Monday, November 19, 2007


Scholarship and truth does not matter. If it's anti-Israel it is OK

The target is professor Joel Kovel and his new book, Overcoming Zionism. The campus is the University of Michigan. But the controversy is all too familiar. On the one side are those who say universities have become centers for anti-Israel rhetoric. On the other are those who claim pro-Israel forces are stifling debate and limiting academic freedom.

Since the publication of The Israel Lobby by professors John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, the argument has intensified. Two back-to-back conferences that took place last month made clear just how divided the camps are. A conference at the University of Chicago, "In Defense of Academic Freedom," brought together a slew of scholars who say pressure from pro-Israel groups is taking a heavy toll on scholarship critical of Israel and on debate at university campuses.

The conference was inspired in part by the recent decision by DePaul University not to grant tenure to Norman Finkelstein, a critic of Israel and the author of The Holocaust Industry: Reflections on the Exploitation of Jewish Suffering. Finkelstein's tenure process, which included a virulent campaign by Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz to deny him the status, became one of the most publicized. Finkelstein was recommended for tenure by the his department and the tenure committee, but the dean overrode them. Some fear this incident has set a precedent for future tenure processes becoming hostage to outside politics.

A few days after the Chicago conference, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a pro-Israel group, hosted its own conference, "Israel's Jewish Defamers." The group largely targeted Jews who compare Israel to Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa. "What we are addressing today is criticism rooted in outright, demonstrable falsehood or wildly extreme, out-of-context distortion," JTA quoted Andrea Levin, CAMERA's executive director, as saying in her introductory remarks.

The latest bout of academic warfare has taken shape at the University of Michigan - home to one of the largest Jewish student bodies - where many are up in arms over the handling of Kovel's fiercely anti-Israel book. The university, which has a contract to distribute books from left-wing British publisher Pluto Press, has been strongly criticized for distributing the recently-published Overcoming Zionism. In his book, Kovel argues that the creation of Israel was a mistake, and advocates for a "one-state" solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which Israelis and Palestinians would form a new country that isn't Jewish. The controversy led the university to temporarily halt distribution of the book and to review the relationship with the British publisher. But last week, Michigan announced it would renew its contract to distribute Pluto Press books.

The university has defended its decision, saying the relationship with the British press was one of commerce, not scholarship. "Distribution agreements are undertaken strictly as business relationships and have historically been a small part of the UM Press's business," said a statement announcing the unanimous decision. "Currently, the press distributes for five publishers. As is the case with all such commercial arrangements, books distributed on behalf of clients are not edited, reviewed or produced by the UM Press, and they do not bear the imprimatur of the press or of the University of Michigan." Still, Michigan said it would review the way such relationships were set up. Typically university presses don't have explicit guidelines for distribution agreements, "but the recent controversy surrounding the contract with Pluto Press has underscored the need for them," the statement said. Fundamental to that, Michigan said, is "the principle of freedom of expression."

Following the university's decision, the campus newspaper published an editorial supporting it: "There is no doubt that some people will have objections to Kovel's contentions, but is there any reason besides complacency and cowardice that those contentions should not be presented into the debate? While people may not agree with the content of the book, it does add to the debate, and it is exactly the type of book the university press should print."

But the decision to continue ties with Pluto Press has outraged some Jewish and pro-Israel groups. At the heart of the controversy is Stand With Us - Michigan, a local chapter of the national group. The local chapter got wind of the book from a local blogger, and in August brought it to the university's attention. Jonathan Harris, the Christian Zionist director of the Michigan chapter, told The Jerusalem Post by phone last week that the book was "an anti-Zionist screed that tries to prove Zionism is a horrible, racist ideology that brings about only bad."

The director of the University of Michigan Press, Phil Pochoda, expressed similar sentiment in an e-mail to the author, which was leaked. "The issue raised by the book is not free speech, but hate speech," wrote Pochoda. "Perhaps such vituperative and aggressive rhetoric works for the barricades, but it cannot be countenanced or underwritten by the university or the university press, even in this peripheral, distributed capacity." Despite this, the university press resumed distribution of the book.

In an op-ed to be published next week, Harris questions "why UMP would make the choice to promote and distribute Pluto books when they have 'no scholarly merit' and do not meet UMP's standards." Betsy Kellman, director of the Michigan regional chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, said in an interview on Friday that she was "shocked" by the university's decision to continue its ties to Pluto Press. "ADL has often said you can be critical of Israel, but at some point you cross the line and it turns into anti-Semitism," said Kellman. "This book is holding Israel to a very different standard than other countries, and that's where ADL steps in."


Academic hatred of "Zionism"

The news, coming over the weekend, that Barnard College has granted tenure to an anti-Israel anthropologist, Nadia Abu El-Haj, is a setback to those who had hoped that the tide of anti-Israel sentiment at Morningside Heights would begin to recede after President Bollinger's welcome of President Ahmadinejad. Press coverage of Ms. El-Haj's case in the Nation and the Jewish Week (by the same reporter, no less) has sought to portray her opponents as McCarthyites and has insisted that she has been falsely accused. In fact, she is on the record accusing Israel of being a colonial project.

This is a point to mark. Martin Kramer, who is the Wexler-Fromer Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, made the key point when, in a remarks published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, he wrote, "The tragedy of the academy is that it has become home to countless people whose mission is to prove the lie that Zionism is colonialism. Thus research is undertaken, books are written, and lectures delivered to establish a falsehood." He called the idea that Zionism is colonialism "the root lie."

This is the lie that Ms. El-Haj is dedicated to promoting. In her book "Facts on the Ground: Archaeological Practice and Territorial Self-Fashioning in Israeli Society," she writes, "The colonial dimension of Jewish settlement in Palestine cannot be sidelined if one is to understand the significance and consequences of archaeological practice or, far more fundamentally, if one is to comprehend the dynamics of Israeli nation-state building and the contours of the Jewish national imagination as it crystallized therein."

This is, not to put too fine a point on it, nonsense. The Jews of Israel are no more colonizers than the Indians were in America. They lived there thousands of years ago. They never left, except for brief periods during which they were expelled by actual colonizers. There's been much debate over Ms. El-Haj's Hebrew skills; what concerns about her skills is not so much her Hebrew but her English, particularly her ability to understand the plain language meaning of the word "colonial" and how it does not apply to Jews returning to Israel from exile elsewhere.

The fact is that the Zionist movement that created the Jewish state in the land of Israel is the 180-degree opposite of a colonial movement. It was - as Menachem Begin used to phrase it when we spoke with him - a national liberation struggle. So when one is confronted by a left that sides with every national liberation struggle save for the one in respect of the Jews, it's no surprise that people start to wonder about underlying motives. The real colonizers right now are the oil-rich Arab potentates that are pouring funding into American universities, hoping to brainwash our students with claptrap about Zionists being colonizers. Looks like the Barnard trustees fell for it, in the last year that President Judith Shapiro, herself an anthropologist, was on the job.


The Strange War on Homework

American students continue to fall behind much of the rest of the world in math and science and recent surveys of their literacy and knowledge of history, civics and geography hover between embarrassing and "Oh my God." But one of the hottest issues in American education today is the crusade to cut down on "excessive" homework; and the war is being waged not by educrats, but by parents.

"I hate school," declared a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, who complained that homework was destroying his son's life and his family and legions of anguished parents worried about the stress and self-esteem destroying effects of homework have joined his cry. After his assault on homework, Columnist Jeff Opdyke says, he received more than a thousand emails from fretting "parents, teachers, principals and guidance counselors," who spoke of "crying, fits, angry outbursts, frustration. And worse."

"Worse," included stories about parents who felt the need to medicate their children. A California mom wrote that the stress of homework was so great that "I was sent twice to see a psychiatrist to put [them] on pills." "Is there something we can do as parents," she asked, "to stop this insanity?" The insanity, presumably, was the homework, not pushing drugs on her kids.

Several years ago I wrote about the widespread opposition to so-called "high stakes" testing among the minivan set. As educational reformers discovered to their chagrin, many suburban parents thought that high standards were quite all right when they were applied to someone else's child. But the assault on the tests was a mild affair compared with the uprising against homework.

"If this is the price of excellence," one anti-homework parent complained on a recent radio call-in show, "I'll take mediocrity." He seems to echo educationist guru Alfie Kohn, who also inveighs against effects of standardized tests, grades, and musical chairs, but who seems to reserve a special animus for homework, which he blames for an epidemic of "stress and conflict, frustration and exhaustion."

Following his lead, school districts across the country are scrambling to put lids on assignments; capping the time children spend on homework. In Needham Massachusetts, the high school has gone even further to protect the fragile psyches of its young. "Less Homework, More Yoga, From a Principal Who Hates Stress," read a headline in The New York Times about Needham High School. All of this, the Times explained places the school in the "vanguard of a movement," among affluent schools that includes the formation of a group known as S.O.S. - "Stressed Out Students."

This is a genuinely strange crusade. A generation of hyper-parents has larded their children's days with band practice, piano lessons, soccer practice, volleyball, martial arts, dance recitals, and swim classes. For their part, teens find time to spend something like 6 hours a day using various forms of media; Xbox 360 sales do not seem to be suffering because kids are too busy to play video games and the malls have not been emptied of teens. And yet the cry goes up that it is Mrs. Grundy's history homework assignments that are destroying the innocence of childhood and wrecking the American family.

Of course, as any parent who has spent hours working on pointless dioramas and time-wasting cardboard volcanoes can testify, some of the complaints are not without some merit. But while some children undoubtedly do have too much homework, reports of a national homework crisis are highly exaggerated. In 2003, a study by the Brookings Institution found that the great majority of students at all grade levels now spend less than an hour a day studying, or about a quarter of the time they spend text messaging things like "NMHJC" (Not Much Here, Just Chilling) to one another.

The hand-wringing over homework also seems to miss the point because the overriding problem of Generation Me is not their excessive work-ethic. Universities and employers are not complaining that they are inundated with overstressed, burned out workaholic over-achievers. Rather the contrary. For every academic Stakhonovite who shows up at college or the office, there are legions of smug, entitled, graduates stuffed with self-esteem and great expectations but utterly unprepared for the rigors of college, work, or life.

This, of course brings us back to the parents, those obsessively involved, overprotective, indulgent moms and dads who have bubble-wrapped their children on the assumption that they are so frail and easily bruised that they must at all costs be protected against the symptoms of life, including, apparently, homework. One suspects that much of this anxiety is less about the kids, than about the angst of the grownups, many of whom seem genuinely afraid to do anything that might make them unpopular with their children, whose amusement and approval they crave so slavishly. That may also explain the endless parade of gold stars, happy faces, and participation trophies that mark the progress of modern childhood.

But for many children raised in bubble-wrap, life is turning out to be both overwhelming and disappointing, especially when they find out that the rest of world does not care as much about their self-esteem as mommy or daddy did. Of course it is true that middle school is often an ordeal and getting into college has become daunting rite of passage. But at some point grownups need to realize that life in general is full of switchbacks and speed-bumps -- most of which are a lot more stressful than an hour or two of science homework at the kitchen table.


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