Short Cuts

Sara Roy

Recently, at Harvard University where I am based, a Jewish student, using an assumed (gentile) name, began posting anti-semitic statements on the weblog of the Harvard Initiative for Peace and Justice, an anti-war, pro-Palestinian group on campus. The student, it turned out, is the secretary of Harvard Students for Israel – which dissociated itself from the incident – and had previously accused the HIPJ of being too tolerant of anti-semitism. He now went undercover as part of a self-appointed effort to monitor anti-semitism on campus. In one posting, for example, he referred to Israel as the ‘AshkeNAZI state’. Incidents of this kind, which are becoming commonplace on American campuses, reflect a wider determination to monitor, report, defame and punish those individuals and institutions within academia whose views the right finds objectionable. The campaign is directed at area studies generally but the most virulent attacks are reserved for those of us in Middle Eastern studies whose ideas are considered anti-Israel, anti-semitic or anti-American.

The relationship between Israel’s hardline supporters and the ‘Arab professoriat’, as we have been called, has been tense for a long time. After 11 September, the right accused Middle East academics in particular of extremist scholarship and intellectual treason. Defending Civilisation: How Our Universities Are Failing America and What Can Be Done about It, a report published in November 2001 by the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, a non-profit organisation founded by Lynne Cheney, wife of the vice-president, and Senator Joseph Lieberman, effectively accused the academy of being unpatriotic and anti-American, a fifth column providing intellectual support for global terrorism. In evidence it cited over a hundred statements by academics (and others) calling for a more critical examination of the causes of the events of 11 September and the role US foreign policy may have played.

Another indictment of Middle East studies appeared in Martin Kramer’s Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, published in October 2001 by the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Kramer, who teaches Arab history and politics at Tel Aviv University, claims that Middle East studies in the US are dominated – indeed, crippled – by pro-Arab and anti-American sentiment. The academy, he believes, failed to anticipate and may even have concealed the growing Islamist threat that resulted in the attack on the World Trade Center. Middle East studies, he claims, have devoted too much attention to historical and cultural subjects that are of no use to the state and its national security imperatives, and may even harm them. What is needed, he says, is a new approach to the study of the Middle East that has at its core ‘the idea that the United States plays an essentially beneficent role in the world’.

There is no let-up. September 2002 saw the establishment of Campus Watch, a website whose primary purpose is to monitor Middle Eastern studies faculty in departments across the US for signs of anti-American and anti-Israel bias. Campus Watch is the invention of Daniel Pipes, a colleague of Kramer’s, and director of the Middle East Forum, a think-tank devoted to promoting American interests in the Middle East.

‘I want Noam Chomsky to be taught at universities about as much as I want Hitler’s writing or Stalin’s writing,’ Pipes said to an interviewer. ‘These are wild and extremist ideas that I believe have no place in a university.’ Not only does Campus Watch monitor universities for signs of ‘sedition’, i.e. views on US foreign policy, Islam, Israeli policy and Palestinian rights that Pipes considers unacceptable; it encourages students to inform on professors whose ideas they find offensive. Recently, Bush appointed Pipes to the board of directors of the US Institute of Peace, ‘an independent, non-partisan federal institution created by Congress to promote the prevention, management, and peaceful resolution of international conflicts’.

Given that the political climate here is in good part determined by an alliance of right-wing supporters of Israel and members of the neo-conservative establishment, it isn’t surprising that the attack on area studies may soon be enshrined in law. On 21 October last year, the House of Representatives passed the International Studies in Higher Education Act, HR 3077. The bill is part of the Higher Education Act reauthorisation known as Title VI, which dates back to 1959 and mandates federal funding of international studies and foreign languages. Title VI renews international education and language-training programmes and has made several important improvements, but it also contains provisions that would impinge on curricula, faculty hiring and course materials in institutions that accept federal funding.

A key figure behind HR 3077 is Stanley Kurtz, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and an associate of Kramer and Pipes. Testifying before the House on 19 June 2003, Kurtz accused scholars of the Middle East and other areas of abusing Title VI support with their ‘extreme and one-sided criticisms of American foreign policy’. He believes that the basic premise of post-colonial theory is that ‘it is immoral for a scholar to put his knowledge of foreign languages and cultures at the service of American power’ and cites Edward Said’s work in this area as the most pernicious. Kurtz’s testimony was accepted by Congress without debate and many of his recommendations for ‘repairing’ the damage were adopted by the House.

Potentially the most onerous of these recommendations is the establishment of an international higher education advisory board to ensure that government-funded programmes ‘reflect diverse perspectives and the full range of views on world regions, foreign languages and international affairs’. The board would have seven members: three appointed by the secretary of education, of whom two will ‘represent federal agencies that have national security responsibilities’; two appointed by the speaker of the House of Representatives; and two by the president pro tempore of the Senate. One of the board’s functions will be to recommend ways ‘to improve programmes . . . to better reflect the national needs related to homeland security’.

The board’s recommendations will not be subject to review or approval by any officer of the federal government, including the secretary of education. And, although the bill states that the board is not authorised to ‘mandate, direct or control an institution of higher education’s specific instructional content, curriculum or programme of instruction’, it is authorised ‘to study, monitor, apprise and evaluate’ a sample of activities supported under Title VI. Which amounts to the same thing: unprecedented federally mandated intrusion into the content and conduct of university-based area studies programmes.

There is a great deal at stake for American higher education and academic freedom. If HR 3077 becomes law – the Senate will review the bill next – it will create a board that monitors how closely universities reflect government policy. Since the legislation assumes that any flaw lies ‘with the experts, not the policy’, the government could be given the power to introduce politically sympathetic voices into the academic mainstream and to reshape the boundaries of academic inquiry. Institutional resistance would presumably be punished by the withdrawal of funds, which would be extremely damaging to Middle East centres especially.

HR 3077 contains other provisions that are equally outrageous. For example, it requires Title VI institutions to provide government recruiters with access to students and student recruiting information. The bill even directs the secretary of education and the advisory board to study – i.e. spy on – communities of US citizens who speak a foreign language, ‘particularly such communities that include speakers of languages that are critical to the national security of the United States’.

What all this boils down to is an attempt to silence criticism of US policy, and put an end to disagreement with the neo-conservative agenda. It is not diversity that is being sought but conformity.