How academia in the US self-censors on Israel and Palestine

Each American taxpayer gives thousands of dollars to fund the Israeli military over a lifetime, yet, most Americans are not educated on the basic facts of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Photo by: Getty Images
Photo by: Getty Images

Jessica Winegar Dr. Jessica Winegar is the Harold H. and Virginia Anderson Chair and Associate Professor of Anthropology and Middle East and North African Studies at Northwestern University. @winegarjessica

Over the last few weeks, a right wing, anti-Muslim and anti-Black organization in the United States launched a massive smear campaign against faculty who teach about Israel-Palestine. Posters went up on a number of college campuses featuring negative cartoon portrayals of the faculty, and some students, next to charges that they support terrorism. They were emblazoned with the hashtag #JewHatred.

Just before this campaign launched, the United States government promised a record 38 billion dollars to bolster the State of Israel’s military capacity over the next 10 years. This amount will bring the total US military aid to Israel, the top recipient of such funds for decades, to over 270 billion dollars. These are American taxpayer dollars, given to reinforce the most powerful military in the Middle East, and the only one with nuclear weapons. Yet there was no collective opposition, and it certainly wasn’t an issue in the US presidential race.

What connects these two phenomena?

The reality is that most Americans are not educated in the basic facts and history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Per capita over a lifetime, each American taxpayer essentially gives thousands of dollars to fund the Israeli military with hardly any knowledge of what happens when it gets there.

There are multiple reasons for this situation.

One commonly cited cause is the pro-Israel bias of the mainstream media in the United States. Americans who do not seek alternative news sources can easily come away with the view that Israel is in a perpetually weak position. That it is a state continually threatened by neighboring countries, whose inhabitants are often portrayed through negative anti-Muslim stereotypes.

But US higher education is another, far less acknowledged, cause for Americans’ relative ignorance of Israel-Palestine.

The US education system still bears the historical legacy and weight of a focus on the Western canon, and so comparatively fewer courses are offered outside of a Eurocentric geographic and analytic focus. But even if students happen to take a class on the Middle East, it is not unusual for there to be little or no content related to Israel-Palestine.

Meanwhile, classes that have such content often present top down approaches, focusing for example on political leaders, parties, negotiations, treaties, and war tactics. Such classes can give the incorrect impression that the problem is between two equal sides, or repeat the Israel-as-threatened narrative. This pedagogical approach also frequently sidesteps, or outright ignores, the brutal daily experience of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

So why aren’t America’s professors teaching about Israel-Palestine? Why aren’t they doing so in a more robust, complex, and varied way?

Because they are afraid.

What lies behind this fear?

In a recent book I co-authored with Scripps College professor Lara Deeb, we outline the multiple reasons behind this fear, which has stretched back decades in US academia. We found strong evidence of longstanding academic socialization where professors are taught — either directly or indirectly — that they must censor themselves when it comes to Israel-Palestine. This happens in the classroom, but also in one’s own academic research, and in public engagement outside the ivory tower.

Since at least the 1970s, faculty have systematically discouraged their graduate students — the up and coming professoriate — from researching Palestine, Palestinians, or the Israeli state from a critical perspective. Those who made this their research specialty have had extreme difficulty getting jobs as professors, particularly prior to the 2000s. Some who did gain employment faced uphill tenure battles, denials, or even, as in the infamous case of Professor Steven Salaita, unhiring. This situation has led to a general dearth of qualified faculty at the senior levels to provide this necessary education to US students.

Yet even younger college teachers who persevered in this environment can still face a range of threats that contribute to their ongoing self-censorship. And some of these threats are intensifying, due to digital technologies and the growth of right wing activist groups such as the David Horowitz Freedom Center (which is behind the latest poster campaign), the AMCHA Initiative, The David Project, and a group formed in the last month, Israel and the Academy.

Since at least the 1980s, well-funded off-campus organizations like these have recruited student moles to go to particular professors’ classrooms and report back. Then and now, these organizations produce faculty black lists and smear campaigns, and nowadays these often go viral.

The defamation is based on very little evidence, and accuses faculty who teach the full gamut of research on Israel-Palestine of being anti-Semitic and often supporters of terrorism. The campaigns thereby conflate criticism of Israeli state policies and actions with anti-Semitism. Any consideration of Palestinian perspectives is equated with terrorism.

Often, coteries of students propagate these fallacies as well. According to our research, for decades they have engaged in a range of tactics that in any other academic context would be treated as grossly unacceptable. Students walk out of class when they are exposed to material they disagree with, interrupt classes in a hostile manner to denigrate different perspectives, disrespect professors (especially women and those of Middle Eastern background), complain to administrators who then have to launch investigations, and even threaten professors’ safety.

No wonder faculty avoid, or tiptoe around, Israel-Palestine in their research and teaching.

No one wants character assassinations circulating on campus or the internet. No one wants students disrespecting them and disrupting their classes. No one wants to put their jobs and reputations at risk. To be sure, there are professors who do not self-censor. They usually have tenure to protect them. But even those with tenure, we found, still avoid the issue to save their sanity and reputations.

Students are now challenging the status quo

Professors’ self-censorship will not go away quickly. It has developed and become institutionalized over decades. And new off campus groups instigating this self-censorship continue to multiply.

But pushback is coming — from students themselves. There is a burgeoning demand for critical and comprehensive courses on Israel-Palestine from a new generation of students. This is a generation that witnesses Israeli and US state violence in real time on their phones and computers. This is a generation responsible for a growing student movement, composed of people of all backgrounds, critical of racism and state power, a movement that links groups such as Black Lives Matter, Students for Justice in Palestine, and Open Hillel.

Growing numbers of students want more knowledge on this topic. They are challenging the regime of self-censorship. The days of massive collusion between education, the media, and US and Israeli state policy on this issue are, in fact, numbered.

The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.