Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Media Microscope: Watching the Watchers

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Jamie Hyams

Campus Watch, an NGO established to monitor anti-Israel bias among academics at North American universities, has been particularly active at Columbia University, which has several strongly anti-Israel lecturers. The SBS current affairs program “Dateline” covered this issue on November 8. However, instead of exposing the anti-Israel and anti-Western messages being passed on to students in the guise of academia, or even just giving an even-handed account of the various views, the entire issue was portrayed as an attack on academic freedom.

In his introduction to the program, host George Negus said, “Tonight, the battle for freedom of speech on American campuses…” Reporter Chris Hammer opened by describing Columbia as “the main battleground in a war being fought across American campuses over the issue of academic freedom.”

The report focuses on four academics, Joseph Massad, Hamid Dabashi, Rashid Khalidi and Juan Cole, who Hammer describes as “the highest profile victim claimed by Campus Watch so far”. Apart from one admission by Hammer that Massad “teaches courses about Israel and Palestine that some of his Israeli and Jewish-American students find confronting. For example, he describes Israel as a racist state,” the bias of these academics is not exposed.

For example, Massad allegedly told his class that it was Israelis who shot the Israeli Olympic athletes in Munich in 1972. He is alleged to have refused to answer a question from a student who had served in the Israeli army until the student told him how many Palestinians he had killed.

Cole has written, on Saddam Hussein’s payments to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers, “Supporting orphans is, in any case, not the same as funding terrorism.” In a New York Times op-ed, Cole wrote, “The last thing the Arab people need is a red herring like ‘free and open elections’ to distract them from the international Zionist/Neo-Con conspiracy to take their oil.”

Dabashi wrote a long article about a trip to Israel in which he referred throughout to Ben Gurion Airport as “Ben Gurion checkpoint” and referred to Israel as “this colonial settlement.” He wrote, “What they call ‘Israel’ is no mere military state. A subsumed militarism, a systemic mendacity with an ingrained violence constitutional to the very fusion of its fabric, has penetrated the deepest corners of what these people have to call their ‘soul’.”

Khalidi was critical of Yasser Arafat for signing the Oslo Accords.

These examples are really just the tip of the iceberg, yet Hammer failed to mention any of this. He did interview Winfield Myers, the editor of Campus Watch, Daniel Pipes, the driving force behind it and Ariel Beery, a Jewish student activist who produced a film cataloguing accusations against the professors. He also interviewed Massad, Khalidi and Dabashi, who complained about the tactics used against them, and two students, Ben Wheeler who is Jewish and Monique Dols, who refuted the allegations against the academics. However, Wheeler and Dols seem to largely share the academics’ views. Wheeler wrote an article for the Columbia campus paper complaining that the media was calling the Jerusalem suburb Gilo a “neighbourhood” when it should be called a settlement, while Dols wrote a piece for Electronic Intifada attacking Beery’s film and claiming that the charges against the professors in the film “are on par with claims of racism from white students in an African American history course.”

To back up the claims of an unfair campaign against the professors, Hammer spoke to Liel Leibovitz, a journalist from New York’s Jewish Week who has written several articles about the controversy. Leibovitz contacted 36 students of the professors to see if they had been intimidated in class and somehow found “not a single student reported any such sentiment.” Perhaps Hammer should also have spoken to Douglas Feiden, from the New York Daily News, who wrote that “In three weeks of interviews, numerous students told the Daily News they face harassment, threats and ridicule merely for defending the right of Israel to survive.” Fieden also spoke to a Jewish faculty member, Dan Miron, who revealed that about one Jewish student a week comes to him to complain about bias in the classroom and said, “Students tell me they’ve been browbeaten, humiliated and treated disrespectfully for daring to challenge the idea that Israel has no right to exist as a Jewish nation.”

However, these would not have supported Hammer’s pre-existing position that the academics are being unfairly treated and harassed. For good measure, Hammer also interviewed Stephen Walt, who co-authored an infamous article claiming the “Israel lobby” was controlling US foreign policy to act against American interests.

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