Teaching the Middle East after October 7: Reflections on Academic Freedom, Antisemitism, and the Question of Palestine

Nader Hashemi, Georgetown University

Middle East Studies is in peril. Today, we are facing the biggest threat to academic freedom since the founding of the Association of American University Professors (AAUP) in 1915. Arguably, McCarthyism was worse. While engaging in public intellectual work and teaching the Middle East always involved a degree of risk, these dangers have risen to new levels after October 7, 2023. Topics such as political Islam, US Middle East Policy, Iran and especially the Israel-Palestine conflict, are now subject to an intense new level of scrutiny that impede academic freedom. The sources of these threats are twofold: private interest groups ideologically associated with the American and Israeli Right and university officials who invoke diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) criteria to purportedly protect students from harm.

In this essay, I will draw upon my own experience at the University of Denver and a panel I organized in 2023 at the Middle East Association Conference on “The Ken Roth Scandal at Harvard and Academic Freedom.” The aim is to share with colleagues lessons that can help them navigate this perilous new terrain without compromising the freedom to speak, teach and conduct research in areas that reflect our diverse intellectual interests. In assessing this topic, there are a set of common themes and political challenges that recur. They are directly related to accusations of antisemitism and restrictions on academic freedom imposed by university administrators.  Identifying these themes and overcoming these challenges are essential to maintaining the integrity and independence of Middle East Studies after October 7.

The Post-October 7 Crisis

The crisis in Gaza has rattled American universities. In January, a lawsuit was filed against Harvard accusing it of tolerating antisemitism and ignoring the civil rights of Jewish students. Similar lawsuits have been filed against MIT, Penn, Brown, and NYU. “Mobs of pro-Hamas students and faculty have marched by the hundreds through Harvard’s campus, shouting vile antisemitic slogans and calling for death to Jews and Israel,” according to the lawsuit.[1]

Old debates about freedom of speech on campus and academic freedom have been reignited. This time the focus is almost exclusively on Israel/Palestine. Massive media coverage has produced a national debate which intensified in December 2023 after the presidents of Harvard, MIT and Penn testified at a congressional hearing on antisemitism. Two of them subsequently resigned after an embarrassing performance.[2] Instead of being principled on questions of bigotry and free speech, they offered careful lawyerly answers, while refusing to unequivocally affirm that calls for Jewish genocide violated campus policies. A backlash from donors and alumni immediately ensued. To deal with the fallout, antisemitism task forces were set up. As a direct result of these events, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is now investigating more than 50 cases of alleged antisemitism.[3] Ignored in this context are two critical facts: 1) the absence of credible evidence that Jews on campus are facing calls for genocide and 2) the unfolding of a plausible US-backed genocide in Gaza while this drama plays out openly supported by the same plaintiffs and a bi-partisan coalition of American lawmakers, including the President of the United States.[4]

Prefiguring our current moment, in 2022, I was subjected to an orchestrated vilification campaign at the University of Denver (DU). Six Colorado Jewish organizations accused me of antisemitism for criticism of the Netanyahu government.[5] This story made local, national, and international news and was fed by a rightwing media frenzy. Death threats and hate mailed ensued. CNN’s Jake Tapper joined in the fray and Republican congressmen promised to investigate DU for treason.[6] The worst part of this scandal was when the Chancellor of DU, after an intense lobbying effort, issued a calumnious public statement that implied I was a threat to Jews on campus.[7] Completely ignored during this drama was the fact I was a leader on campus in raising awareness about rising antisemitism. None of this mattered. Antisemitism wasn’t the real issue, insufficient loyalty to Israel was. I subsequently learned my chancellor sought to shut down the Center for Middle East Studies for which I was the acting director.

Threats to academic freedom in the context of Middle East Studies have a long history. After October 7, these threats have significantly increased. Recent events at Barnard College encapsulate the crisis facing Middle East Studies today. When the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies posted a statement on its website in support of Palestinian rights, it was immediately take down by university administrators on the grounds that it constituted “impermissible political speech.”[8] Faculty who have posted pro-Palestinian posters on their office doors have been ordered to remove them and when a group of 20 students held an authorized peaceful pro-Palestine rally on campus, they were summoned before a disciplinary committee. As the New York Times reported, Barnard College has been “facing pressure from some donors, alumni and student and faculty to limit some pro-Palestinian speech on the grounds that opposing Zionism or the state of Israel can veer into antisemitism and can make those who support Israel feel uncomfortable.”[9]

This vignette is a microcosm of what is happening at other educational institutions. Petitions have circulated calling for the firing of senior faculty.[10] Tenured professors have been suspended for social media posts and in one outrageous case a tenured political scientist at Indiana University was suspended for “alleged mistakes in the filing of a room reservation form” in support of a Palestine solidarity event.[11] Accusations of antisemitism are central to all these cases. Equally important is the role of private interest groups who lobby university administrators with the goal of policing the debate on Israel/Palestine. These groups are connected to conservative political action groups and leading American Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The question is how can faculty best respond?

How to Respond?

Public intellectual work in Middle East Studies requires thick skin. It is not for the faint hearted. The more vocal you are, the more you will be scrutinized. Every word you write, every interview you give or lecture you deliver will be closely monitored. The risks are greater for untenured faculty. These risks increase if you are an academic or program director who has convening authority to organize public events or to supervise curriculum.  The larger your social media profile, the bigger the target on your back. Inevitably your name will appear on McCarthyite websites like Campus Watch and Canary Mission where out of context quotes will be put on display to present you as un-American, an extremist or an antisemite. In short, be prepared to be attacked, vilified, libeled, and defamed, sometimes by your own institution after they have heavily lobbied by outside pro-Israel groups. The first lesson to be learned: be careful and be vigilant.

Lesson number two: do not underestimate the moral cowardice of senior university officials. Most have little knowledge of the politics of the Middle East, and even less awareness on how antisemitism has been weaponized and redefined to be equated with criticism of the policies of the Israeli government.[12] The goal of outside lobby groups is to police the debate on Palestine/Israel on campus. When administrators are heavily lobbied by donors and alumni, they typically give in to donors’ demands, regardless of how ill-founded or unsubstantiated they might be. This is what precisely what happened to Kenneth Roth at Harvard and to me at the University of Denver.[13] It is a common pattern of behavior across the board. There are things, however, that can be done to protect your academic freedom.

At the start of every academic year, seize the initiative and meet with key university officials and their staff. Specifically set up meetings with the president, provost, relevant deans and DEI coordinators. Key faculty who teach Middle East Studies should join you. Educate them on the background and nature of the Canary Mission, the politics of lobbying on Israel/Palestine, the weaponization of  accusations of antisemitism to silence support for Palestinian human rights and critically, the values you expect your university to defend. If criticism of Israel is inherently antisemitic, you should point out by the same warped ethics criticism of Iran, Saudi Arabia or the Taliban is similarly Islamophobic. Criticism of all governments and all politicians is equally valid and should not be dismissed by invoking charges of Islamophobia/antisemitism.

Today, there is a popular view among university administrators, informed by debates on diversity and inclusion, that a key goal of a college education is to protect students from harm. My view is more nuanced, and it echoes Van Jones’ succinct formulation: “the point of college is to keep you physically safe but intellectually unsafe, to force you to confront ideas that you vehemently disagree with.”[14] This is at the core of a liberal education. It applies today to campus debates and controversies related to Israel/Palestine post October 7th. This principle must be robustly defended.

Lesson number three. Be prepared to undertake unpaid labor to defend your academic freedom. When I was defamed by the University Denver (due to an intense lobbying effort by pro-Israel groups), I looked around campus for resources of support and I found none. I was forced to take time away from my research and teaching to defend my academic reputation. We had no faculty union and our ombudsperson office had permanently closed. I had supportive colleagues, but they had to be mobilized. All of this took time, and it also took a toll on my peace of mind. Luckily, I was a member of MESA and their Committee on Academic Freedom issued an early supportive letter. A close colleague of mine was the AAUP representative on campus. They issued a supportive letter as did the Colorado chapter of the AAUP. I deeply felt the absence of faculty union. In an ideal world, my union representative could defend my integrity with senior university officials based on a collective bargaining agreement. A lesson for all: if you don’t have a faculty union, start one.

If you are publicly defamed and targeted in a toxic media environment the natural reaction is to recoil and stay quiet. Self-censorship soon follows as your conscience asks: do I want to be attacked again? Is it worth it? What about my research agenda? I have a mortgage to pay, a marriage to nurture, children to raise – who needs this stress? The instinct is to shut down and refrain from speaking or writing on topics that matter such as the many problems associated with US Middle East policy or the behavior of repressive Western-backed Mideast regimes.  Normatively and ethically, this response would be a tragedy for all of us. Ideally, we want to be working in academic contexts, where we don’t live in fear; where we can teach, write and research topics that inspire us without fear that someone is watching over us, as though we are living under a dictatorship. Combating this problem requires a work atmosphere where you are fully protected and supported by your university on matters of free speech and academic inquiry.

Finally, there is a moral gray zone that must be considered in the context of Middle East Studies today. The dilemma is how to confront defamatory pro-Israel lobbying efforts that seek to restrict academic freedom/freedom of speech while not contributing to rising antisemitism. In the context of the Ken Roth scandal at Harvard, the ADL argued that criticism of pro-Israel donors “plays into antisemitic myths about power and money” and “implicates Israel and the American Jewish community.”[15] This is a serious ethical consideration that scholars of Middle East must not ignore. At the same time the thuggish intimidation tactics that seek to restrict academic freedom must be confronted. Navigating this moral terrain requires a deep sensitivity to the problem of historic antisemitism and its recent resurgence. Critical analysis and discussion of Israel can sometimes veer into antisemitism and that can easily be exploited for nefarious ends by unsavory groups. Those of us who teach, write, and work on the Middle East must always be sensitive to this exploitation. Simultaneously, it must be acknowledged there has been a premeditated and deliberate effort to instrumentalize and weaponize accusations of antisemitism to silence support for Palestinian human rights.

For example, more than fifty years ago, the distinguished Israeli diplomat, Abba Eban, observed that “one of the chief tasks of any dialogue with the Gentile world is to prove that the distinction between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism [i.e., criticism of Israeli state policy] is not a distinction at all. Anti-Zionism is merely the new anti-Semitism.”[16] When Jimmy Carter published his book in 2006, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid, he was accused of antisemitism by the head of the ADL.[17] More recently, when Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International published their reports on Israeli apartheid, they too were accused by the same American Jewish organizations of fueling global antisemitism.[18] In this context, there are competing moral imperatives that must be addressed and attended to. Rejecting the claim that anti-Zionism equals antisemitism is the place to start.

Conclusion:

In our post-October 7th world, academic freedom in the context of Middle East Studies can no longer be assumed. It must be robustly defended. For anyone unconvinced about the urgency of this problem consider the case of Germany today, where support for Palestinian human rights has been effectively criminalized by the state and where tenured professors have lost their jobs as a result.[19] This is the model of academic life that awaits us here if we do not take steps to defend ourselves and our core academic values.

In 1915, the AAUP published the “Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure.” This is the founding document of the AAUP.  Academic freedom is defined as “freedom of inquiry and research; freedom of teaching within the university or college; and freedom of extramural utterance and action.”[20] All of these core values are under severe threat today at American colleges and universities. If they are not rigorously and robustly defended, the basic idea of a university could be lost.

 

 

[1] “Lawsuit filed against Harvard, accusing it of violating the civil rights of Jewish students,” Associated Press, January 12, 2024.

[2] While the president of Harvard ostensibly resigned due to accusations of plagiarism, Robert Reich has argued pro-Israel donor pressure was the chief reason. See his essay, “Powerful donors managed to push out Harvard’s Claudine Gay: but at what cost?” The Guardian, January 3, 2024.

[3] Andrew Lapin, “US Department of Education opens new antisemitism probes into universities, schools,” Times of Israel, January 19, 2024.

[4] It stretches credulity to the breaking point to argue that slogans such as “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free” and “Intifada” are axiomatically genocidal in nature and intent. For background see Nadia Abou El Haj, “Zionism’s Political Unconscious,” Blog Post, November 17, 2023, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/news/zionism-s-political-unconscious.

[5] I partially recount the story in “Thrashed for Theorizing: Notes on Antisemitism, Israel and the Attack on Salman Rushdie,” Jadalliya.com, September 9, 2023, www.jadaliyya.com/Author/11596. I provide more details in this interview with Mouin Rabbani, “The Israeli Lobby and US Academia,” Jadalliya Connections Episode 59, www.youtube.com/watch?v=JMQDYXB4zN8. Also see Cass Tingley, “On-air speculation: Academic Freedom and its fallout for one professor at the University of Denver,” DU Clarion, May 10, 2023.

[6] Adam Credo, “Republicans Eye Pro-Iranian Propaganda in US Colleges after Prof Claims Israel Behind Rushdie Attack,” Washington Free Beacon, August 26, 2022.

[7] “University of Denver Statement about Professor Nader Hashemi,” Committee on Academic Freedom, Middle East Studies Association, September 2, 2022, https://mesana.org/advocacy/committee-on-academic-freedom/2022/09/02/university-of-denver-statement-about-professor-nader-hashemi.

[8] Sharon Otterman, “Barnard College’s Restrictions on Political Speech Prompt Outcry,” New York Times, January 24, 2024.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Noah Bernstein, “Petition calling or the removal of MESAAS professor Joseph Massad garners over 47,000 signatures,” Columbia Spectator, October 17, 2023, https://www.columbiaspectator.com/news/2023/10/17/petition-calling-for-removal-of-mesaas-professor-joseph-massad-garners-over-47000-signatures/ and Ben Raab and Kaitlyn Pohly, “Petition to out pro-Palestine professor for ‘promoting lies and violence’ gains 25,000 signatures in just over a day,” Yale Daily News, October 12, 2023, https://yaledailynews.com/blog/2023/10/12/petition-to-oust-pro-palestine-professor-for-promoting-lies-and-violence-gains-25000-signatures-in-just-over-a-day/.

[11] Jeffrey Isaac, “Indiana University Caves to Political Pressure by Suspending a Tenured Professor,” The Nation, January 10, 2024 and Kate McGee, “Texas Tech suspends professor over Israel-Hamas war comments,” Texas Tribune, March 4, 2024.

[12] Steven Friedman, Good Jew, Bad Jew: Racism, anti-Semitism and the assault on meaning (New York: New York University Press, 2023).

[13] Michael Massing, “Why the Godfather of Human Rights Is Not Welcome at Harvard,” The Nation, January 23/30, 2023 and Kenneth Roth, “I once ran Human Rights Watch. Harvard blocked my fellowship over Israel,” The Guardian, January 10, 2023.

[14] Fareed Zakaria GPS Transcript, December 10, 2023, https://transcripts.cnn.com/show/fzgps/date/2023-12-10/segment/01.

[15] Jonathan Greenblatt, January 6, 2023, https://twitter.com/JGreenblattADL/status/1611472849969074180.

[16] Noam Chomsky, The Fateful Triangle: the United States, Israel and the Palestinians (Cambridge: South End Press, 1999), 15.

[17] Matthew Yglesias, “Foxman in a Henhouse,” The Atlantic, January 16, 2007.

[18] Peter Beinart, “Has the Fight Against Antisemitism Lost Its Way?” New York Times, August 26, 2022.

[19] Hebh Jamal, “Pro-Palestinian speech is now effectively banned in German Universities,” Mondoweiss, December 27, 2023, https://mondoweiss.net/2023/12/pro-palestinian-speech-is-now-effectively-banned-in-german-universities/. The case of Ghassan Hage at the Max Planck Society stands out in this context.

[20] Association of American University Professors, “1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure,” https://www.aaup.org/report/1915-declaration-principles-academic-freedom-and-academic-tenure.