Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Blow against Academic Freedom at Yale

Thanks to a mention at dailykos, I have come across the story of how Yale University has denied a faculty appointment to prominent historian-blogger Juan Cole, currently at the University of Michigan. The denial occurred at the upper levels after he had been approved by the history and sociology departments, after a concerted alumni pressure campaign spearheaded by neoconservative organizations. Cole's blog, "Informed Comment" has proved to be one of the most reliable sources for smart, fact-based analysis of current events in the Middle East, an essential supplement to the woefully inadequate and strongly biased coverage that this region receives in the mainstream American media. Cole focuses mostly on reporting what is happening on the ground, but he makes no effort to hide his point of view. The neocons, acting through alumni donors, shamefully played up the ridiculous assertion that poisons so much of U.S. discussion of the region: i.e. criticism of right-wing Israeli policies (for example in the West Bank) = criticism of Israel = criticism of Jews = anti-Semitism.

I find this action by Yale University both outrageous and sadly indicative of the downward slide of that institution. When neocon-funded alumni campaigns can trump the decisions of faculty committees, then academic freedom is under attack. I have actually disagreed with Juan Cole on a few occasions (generally from the Left, regarding rules of engagement in combat, the legitimacy of ever using white phosphorus in war, etc.) But I do not for a minute doubt that he is an inspiring voice of public engagement among senior academics, and that his perspective as a specialist in the Middle East has immeasurably enriched public debate. For Cole, at least he gets to keep his tenured position at Michigan. But what is perhaps worst about this case is that it will likely discourage knowledgeable academics from engaging with a wider public audience. If we want academics to move beyond the cloistered ivory tower, then why do we shoot them down when they try?


Rob said...

I'm a liberal and Jewish. I consider myself pro-Israel and often resent the double standard Israelis are judged by while Arabs are given a free pass for their atrocities against their own. For example, you'll hear people promote an economic boycott of Israel but not Egypt which is a brutal dictatorship.

Nonetheless, I consider Juan Cole an important voice. Those of us who are pro-Israel need to be intellectually honest that one can make a legitimate critique of their policies ranging from the settlements to human rights abuses. Some critcisize Israel simply because they don't like Jews. But denying someone an academic voice simply because they offend neocon sensibilities in their criticisms of Israel is just as bad.

christian_left said...

Thanks for your comment, Rob. We may differ on certain specifics, but at least we can agree that there is room for reasonable debate about Middle Eastern issues.

I've always had some ambivalence about the Israel economic boycott movement, even though I tend to agree with pretty much all of its major points. I guess my concern is that it would be hypocritical for people in the U.S. (or Britain) to engage in such a boycott given what our government's armed occupation forces are doing in Iraq right now--and what "we" (i.e. our governments) have done in the past to exert military power in the world, including our complicity in the oppression of Palestinians, as well as our close ties and support to dictatorial, authoritarian regimes such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. So unless we are also willing to boycott ourselves, it seems a bit presumuptuous to single out Israel. On the other hand, I understand the frustration of many advocates for the land and human rights of Palestinians. I also understand that some of the most passionate yet thoughtful advocates for the rights of the Palestinian are actually Israelis. So I would not want to judge all Israeli people as responsible for the actions of their government, especially considering that some of them are working hard to oppose it. (Attacking Jewish people as a group would be even more beyond the pale, just as the blaming of all Muslims for 9/11 is outrageous, though shockingly common in the U.S.)

Rob said...

Hi Christian Left -

You might be interested in reading my interview with David Michaelis of Link TV. Michaelis is an Israeli born Jew who collaborated with a Palestinian to film the documentary "Occupied Minds." Their fiml is about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They interviewed both Iraelis and Palestinians representing the entire spectrum of views.
Here is the link if you're interested.