications, character assassination, and so on. The objective is not to engage in rational dialogue based on exchange of ideas in the search for truth, but “to create an environment of fear and intimidation on and off campuses, in which any criticism of Israeli policies is subject to sanctions and censorship.” Then they note:
The Hasbara Handbook: Promoting Israel on Campus, which is distributed to campus activists by organizations like Stand With Us, explains that it is often better to score points than to engage in actual arguments, and offers an explanation for how, in its own words, ‘to score points whilst avoiding debate’. Point-scoring, the Hasbara Handbook explains, “works because most audience members fail to analyze what they hear. Rather, they register only a key few points, and form a vague ‘impression’ of whose argument was stronger.” Part of the strategy is to recycle the same claims over and again, in as many settings as possible. ‘If people hear something often enough,’ the document points out, ‘they come to believe it.
Needless to say, this was precisely the tactic developed by the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, which he called “the big lie.” Goldberg and Makdsisi continue:
The Hasbara Handbook offers several other propaganda devices, all of which can be seen vividly at play in the coverage of the UCLA Gaza panel and other similar events, including again, the Robinson affair. ‘Creating negative connotations by name calling is done to try to get the audience to reject a person or idea on the basis of negative associations, without allowing a real examination of that person or idea,’ the handbook states with remarkable bluntness, in advocating this tactic. It also suggests using the opposite of name-calling, to defend Israel by what it calls the deployment of ‘glittering generalities’ (words like ‘freedom’, ‘civilization’, ‘democracy’) to describe the country, manipulating the audiences’ fears, etc.
I can attest that these Goebbelsian tactics – when backed by the economic resources and political influence of the Israel lobby and in the context of US state support for, and sponsorship of, the Israeli Zionist project – are often effective. Such tactics cower many people, not just politicians, but academics who become scared to even mention any criticism of Israel or support for Palestinians in their classrooms, their research and their public appearances. I see this almost every day in my own professional work in academia, and of course in the media.
We are morally compelled to speak out against injustice, in this case, against Israeli repression, colonialism, and apartheid, even when it means we run the risk of facing the wrath of the powerful, on our campuses and in the larger society.
In my case, while some colleagues came out courageously and publicly in my defense (and many were aroused by the student mobilization to come out in support of academic freedom yet still kept themselves arms-length from me), many others, it seemed to me almost overnight, started to avoid me once the lobby placed a scarlet letter on my forehead. I became a pariah on campus. Some colleagues would literally turn the other way when they saw me; others would comment in hushed tones as I approached. Cowardly administrators avoided me like the plague, fearful of damaging their own status or security, principles-be-damned.
Political repression of the nature executed by the Israeli lobby and its agents and supporters can wreck lives and careers and leads to self-censorship among journalists, politicians, academics and other public figures. It results in a kind of perverted hegemony in the Gramscian sense – the forging of a coerced consensus, or at least the appearance of one, imposed by intimidation and backed up by the threat of sanctions.
However, that hegemony has been eroding in the face of Israeli atrocities, defiant intellectuals committed to justice such as (most recently) Steven Salaita, and the spread of the BDS campaign and other movements in support of Palestinian rights. My own case shows that Israel lobby is not omnipotent; it does not enjoy uncontested power. To the contrary, those who choose to side with justice and are willing to speak truth to power may find that they are swept away by support from all corners of the globe.
Finally, a word on academic freedom: When academic freedom is suppressed, the university becomes an indoctrination camp where truth is subordinated to ideology and power. Academic freedom is the life blood of the university. Any attack on such freedom exercises a chilling effect on the ability of the university community to engage in open debate and exchange of ideas on contemporary matters. Free speech and academic freedom are such threats to the Israel lobby, and indeed, to all anti-democratic, authoritarian, or totalitarian projects, precisely because it proscribes censorship and prohibits any attempt to limit what is and is not acceptable to research, to teach, to question and to debate, and precisely because academic freedom thrives on controversy and critical thinking.
It is no wonder academic freedom was suppressed in Nazi Germany, in apartheid South Africa, in military dictatorships in Latin America, in the former Soviet Union, in the United States – under McCarthyism and at many other times, such as the present moment – and elsewhere. Our mission as educators is to help develop citizens who can think critically and independently on the burning issues of our day, who can search out the truth without fear of what they will find. I believe this search for the truth inevitably leads us to a position of justice; silence in the face of social injustice is complicity in that injustice. We are morally compelled to speak out against injustice, in this case, against Israeli repression, colonialism, and apartheid, even when it means we run the risk of facing the wrath of the powerful, on our campuses and in the larger society.
The list would be very long of those I must thank for their principled support in 2009 for my right to academic freedom and free speech. I would like to acknowledge above all sociology graduate students at UCSB Yousef Baker (now Dr. Baker) and Maryam Griffin (soon to be Dr. Griffin), UCSB sociology professors Geoff Raymond and Verta Taylor, distinguished professor emeritus Richard Falk, Kevin Robinson and Marielle Mayorga-Robinson. The content of this article is my sole responsibility and acknowledgment of these individuals does not suggest in any way that they agree with the content herein or share my views.