Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 5, 2014

“Academic Freedom” at American Universities: The ASA Boycott and Bard College

Filed under: bard college,BDS — louisproyect @ 5:48 pm

Academic Freedom” at American Universities: The ASA Boycott and Bard College

By Amith Gupta

(Amith Gupta graduated from Bard College in 2012, and currently works as the Communications Officer for the Tadamon Council in Egypt.)

This is the second piece about the American Studies Association’s academic boycott of Israeli institutions which I have had the displeasure of writing. My previous piece, submitted as a rebuttal to American Interest in response to a Bard College professor’s fairly slipshod commentary about the boycott, has not yet been published anywhere official. You can find a copy of it here.

I feel compelled to write this second piece based on my experiences at Bard College, which I believe to be a fairly typical small liberal arts college. I found out earlier today that Bard College President Leon Botstein, closing ranks with other college presidents, has condemned the ASA boycott of Israeli institutions.

When I arrived as a student at Bard College in the fall of 2009, I had just finished a nearly month-long visit to occupied Palestine as an International Solidarity Movement volunteer. I remembered quite vividly that the ISM organizers in Palestine did not consider visiting Palestine briefly to be a successful form of solidarity activism. Hisham Jamjoum, the ISM trainer in Ramallah, commented, “this is only 20% of the work. 80% is when you go back to your home countries.” I interpreted this as a call to found an ISM chapter at Bard College, both to do Palestine solidarity-oriented student activism and as a means of training any locals who had any intention of going to Palestine to participate in non-violent activism.

The latter portion of this organizational mission was completed within a few months of my time at Bard College, when Bard ISM trained about fifteen locals who were headed to Palestine to take part in the Gaza Freedom March. For the following four years, ISM would exist on campus primarily as a traditional student activist group – bringing speakers, including former US ambassador Edward Peck, renowned journalist Glenn Greenwald, and author Max Blumenthal, among others; fund raising for initiatives like the US Boat to Gaza; informational campaigns; and attending demonstration summits like Occupy AIPAC! Last time I checked, the student activists involved in the ISM project believed the organization had successfully served its purposes and had either graduated like myself or decided to pursue other projects.

But to many people both on and off campus, Bard ISM’s significance came in late 2010, when a group of angry, right-wing misfits linked to the right-wing extremist and anti-intellectual David Horowitz elevated their campaign against the ISM into a campaign against Bard College. A fairly insignificant internet propagandist who had previously called for ISM activists in Gaza to be targeted and killed by the Israeli army contacted various Bard College officials (skipping over us entirely) and told them that Bard College was hosting an organization that was providing support for terrorists. Bard could be held liable for violating counter-terror laws, they falsely claimed. In addition to internet propagandists making these absurd claims, Israeli-government linked NGOs like the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Centre issued delusional reports about how international activist organizations like ISM were part of some sort of pro-terrorist campaign, and specifically listed me by name as some kind of serious contender in this international movement. I was, at this time, the leader of an organization of approximately six students that split my time between studying for finals, organizing speaking events for ISM, and drinking with my friends on the weekends.

In January of 2011, after completing an “investigation,” Bard College President Leon Botstein issued a fairly strong statement ridiculing the accusers and defending our rights as student organizers. He pointed out, correctly, that the International Solidarity Movement is a completely legal organization both in the United States and Israel. In the case of the latter, the Israeli government has simply engaged in extralegal killings of ISM volunteers without embarrassing itself and risking diplomatic issues by banning the leftist organization outright. This follows two decades of Israeli crackdowns on Palestinian civil society; as a means of releasing some pressure, Israel has granted some leniency on paper (if not in practice) to international organizations to observe its abuses and engage in nominal civil society activism without an outright ban.

Many, including I, saw President Botstein’s defense of the ISM’s right to exist as a student organization as a fairly important statement. In addition to a prominent college president – and Israeli government employee – making it clear that there is no case to suggest that ISM is illegal, it also set an important standard in a college environment that has become toxic for Palestine solidarity organizers. Furthermore, Cindy Corrie, the mother of slain ISM activist Rachel Corrie, told me personally during the Occupy AIPAC! Summit that she and her lawyers had considered using President Botstein’s letter in their failed* legal case against the State of Israel over her daughter’s death.

President Botstein’s personal views about ISM were not as clear as his statement suggested. At one point, school officials asked me to consider changing the ISM student chapter’s name from Bard ISM to “Hudson Valley ISM,” although to their credit, they did not force the change. Likewise, in private e-mails, President Botstein sometimes encouraged me tone down the nature of our organizing and engage in “dialog” with the myriad of racist and intolerant campus voices that believed Palestinian rights were negotiable. Again, to his credit, he did not force this change on us.

The Dark Side of Bard’s Conception of “Academic Freedom”

But there is a dark side to President Botstein’s ideas of academic freedom – which are in turn replicated at other universities like Bard College. Although President Botstein is ardently defensive of the right of his students to voice virtually any viewpoint without outside interference of attacks, this same power game results in skewing Bard College’s funding, faculty, and communal consciousness on Palestine in the direction that President Botstein and the college’s financiers demand.

Stifling Faculty Dissent. In 2008, before I had the opportunity to study with him, politics professor Joel Kovel, an outspoken critic of Zionism and Israel, was fired in a murky episode that was likely influenced by Kovel’s opinions on Zionism. The following year, radical politics professor Pierre Ostiguy was also fired despite significant student opposition in what began to look like a purge of leftists from Bard College’s politics department. Although a number of faculty in the politics department continue to provide the opportunity to study fairly critical and radical ideas of politics, the department was significantly re-shaped. After firing Ostiguy, President Botstein welcomed Walter Russell Mead, who brags of a lengthy career teaching and supporting American and British imperial expansion and is a fairly strong supporter of Israel and a critic of the ASA boycott.

Furthermore, the process through which tenure was granted to Bard faculty was and remains strongly controlled by a few senior faculty and President Botstein himself. Without naming names, it is clear that this level of authoritarianism has already scared away some of the campus’ most intelligent faculty members. Others told me informally that they simply could not engage in dissent on campus because they would risk losing tenure. This is not a slight against President Botstein as an individual; this same problem exists at virtually every American university, because campuses and their tenure processes do not exist outside the political matrix that professors study and teach about.

Institutional Support for Normalization with Israel: The Students. Among Bard’s strange mix of service initiatives (and circus initiative) was the Bard Palestinian Youth Initiative. This Initiative, founded by Bard alumnus and career opportunist Mujahid Sarsur, from the West Bank village of Mas’Ha, received institutional aid and support from Bard College, Mujahid Sarsur’s family, the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli government, British pro-Israel lobbyist Poju Zabludowicz (whose son Roy was another classmate of mine), and others. The Initiative sent Bard students to Palestine to build playgrounds, libraries, and community centers in Mas’Ha. In addition, the Initiative finangled Jerusalem day-passes for various Mas’Ha youths so long as they visit the Israeli government’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum. That is, in order to visit their own city for one day, which Israel illegally prevents them from entering under normal circumstances, they were required to consume Eurocentric propaganda suggesting that Israel’s ongoing colonization of their land was justified due to historical atrocities committed against Jews in Europe.

In the United States, BPYI would introduce Bard students to pro-Israel lobbyists where they would receive a warm reception, being told that NGO aid and charity was the way forward rather than boycotts, Gaza flotillas, and other forms of political pressure. In addition, BPYI founder Mujahid Sarsur would approach various publications discussing what he views as the benefits of Israel’s settlement campaigns.

In private, Mujahid would often tell me about how he believed Palestinian refugees did not deserve the right to return to their homeland because the unelected Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas had reneged on this right. He would tell me how, despite everything, he believed Zionism made sense and that the Holocaust justified the expulsion of his own grandparents. Perhaps more worrying, he once suggested calling the Department of Homeland Security (where his now-deceased uncle worked) when a Palestinian-American student at Bard made an innocent comment about supporting Ghana in the 2010 world cup out of Third World solidarity. Finally, before graduating, Mujahid authored a seventy-page screed suggesting that Israel could remain both a Jewish ethnocracy and democratic country. This thesis essay is not available in Bard College’s library (where all other Bard college graduates’ senior theses sit) because it was so treasonous that his academic advisors (including Mead) believed it could ruin his future chances in Palestinian politics or even provoke violence against him. Bizarrely enough, this same Mujahid told me he was happy to see Hamas rockets terrorizing Israelis during Israel’s 2012 bombardment of Gaza, and that he is supporter of both Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Like so many others being groomed to represent the betrayal of Palestine, he seemed to espouse conflicting views depending on whom he was addressing. I am not sure if he was trying to get on my good side, mistakenly believing that I support Hamas’ rocket attacks, or if he was trying to prompt me to say something incriminating that he could hand over to the DHS.

Mujahid’s co-founder, Aaron Dean, made similar nasty comments, trying to purge Bard’s activist scene of what he viewed as “anti-Semitism” (namely, opposition to Israel which he didn’t understand); maligning Palestinian resistance icon Leila Khaled while cheering for captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit’s release; and telling me that he wanted to see Palestinian women on the ground in front of Israeli soldiers rather than strong Palestinian women bearing arms (like Leila Khaled). He also believes that problematic videos like this one suggest a positive trend among Muslims, which he explicitly contrasts with Muslim theocracy and violence – as though Muslims are threatening unless they culturally integrate.

BPYI is funded and supported by pro-Israel lobbyists for an obvious reason. Extensive studies have already established that donor projects, charity, and development aid have been an effective means of not only pacifying Palestinian opposition to Israeli encroachment, but have been effective in re-orienting western and civil society criticism to Israel**. While many Palestinian villages engage in domestic, grassroots dissent against the State of Israel’s ongoing land encroachment, channeling attention and volunteers toward smaller and smaller Palestinian Bantustans is an effective means of pulling the carpet out from under the feet of Palestinian civil society. It could also accomplish the feel-good task of settling potential guilt among some of Bard’s conflicted students, some of whom have familial, political, or corporate ties to Israel, such as the Zabludowicz family and this descendent of the founders of Egged.

While it is not worthwhile to condemn the concept of charity as a whole, it is important to recognize that the charity provided by BPYI and other NGOs is not free; it is performed in exchange for political submission to Israel’s destructive colonization efforts. This is made explicit through the BPYI leadership’s statements, the trips to the Holocaust museum, and the press releases that BPYI has sent out to its list-serv establishing itself as an alternative to dissent.

The level of support this Initiative received from Bard College was astonishing. Not only did BPYI receive public endorsements from the College President, it also received the institution’s label and active support of one of its scholarship departments. Students involved in the Initiative, including Mujahid, were given privileged campus opportunities by faculty – which the administration once invoked against him when he objected to a botched student body election – and fairly significant campus internship opportunities by Bard’s financial manager Dimitri Papadimitriou.

If this sort of pampering was not enough, BPYI volunteers once approached me, asking that I shut down or curtail Bard ISM because it might hurt BPYI’s relations with Israel. Not only did this confirm the legitimacy of the ISM in my eyes, it also showed one of the blatant pitfalls of collaboration. On a similar note, BPYI students expressed significant confusion to me when they volunteered for an ISM training in 2010. They did not understand the point of civil disobedience, and constantly asked why it was necessary to dissent against the government that is colonizing Palestine.

Institutional Support for Normalization with Israel: Dual Degree Programs. Bard College has maintained an extensive dual-degree and sister-school program with Al Quds University in Abu Dis in the West Bank. Al Quds University President and Palestinian Authority figure Sari Nusseibeh ran into hot water recently after he made an offensive and conspiratorial remark about Jewish influence and power. Following an admittedly vulgar Islamic Jihad protest on his campus, Mr. Nusseibeh attempted to allay concern from US universities with whom Al Quds University has ties by condemning the demonstration. Ironically, his condemnation was even more offensive to these US universities, which responded by breaking off institutional ties. As usual, Palestinian Authority careerists are often unable to address Palestinian dissenters with national legitimacy while pandering to pro-Israel influences at the same time. The same problem was provoked by the recent ASA boycott. While Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas condemned they boycott, the PLO bewilderingly alleged that an Israeli conspiracy had mistranslated the remarks and that the PLO does in fact support the boycott.

Though Bard College did not respond like other universities by cutting ties with Al Quds University, it is worth noting that the College’s institutional ties are yet another token of its institutional position on Palestine. Collaboration and support for Palestine and Palestinians is only acceptable when it is depoliticized or traded as a cover for ongoing Israeli oppression by going through collaborators like Sari Nusseibeh.

Al Quds University has been subject to land confiscation by the Israeli government, and Israeli forces have recently raided the college and fired indiscriminately at students, amidst other attacks on Palestinian students historically. Nonetheless, Bard College has refused to voice any condemnation and has undermined attempts to do so, such as the ASA boycott. This is the contradiction of pretending to be apolitical in relations with those under occupation. While Bard officially maintains its ties with the corrupt Al Quds University administration, it is unable to condemn violence against its own students when those students are Palestinians in the West Bank.

“We Don’t Divest.” In 2012, during my final semester at Bard College, I joined a meeting of the Student Responsible Investing Committee (SRIC) with Bard College’s financial head Dimitri Papadimitriou. Joining me were environmental activists and others. We had combed through Bard College’s stock investments and chose to approach Bard College officials about divestment over human rights concerns. While it is expected that Bard’s financiers would never consent to divestment outright, it was still fairly strange to hear it from them directly. Divestment was simply off the table. “We don’t divest,” remarked Papadimitriou.

In addition to investing much of its endowment in irresponsible corporations that had manufactured and sold weaponry to states that have used that weaponry illegally, including Israel, many of the companies on the biannual list published by the College were environmentally irresponsible and had horrible records on workers’ rights. Furthermore, Bard College uses TIAA-CREF to provide pensions for faculty. TIAA-CREF is a financial services company that in turn invests in a number of corporations engaged in abuses of human rights, such as Caterpillar, Motorola, Northrop Grumman, G4S and others.

Bard College also previously contracted much of its custodial work out to Aramark, which paid the campus’ custodial workers remarkably low wages. A successful student and union campaign by Bard’s Student Labor Dialog forced the College to reluctantly bring these workers in-house, although problems persist. A similar campaign by the student group – one of few remarkably successful student activist groups on campus – forced Bard to end its contract with Coca-Cola in 2006.

The refusal to boycott Israel and/or institutions and corporations that enable its crimes against Palestinians is an established Bard College policy, accompanying a myriad of irresponsible investments. As such, it is unsurprising that President Botstein would condemn the ASA boycott while citing the influence of “Jewish” [sic] (read: pro-Israel) donors.

Bard’s Conundrum is the University System’s Conundrum.

I do not regret my time at Bard College. As far as educational environments go, the education I received at Bard College was truly top-notch; I know this first-hand as a transfer student who misguidedly declined his initial Bard College acceptance and attended a terrible school for two years. Furthermore, despite my disagreements with President Botstein and other Bard College faculty, I consider him and the rest to be likeable individuals.

But the College’s conundrum on Israel and academic freedom is typical. While the college has taken admirable stands on academic freedom, the basic principle is the same as it is at any university. Outside attacks on student organizing are to be resisted, but the will of the college’s administration and the donors and financial ties that embellish its endowment are ultimately supreme.

Through this system of undemocratic and authoritarian university administration, even the most “liberal” and avant-garde institutions can undermine academic freedom by systematically imbalancing the orientation of the campus through moves like the ones described above. Pro-normalization initiatives, anti-boycott statements and policies, and subservient faculty can dominate campus life while the same iron-clad authority of the administration can allow nominal dissent among accepted students.

So while Bard College is definitely more accepting of dissent than other colleges (which may have simply banned ISM at the first sign of controversy), the same adamant refusal of the College to pander to the right-wing mob also enabled the College to undercut dissent more generally.

Perhaps this explains the delusional comments that some, both inside and outside the university system, have made about the ASA boycott. They believe, misguidedly, that the ASA’s boycott of Israeli institutions – as opposed to Israeli students and faculty – is an attack on “academic freedom”. In their view, then, academic freedom is measured by the independence of the administration to do what it pleases without any sort of outside pressure – as opposed to the ability of students and faculty to do what they please without pressure from the outside or the administrators who hire faculty and select students.

In a way, this is a reminder of a more general contradiction of capitalism. Many right-wing propagandists (and misguided others) believe that freedom in general is measured by the inability of of the public or the state to infringe upon the supreme property rights of an individual, even when those “property rights” include the creation of completely tyrannical social spheres – like privately run factories in which workers have no rights at all, much less the right to dissent. In their view, a “free society” means the right of a business-owner to dominate his workers, rather than the right of his workers to act and work without compulsion, including the threat of being fired.

This bizarre and capitalistic notion of freedom is implied both in the content of these criticisms of the ASA boycott and the financial incentives (i.e. donors) that are pushing the criticisms. So long as universities remain spaces without any sort of democratic control, dissent will be an uphill battle. Consequently, it is even more admirable that the ASA boycott, despite the vicious backlash to their decision, was able to mobilize support for the boycott nonetheless.


*Because the State of Israel has sanctified its own military policies in Gaza, where Rachel was killed during an Israeli home demolition in 2003, the Corrie family was not able to argue that Israel’s deadly house demolition operation and occupation of Gaza were illegal as the international community claims, and the court simply blamed Rachel for her own death when the bulldozer ran her over. Other lawsuits have had rare successes; the courts jailed an Israeli soldier when he shot ISM activist Tom Hurndall in the head as the latter escorted kindergarten children to school. Regarding killings, slayings, and torture of Palestinians, the successes are nearly non-existent barring extenuating circumstances.


**See also this extensive report on how billionaire Poju Zabludowicz, one of BPYI’s funders, used the “peace process” as a means of undercutting international pressure that had undermined some Israeli business sectors in which he has invested. Initiatives like BPYI essentially function as part of the “peace process” infrastructure of normalization with Israel even while its abuses and occupation continue.

January 2, 2014

Bard College and the American Studies Association vote

Filed under: bard college,BDS — louisproyect @ 6:24 pm

Bard College president-for-life Leon Botstein

Today the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that Bard College’s President-for-life Leon Botstein has closed ranks with other university presidents in opposing the American Studies Association (ASA) vote to boycott Israeli institutions:

Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and a boycott opponent, said calls from alumni to take a stand against the boycott had also played a role. “As an active member of the Jewish community, I recognize that the American Jewish community is disproportionately generous to American higher education,” he said. “For the president of an institution to express his or her solidarity with Israel is welcomed by a very important part of their support base.”

In other words, people like Leon Botstein worry about the “support base” because it is what fills their coffers. How can you fund an endowment if wealthy Jewish alumni threaten to boycott their alma mater?

In an apparent breach with two other prestigious universities, Botstein has refused to break ties with Al Quds University in occupied Palestinian territory. Although Syracuse University and Brandeis University are both opposed to boycotting Israeli institutions, they had no problem breaking ties with Al Quds on grounds far less substantial than those that are fueling the BDS movement. Supposedly, a rally by Islamic Jihad on the East Jerusalem campus of Al Quds was punctuated by Nuremberg type Nazi salutes. Without conducting any serious investigation into the matter, Syracuse and Brandeis abandoned Al Quds. Why would Leon Botstein, an ardent supporter of the state of Israel that now puts forward the demand that the Palestinians recognize it as a “Jewish state”, not follow suit? The explanation for that requires understanding the particular place that Bard occupies in the American academy and the pressure that Botstein would be under to maintain the illusion that he is committed to free speech.

Carolyn Karcher, a Jewish member of the ASA, wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times defending the vote:

On our first day in Bethlehem, my husband and I met a young man who had received a scholarship from George Mason University in Virginia but was not granted an exit visa by the Israeli authorities. Instead of embarking on a promising journey in academia, this young Palestinian had to resign himself to a job selling souvenirs to tourists. We learned that Palestinian students of all ages endure harassment at military checkpoints, frequent school closures, unprovoked arrests, imprisonment and sometimes death at the hands of trigger-happy soldiers.

Within Israel proper, schools are segregated and, following the model of the Jim Crow South, the government allocates significantly less funding to Palestinian schools, which are often overcrowded and understaffed. Palestinian university professors in Gaza rarely receive permission to travel abroad for conferences, those in the West Bank also face difficulties, and international faculty have been prevented from visiting Palestinian universities. These are the true assaults on academic freedom that the ASA resolution addresses.

Here in the U.S., students and faculty who challenge the dominant view of Israel risk baseless accusations of anti-Semitism, arrest, blacklisting or denial of tenure, promotion or academic positions. There are dozens of known incidents and likely hundreds that go unreported.

This is not to speak of far more damaging attacks on Palestinian academic institutions:

Israeli warplanes bombed the Islamic University in the Gaza Strip on Sunday, a significant Hamas cultural symbol, in the latest of a series of aerial attacks in the coastal territory, the Islamist group said.

An Israeli army spokeswoman had no immediate comment on the strike. Witnesses said a series of explosions rocked the Gaza city campus. Israel has killed 298 Palestinians in an aerial offensive since Saturday in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

–Reuters, December 28, 2008

Apparently Botstein considers the ASA policies to be “clumsy and offensive”. I can’t imagine them being more clumsy and offensive than an IDF missile.

One can certainly understand why powerful figures such as university professors would feel threatened by the ASA vote. With perceptions of Israel changing from a beacon of democracy to a brutal apartheid state, every effort must be bent to salvage the nation’s reputation. It has reached the point where Hillel, a campus organization of Jewish students, is slowly waking up to Israeli’s ugly realities even as they still remain wedded to a fading Zionist mythos. The N.Y. Times reported on December 29:

At Harvard, the Jewish student group Hillel was barred from co-sponsoring a discussion with a Palestinian student group. At Binghamton University, a Hillel student leader was forced to resign his position after showing a film about Palestinians and inviting the filmmaker’s brother to speak. And on many other campuses, Hillel chapters have been instructed to reject collaboration with left-leaning Jewish groups.

Alan M. Dershowitz, a professor at Harvard Law School who was once a faculty adviser for the Harvard Hillel, said in an interview: “I don’t think this is a free-speech issue. The people who want divestment and boycotts have plenty of opportunity to speak on campus. The question is a branding one. You can see why Hillel does not want its brand to be diluted.”

Basically, there is a class dynamic at work here. A Harvard undergraduate has not yet entered the ranks of the bourgeoisie, a goal of course of such an education. The Leon Botsteins, Alan Dershowitzes, and Martin Peretzes travel in different circles. They hobnob with hedge fund billionaires who throw fancy dinners and cocktail parties where funds are raised for their institutions. How, after all, can you keep a university going in the U.S.A. unless you cater to the whims of the one percent?

To this day, I don’t think anybody has ever summed up the role of college presidents better than Upton Sinclair:

Thus the college president spends his time running back and forth between Mammon and God, known in the academic vocabulary as Business and Learning. He pleads with the business man to make a little more allowance for the eccentricities of the scholar; explaining the absurd notion which men of learning have that they owe loyalty to truth and public welfare. He points out that if the college comes to be known as a mere tool of special privilege it loses all its dignity and authority; it is absolutely necessary that it should maintain a pretense of disinterestedness, it should appear to the public as a shrine of wisdom and piety. He points out that Professor So-and-So has managed to secure great prestige throughout the state, and if he is unceremoniously fired it will make a terrific scandal, and perhaps cause other faculty members to resign, and other famous scientists to stay away from the institution.

The president says this at a dinner-party in the home of his grand duke; and next morning he hurries off to argue with the recalcitrant professor. He points out the humiliating need of funds-just now when the professor’s own salary is so entirely inadequate. He begs the professor to realize the president’s own position, the crudity of business men who hold the purse-strings, and have no understanding of academic dignity. He pleads for just a little discretion, just a little time-just a little anything that will moderate the clash between greed and service, the incompatibility of hate and love.

To understand Leon Botstein’s stance in the Al Quds controversy, you have to start with his need to go one step further in reconciling Mammon and God. Bard College has a reputation as being some kind of “progressive” liberal arts institution and cutting ties to Al Quds would be counter-productive from a marketing standpoint. Let’s say you are some successful professional in New York who voted for DiBlasio and subscribes to the Nation Magazine and NPR. Would you want to send your kid to a school that broke with a Palestinian university on the basis of a witch-hunt organized by the Israeli right and its friends in the U.S. like Pamela Geller?

The best commentator on the Al Quds incident is Richard Silverstein who attended Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University, earning a BA and Bachelor of Hebrew Literature. Like Carolyn Karcher, he is just another Jew who is sick and tired of the hypocrisy of the Israel lobby. On Christmas day, he had this to say:

I wrote several posts a few weeks ago about Brandeis University’s abrupt severing of all ties with the Palestinian Al Quds University and its remarkable president, Sari Nusseibeh.  In those posts I rebutted false claims suggested by Brandeis President Frederick Lawrence that there had been a “Nazi-like” rally on the Palestinian campus which extolled terrorists and suicide bombers.  What was astonishing to me was that Lawrence, the leader of a major liberal arts university would accept as prima facie evidence, information proffered by the right-wing pro-Israel bloggers Pam Geller, Tom Gross and Israel Matzav, who led the ‘jihad’ against Al Quds.  Since then even the NY Times has falsely called the same campus rally “Nazi-like,” though it had absolutely no association with Nazism.  By the way, I wrote an e-mail to the reporter and the Times’ public editor complaining of the false charge.  I received no reply.

I’ve been able to trace the Israeli origin of the charges against Al Quds to a November 11th article in Maariv.  The article deals in general with the theme of so-called Palestinian incitement against Israel.  In its litany of “sins,” it lists the Al Quds rally and a separate incident in which residents of the South Hebron Hills village of Beit Ummar purportedly hung a Nazi flag.

If you read the translation, you’ll see how a sloppy reading by someone looking to sensationalize the facts would allow all the blame to fall on Al Quds:

Documented: Nazi Salutes and Flags in the Palestinian Authority

At Al Quds University, students were photographed with arms raised, while a Nazi flag was flown over a Palestinian village.

Photographs taken at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem feature masked men affiliated with Islamic Jihad as they march with arms raised in salute.  In other pictures, students may be seen also raising their own arms in a Nazi salute.

The article links to a November 6th blog post by UK Jewish, anti-Palestinian blogger, Tom Gross, who calls the salutes “fascist-style.”  He added:

Students were encouraged to give what other students at Al Quds described as Hitler-style salutes…

All this raises the question: who took these photos?  Gross refuses to acknowledge who took them or how he received them.  Curiously, the photos displayed at his site are hot-linked from Pam Geller’s blog, Atlas Shrugged.  The date of her post is also November 6th.  So they both, almost simultaneously, published their information on the Al Quds rally.  Geller does link back to Gross but the latter makes no mention of his collusion with Geller in this smear campaign.

I’d hazard a guess that Gross, who prides himself as being an “independent” Middle East analyst, preferred not being associated with Geller’s bellicose reputation.  In a related matter, Geller’s Islamophobic American Freedom Defense Initiative suffered a legal defeat as a federal judge found its Boston MTA ads which called Muslims “savages” to be offensive. He found that the discriminatory nature of her message trumped her so called free speech rights.

Coincidentally, Gross also omits from his website biography that he’s a member of the international advisory board of the far-right NGO Monitor and a founding member of the pro-Israel, neoncon Henry Jackson Society based in the UK.  Not as “independent” as he makes out to be.

Robert Spencer and Pam Geller have in the past paid anti-Muslim activists to spy on pro-Palestine rallies by videotaping them.  My guess is that she and Gross secured the photos either directly or indirectly from the Shabak or its Palestinian informants.  They, in turn, likely passed them on to the government hasbara apparatus.  From there it was but a hop, skip and jump to Geller, Gross and Fred Lawrence.

One thing that otherwise reputable people like Fred Lawrence may want to consider is whether they want to make decisions based on material proffered to them by ideologues like Gross and especially Geller.

What Leon Botstein understands better than the presidents of Syracuse University and Brandeis is the special role of Al Quds. Despite the impression that its enemies on the ultraright try to create, its real role in Palestinian society is to create a layer of educated elites who are committed to “Western values”. One of the primary funders of the school is George Soros who has used his billions to create a receptive environment for his “open society” values. It is doubtful that he would have been happy with Leon Botstein cutting ties to Al Quds in light of statements he has made about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here’s Soros from the April 12, 2007 New York Review of Books:

The pro-Israel lobby has been remarkably successful in suppressing criticism.4 Politicians challenge it at their peril because of the lobby’s ability to influence political contributions. When Howard Dean called for an evenhanded policy toward Israel in 2004, his chances of getting the nomination were badly damaged (although it was his attempt, after his defeat in Iowa, to shout above the crowd that sealed his fate). Academics had their advancement blocked and think-tank experts their funding withdrawn when they stepped too far out of line. Following his criticism of repressive Israeli policy on the West Bank, former president Jimmy Carter has suffered the loss of some of the financial backers of his center.

Anybody who dares to dissent may be subjected to a campaign of personal vilification. I speak from personal experience. Ever since I participated in a meeting discussing the need for voicing alternative views, a torrent of slanders has been released including the false accusation in The New Republic that I was a “young cog in the Hitlerite wheel” at the age of thirteen when my father arranged a false identity to save my life and I accompanied an official of the Ministry of Agriculture, posing as his godson, when he was taking the inventory of a Jewish estate.5

That footnote number five, by the way, is to this: Martin Peretz, “Tyran-a-Soros,” The New Republic, February 12, 2007. Peretz is a member of the Bard College board of trustees since the mid-1980s. Leon Botstein accosted me at the last reunion I attended in 2010, for the class of ’65, and demanded an explanation why I wrote such hurtful things about him on my blog—even his children read it.

Well, as Arnold Schwarzenegger said in “The Terminator”, “I’ll be back” in 2015 for my 50th. Assuming that Leon will still be ensconced as president-for-life, I’ll be awaiting his bared fangs with my usual aplomb and a video camera set to record.

February 12, 2013

Eric Alterman: what an asswipe

Filed under: Academia,BDS,zionism — louisproyect @ 3:00 pm

Brooklyn College And The BDS Debate

by Feb 7, 2013 11:45 AM EST

The second, far more difficult question raised by the controversy was what should one’s position be with regard to BDS itself, and by extension, the political science department’s decision to lend legitimacy to a talk at which its arguments would be presented without opposition or clarification from its opponents. Because of the base threats made by the likes of a Brooklyn-based politicians like the demagogue state Assemblyman Dov Hikind, Assistant Majority Leader Lew Fidler, and the semi-supportive position taken of them by the famously argumentative BC alumnus, Alan Dershowitz, many people felt that the content of the BDS platform and the arguments that Barghouti and Butler were less important than the fact of the threats itself. Feeling a degree of heat that it perhaps did not anticipate when the department jumped into the BDS kitchen, political science chair Paisley Currah, sent out an email to all other department chairs asked them to support its decision by joining it as a cosponsor of the evening. That’s when the real debate amongst us began.

History may not repeat itself, but human behavior sure does. Ironically, given the central role that City University (and indeed, Brooklyn College) played in the debates over Communism and in the middle of the previous century, this debate—for BDS opponents—raised many of the same kinds of issues faced by liberal and democratic socialist opponents of the Communist Party and its allies during the McCarthy period. As Daniel Bell explained of their predicament, “What the Communists could have done was say, ‘Yes, I’m a communist, and I will go to jail for my opinions.’ In effect, justify themselves as people having beliefs. But they didn’t. And they were trying to manipulate the situation by scaring the liberals, by saying, ‘You see? We’re under attack, and then you’ll be under attack!’” And the liberals did not know what to do. Issue after issue arose during this period for which liberals had no ready response, given their confusion about principle versus political palatability, coupled with their understandable refusal to appear to be on the side of people who were arguing deceptively on behalf of a cause they found abhorrent, or the naïve idealists they had snookered into embracing their cause. Bell’s friend and ally Nathan Glazer admitted decades later, “we never managed to figure out a good position. By good I mean not one that was politically defensible but that was respectable and moral and responsive to all the complicated issues raised. And I still don’t think we have one.

full: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2013/02/07/brooklyn-college-and-the-bds-debate.html

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NY Observer April 13, 2003
The Avenging Alterman
By George Gurley

Eric Alterman, the liberal author of the new book What Liberal Media?, was standing in the middle of Michael’s restaurant, the liberal-media hangout on West 55th Street in Manhattan. After a warm embrace with lefty novelist E.L. Doctorow, he took a seat.

Mr. Alterman reeked of success. Forty-three years old. Four books under his belt, with bold titles like Who Speaks for America? Media columnist for The Nation magazine. A Web blogger who is paid by MSNBC.com to write whatever the heck is on his mind every morning. Degrees from Cornell, Yale and Stanford. Best man at his wedding? George Stephanopoulos. Divorced now, but living with a cool lady-who hasn’t insisted he marry her!-and their cute kid on the Upper West Side.

He’s the kind of guy whom even close friends call “arrogant,” “intolerable” and “asshole”-but always affectionately and always followed by praise.

He apologized for being late for lunch. A reporter for NPR’s All Things Considered had called to interview him. (By the way, according to Mr. Alterman’s book, NPR ain’t so liberal.) He ordered foie gras, the Kobe beef and a glass of pinot noir. Earlier, he’d said he liked his lunches “expensive.” He has a brainy-little-kid quality, with large fish-like eyes behind glasses and a neatly trimmed goatee. He has a distinctive laugh that begins at raucous and ends in high, whinnying hysteria.

He was wearing a gray blazer, a purple button-down shirt and faded jeans, which was dressy compared to his normal attire. That evening Justin Smith, publisher of the magazine The Week , was throwing him a dinner party, which would be attended by liberal pals like Mark Green, writer Calvin Trillin, The Nation’s Victor Navasky and even three ex-models.

Although his book is positioned as a counterweight of sorts to two best-selling books by right-wingers- Slander by Republican blonde Ann Coulter and Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News by Bernard Goldberg, which Mr. Alterman called “a long white-man’s whine”-not all of his targets are firmly on the right. Also coming in for criticism are New Republic editor in chief Marty Peretz, ABC comedian Bill Maher (“foolish”) and filmmaker Michael Moore (“Naderite”).

“I think what’s really valuable about the book is, it’s become such a given that the press is liberal. He’s poked some holes in that,” New York Times columnist Frank Rich told me. “And he’s done it with a lot of research and reportage. On both sides-the left and the right-there’s a tendency just to blather and use invective. On the right, you have an example like Ann Coulter-that The Times should be blown up because it’s such a left-wing den of iniquity. But the left can go over the top, too, about how right-wing the press is, and be driven too crazy by Fox News Channel, which is, most of all, entertainment. This book is a very reasonable , backed-up-by-argument case by someone who I think is a very sophisticated media critic.”

“I think a great many people were waiting for something like this to be said,” said Hendrik Hertzberg, The New Yorker ’s senior editor and a friend of Mr. Alterman’s for 20 years. “It sure has struck a nerve. He’s moved up in weight class. He’s a light heavyweight at least, which is not bad-that’s what Sugar Ray Robinson was.”

Mr. Alterman told me he was “enormously gratified” by the reception to his book (good review in The Times ), but added that he was also disappointed because the book had “been crowded out by the war,” and thus it had been hard to get “traction.”

“I had a lot of reasons to be anti-war, and the book was a small one,” he said. “Everything was dominated by the war, and still is.”

On The Daily Show on Comedy Central, Mr. Alterman told Jon Stewart that he thought there was more diversity in the Soviet Union under Stalin than on American talk radio today.

“Come on now,” Mr. Stewart said. “Now, I may have a great leaning toward your point of view-but Stalin? Now you’re just throwing crazy stuff out there!”

But Mr. Alterman sees himself as battling a huge tide of “crazy stuff”-first and foremost, anything that comes out of Ann Coulter’s mouth or pen.

“Coulter’s book is evil,” he said.

(Ms. Coulter told me she’d “never read anything” by Mr. Alterman and added, “I hear he’s practically become my newest stalker.”)

Mr. Alterman looked around the restaurant.

“Truthfully, I don’t dispute that just about everybody in this room is pro-abortion, pro-gun control, pro-gay rights, pro-campaign finance,” he said. “I feel I’m allowed in here. I mean, I’m not exactly at home . There’s no perfect place for me in the media-I’m the most liberal person in it, or one of them.”

Why was it good to be a liberal in 2003?

“There’s two reasons,” he said. “One is, if you’re a liberal about most things, you’re more likely to be right than not. But here’s an interesting reason: The rest of the country agrees with you. It’s basically a liberal country.”

(Another good reason might be that casting directors from The Sopranos know your name: A few weeks ago, Georgianne Walken e-mailed Mr. Alterman and asked if he would audition; The Sopranos was looking for someone to play a TV reporter. “I said, ‘Sure-provided this is not an April Fool’s joke,’” he said. “They faxed me my lines the next morning.” He auditioned for Sopranos creator David Chase-as did New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier and journalist Philip Gourevitch. But the tweedy would-be thespians lost out to a writer from the show, who got the part.)

I told him I saw liberal bias all over the media. For instance, I said, The New York Times actually wants Bush to fail in Iraq.

“I don’t know that,” he said. “I agree that the editorial page is against Bush …. I’m against Bush. I don’t want the war to fail. I want Bush to resign in ignominy-and the war to be a great success.”

What was ever in The Times that could possibly bother a liberal? I challenged.

“Jesus fucking Christ,” he said. “They endorsed George Pataki ! Look at what this man is doing to New York City. I have a daughter in New York City public schools. He’s destroying them!”

After a few more mouthfuls of Kobe beef, I again asserted that The Times under executive editor Howell Raines was a liberal tool.

“Well, why did Howell hate Clinton so much, then?” Mr. Alterman said. “Why did he love Ken Starr and hate Bill Clinton? He liked Ken Starr. You can’t be a liberal and like Ken Starr. He loved Ken Starr. It’s like liking Idi Amin.

“Here’s my question for you conspiracy nuts about The Times, ” Mr. Alterman continued. “Why did Howell Raines ask Frank Rich to stop writing his column? Frank Rich is the most literate, eloquent liberal writer we have. Why would Howell go to the single best writer of all the liberal columnists and say, ‘Stop doing it’?”

Because people were complaining about him?

“Nobody was complaining about him-people loved him. This is New York; this is the Upper West Side! Because there’s no goddamn conspiracy -that’s why!”

Eric Alterman was born in Queens and grew up upper-middle-class in Scarsdale. His mother was a school psychologist, his father a salesman and engineer. Young Eric was a bookish athlete who by age 18 was smoking pot every other day after high school. Bruce Springsteen saved his life, according to a book he wrote in 1999 ( It Ain’t No Sin to Be Glad You’re Alive: The Promise of Bruce Springsteen ). The song “Born to Run,” he wrote, “exploded in my home, in my mind and changed my life.” Once, Mr. Alterman hurled a pair of his hightops onto the stage at a Springsteen show.

He attended Cornell-where he smoked pot once a week-and said he was “all set to be like a New York Jewish literary intellectual.” He did his honors thesis on Jewish intellectuals, including I.F. Stone. The two got to know each other.

“I can’t risk being accused of dropping names of famous people,” he said. “We were very close until he died. I felt enormously lucky for that. We used to go to the movies. I was friends with his wife. He would tell me stories about hanging out with Albert Einstein. He’s sort of my external conscience. I often ask myself, ‘What would Izzy do?’”

Mr. Alterman spent his 20’s between Washington, New Haven and Paris, where he tried to be a writer and attended graduate school at Yale. He did freelance writing for The Nation , Harper’s Magazine , Mother Jones , The New Republic and The Times Magazine , for whom he profiled the late Republican political strategist Lee Atwater.

“I never had any more fun than I had with Lee Atwater,” he said. “He had a genius for the jugular of American politics, and without Lee Atwater there would be no Karl Rove, and without Karl Rove there would be no George W. Bush, and hence we’re all a lot worse off for his influence.”

Mr. Alterman’s first book came out in 1992, when he was pursuing a doctorate in U.S. history at Stanford. It was titled Sound and the Fury: The Making of a Punditocracy . He said he’d expected that his book would make people like George Will “afraid to show their faces in public again, because I had so humiliated and revealed them for the charlatans that they were-but in fact, nothing changed at all. Everything went back to the way it was.”

To promote the book, he appeared on The Today Show and The Tonight Show .

“I was more famous then,” he said. “When I was still in graduate school, I had my 15 minutes. And now I’m not that impressed with myself.”

“I don’t think that he had a sophomore slump after Sound and the Fury ,” said a friend. “But I think he expected to be big and famous after it.”

In 1996, Mr. Alterman became a regular on MSNBC with Ms. Coulter. (“I seem to have made a greater impression on him then he on me,” she told me.)

In July 1997, The Village Voice published an article by Ken Silverstein, in which he called Mr. Alterman’s ascension to the punditocracy “hypocritical,” accusing him of such sins as summering in the Hamptons and fawning over Melanie Griffith in a piece he wrote for Vanity Fair .

“He is incredibly rude and arrogant,” one intern who had worked for Mr. Alterman told The Voice . “He constantly wants to remind you that he’s Eric Alterman, that he knows a lot of important people, and that you’re a lowly intern.”

But he also earned fans. Freelance writer Katie Rosman was an assistant at Elle magazine when she first got to know Mr. Alterman, who was then a contributing editor at the women’s fashion magazine.

“He would call and be relatively demanding about silly little things-messengers for this or car service for that,” she said.

Now they’re close friends.

“I’ll poke fun at him now and say, ‘You were just one of those snotty writers that assistants hate,’” Ms. Rosman said. “And he says, ‘I was just doing it on purpose . I thought I was being funny !’”

“He has shocked me with the things he’s done,” she said. “He’ll call me and his line is, ‘So, do you want to be arm candy tonight?’ I’ll ask him what the event is, and he won’t tell me-I have to decide before. And then he’s taking me to George Soros’ apartment or some New Yorker party, and he introduces me to everybody . So I really admire him for that. He takes me to good parties.”

Currently, Mr. Alterman lives in the tidy Upper West Side apartment he shares with Diana Silver, a research scientist at New York University. They met in high school and worked together at the Bronx Zoo, smoking dope around the corner from the apes. They married other people, divorced them, and had a daughter together in the late 1990’s. Her initials are the same as her father’s; Mr. Alterman calls himself “E.R.A.” and his daughter “E.R.A. 2.”

His place is decorated with the usual “New York semi-single male” stuff-photos of Sinatra, Babe Ruth at bat, Springsteen, arty naked-lady pics, Mets stuff. Hundreds of books arranged by subject. Once a month, Mr. Alterman and Ms. Silver host a salon in his apartment for fellow lefties and “chicks,” he said.

How ambitious is Eric Alterman?

“If my life were about ambition, I wouldn’t have my politics,” he said. “And I would have a reputation for being a lot nicer. I’m just not very political-I make all kinds of enemies that are stupid of me to make.”

One would be fellow Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn.

“We hate each other,” Mr. Alterman said. “I like George Bush and Dick Cheney better than I like Alexander Cockburn. I’m not kidding. They are at least honestly misguided. I just think he’s a disgraceful writer. I don’t think he’s an honest person.”

“He has some sort of obsession with me, which I suppose is flattering,” Mr. Cockburn said. “I’ve never known a fellow to unify so many otherwise mutually antagonistic people in dislike of him. Long ago, I concluded his stuff is worthless-one more bedraggled little plume on the funeral hearse of the Democratic Party. The furthest I’ve gone is to call him a twerp-part brown-noser, part cheeky chappy.

“Eric is difficult,” said Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel. “But behind that difficult, gruff exterior is someone who cares deeply about progressive ideas and democracy in this country.”

“He’s very hard to understand,” said a friend of Mr. Alterman’s who did not wish to be identified. “Because he really is an unbelievable asshole and a really, really great person. He is the worst name-dropper in the world-because he only uses first names. He’ll say, ‘Oh, I had dinner with Paul [Newman] and Joanne last night …. ‘ He is a huge literary starfucker.”

Mr. Alterman was finished with his Kobe beef.

“I’m done,” he said brusquely to a waiter. “I’m done,” he repeated-slightly impatiently, meaning: “Take the plate away.”

He ordered a cappuccino low-fat and bantered with the waitress.

“Another thing I do that liberals don’t do is, I admire the beauty of waitresses,” he said. “That’s a beautiful waitress.”

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