Commentary Magazine


Topic: anti-Israel

A Smoke Screen for Palestine-Pushers

Whenever criticism is leveled at federal funding for area studies in universities—especially those bias-laden, error-prone Middle East centers—someone jumps up to claim that this funding is crucial to the national interest. Now it’s the turn of Nathan Brown, a political scientist at George Washington University and current president of the Middle East Studies Associations (MESA).
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Whenever criticism is leveled at federal funding for area studies in universities—especially those bias-laden, error-prone Middle East centers—someone jumps up to claim that this funding is crucial to the national interest. Now it’s the turn of Nathan Brown, a political scientist at George Washington University and current president of the Middle East Studies Associations (MESA).

Brown claims that federally-funded area studies centers are “essential” for U.S. policy, a “vital national asset,” and “often the only sources of knowledge when crises erupt in unfamiliar places.” They’ve done an “outstanding job of training” Middle East experts, and “political” criticism of them “threatens the ability of the United States to understand the world and act effectively in it.” If you don’t like it that “an individual faculty member offends a supporter of a particular political position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, should students of Swahili and teachers of Tagalog be caught in the crossfire?” Should “programming that is critical of Israel on some campuses endanger all funding for international education?”

Those are valid questions, but they’re posed disingenuously. Here are Brown’s two main elisions:

1. The only people who think that these centers are a “vital national asset” are the professors who collect the money. Over the years, there have been a series of government-sponsored reviews of these Title VI programs (reference is to the authorizing title of the Higher Education Act), and not one review has concluded that the programs do anything resembling an “outstanding job,” especially on languages. (The last major review, by the National Academies, concluded there was “insufficient information to judge program performance.”)

The claim that these centers are “often the only sources of knowledge” on emerging trouble spots is just untrue. That’s rarely the case, and as regards the Middle East, it’s now never the case. Government has had to assemble the full range of capabilities, from area expertise to language training, in-house. That’s why the Obama administration—yes, the Obama administration!—cut the budget of this “vital national asset” by 40 percent back in 2011. The only lobbying for Title VI funding comes from within academe itself.

2. The “political” criticism of Title VI Middle East centers is a response to the rampant politicization of some of these centers by those who run them, and who’ve mobilized them against Israel. This isn’t a matter of “an individual faculty member” here or there. It’s a plague that arises from overall attitudes in the field. Brown knows the problem, which is why he recently issued a letter to MESA’s members effectively imploring them not to drag the organization into a BDS debate.

One obvious effect has been to drive the study of Israel almost completely out of these centers, into separately-funded and administered Israel studies programs. Some Title VI Middle East centers, thus relieved of the burden of fairly presenting Israel, have become even more blatant purveyors of pro-Palestinian agitprop. This fall, for the first time, half a dozen Title VI center directors openly pledged to boycott Israeli academe. How might that impact the centers they administer? No one really knows.

A case can be made for Title VI. Not every Middle East center is a shameful disaster, and most of the funding goes to centers specializing in other world areas. Brown alludes to some of these arguments. But his broader defense of the Middle Eastern end of Title VI is a misleading attempt to throw up a smoke screen for the very people who really threaten the program: radical professors who treat it as a slush fund to promote their political causes on campus. If Title VI gets rough treatment in the present reauthorization, students of Swahili and teachers of Tagalog should know who’s at fault: the Palestine-pushers who’ve fouled the academic nest with their relentless propagandizing.

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University Deserves Kudos, Not Blame

As a country with more than enough real enemies, the last thing Israel needs is for its supporters to start attacking its friends. But that’s what seems to have happened to the University of Texas – which has been attacked as an anti-Israel boycotter for taking a courageous stand against the boycott.

It began when Israel National News published a perfectly fair article with an unfortunate headline: “New Boycott: U. of Texas Cancels Book Including Israelis.” The headline seems to accuse the university itself of boycotting Israelis, and that’s how many people evidently read it: Comments such as “U of Texas Press bows to boycotters,” or the more generic “scandalous!” and “shameful,” soon appeared on Twitter and Facebook.

What actually happened, as the news story makes clear, is that the university’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies wanted to publish a collection of women’s writing about life in the Middle East that would include both Arab and Israeli authors. The problem began when a Palestinian woman who had been invited to contribute threatened to withdraw her own article if the two Israelis contributors weren’t excluded.

The university, quite properly, told her to go ahead and withdraw; the book could live without her contribution. But she countered by persuading other contributors to withdraw their manuscripts as well. Ultimately, according to Inside Higher Ed, 13 of the 29 authors did so, and a few others were wavering. That left the university with four choices:

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As a country with more than enough real enemies, the last thing Israel needs is for its supporters to start attacking its friends. But that’s what seems to have happened to the University of Texas – which has been attacked as an anti-Israel boycotter for taking a courageous stand against the boycott.

It began when Israel National News published a perfectly fair article with an unfortunate headline: “New Boycott: U. of Texas Cancels Book Including Israelis.” The headline seems to accuse the university itself of boycotting Israelis, and that’s how many people evidently read it: Comments such as “U of Texas Press bows to boycotters,” or the more generic “scandalous!” and “shameful,” soon appeared on Twitter and Facebook.

What actually happened, as the news story makes clear, is that the university’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies wanted to publish a collection of women’s writing about life in the Middle East that would include both Arab and Israeli authors. The problem began when a Palestinian woman who had been invited to contribute threatened to withdraw her own article if the two Israelis contributors weren’t excluded.

The university, quite properly, told her to go ahead and withdraw; the book could live without her contribution. But she countered by persuading other contributors to withdraw their manuscripts as well. Ultimately, according to Inside Higher Ed, 13 of the 29 authors did so, and a few others were wavering. That left the university with four choices:

First, it could violate every known standard of professional behavior, and open itself to lawsuits, by publishing the withdrawn manuscripts without their authors’ consent. Second, it could make itself a professional laughingstock by publishing a collection of articles on life in the Middle East that didn’t include a single Arab author. Its critics seem to think it should have chosen one of these two. Yet it should be obvious that no self-respecting university would seriously consider either of them.

The third option was to capitulate to the boycotters and publish 27 of the 29 articles, excluding only the two Israeli contributions. Many universities would likely have done exactly that: Just consider the craven behavior of Yale University Press, which capitulated to Muslim pressure to exclude pictures of controversial Danish cartoons of Mohammed from a book about the controversy over the Danish cartoons. But Texas, to its credit, did no such thing.

Instead, it chose the final option: It stood up to the boycotters and announced that if the Israelis aren’t published, the boycotters won’t be, either – even at the cost of canceling a book in which the university had already invested a good deal of time, effort and money. As Kamran Scot Aghaie, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies, quite properly said, he refuses to “censor” people “based on religion or national origin. To do so is simply discrimination, and it’s wrong.”

That’s exactly how a self-respecting university should respond to anti-Israel boycotters. And for having done so, the University of Texas deserves kudos, not blame.

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One Academic’s Breathtakingly Dishonest Attack on Israel’s Press Freedoms

It’s easy to find examples of anti-Israel partisans, having run out of actual Israeli imperfections over which to obsess, literally inventing Israeli behavior to condemn. Last January, U.K. diplomats attacked Israel over an East Jerusalem construction announcement that they made up. The most generous interpretation is that they made a genuine albeit revelatory mistake: already suspecting the worst about Israel, they had their suspicions confirmed.

This week’s example of anti-Israel partisanship in search of a pretext doesn’t have that excuse. University of Maine journalism professor Justin D. Martin posted an article in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) asserting that it “is a powerful statement” to note that Israel is second only to Eritrea in “per capita” jailed reporters. He defined “per capita” as the number of imprisoned journalists per the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), divided by a country’s size in millions (for Israel, 4 divided by 7). The attack collapses so quickly, and is such a transparent hatchet job, that it raises legitimate questions of intellectual and academic integrity.

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It’s easy to find examples of anti-Israel partisans, having run out of actual Israeli imperfections over which to obsess, literally inventing Israeli behavior to condemn. Last January, U.K. diplomats attacked Israel over an East Jerusalem construction announcement that they made up. The most generous interpretation is that they made a genuine albeit revelatory mistake: already suspecting the worst about Israel, they had their suspicions confirmed.

This week’s example of anti-Israel partisanship in search of a pretext doesn’t have that excuse. University of Maine journalism professor Justin D. Martin posted an article in the Columbia Journalism Review (CJR) asserting that it “is a powerful statement” to note that Israel is second only to Eritrea in “per capita” jailed reporters. He defined “per capita” as the number of imprisoned journalists per the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), divided by a country’s size in millions (for Israel, 4 divided by 7). The attack collapses so quickly, and is such a transparent hatchet job, that it raises legitimate questions of intellectual and academic integrity.

Martin avails himself of obviously bad numbers. He relies on an artificial, self-serving, and meaningless definition of “per capita.” And he equates twilight totalitarian roundups with open Israeli jurisprudence. For a scholar to publish something like this in an academic outlet is disgraceful, and any CJR editor who touched the post is complicit in nakedly politicizing their journal.

(1) The CPJ numbers are straightforwardly wrong. They have eight journalists listed for Turkey, which is off by more than 1000%. Even where the numbers might have been right in the past they’re obviously wrong now. Martin writes that the Palestinian Authority jails “zero” journalists, which wasn’t true as of last month or last week or even Sunday.

(2) The “per capita” calculation is so obviously misleading as to strain whatever benefit of the doubt Martin might request. The Elder of Ziyon blog has an extended takedown so there’s no reason to belabor the details here. If you want a “per capita” number describing which countries disproportionately target journalists, you divide the jailed journalists in each country by the total number of journalists in each country, not by the total number of people.

Otherwise you end up nonsensically insisting that a huge country with three journalists and two in jail is freer than a tiny country with 2,000 journalists and one in jail. That misses not just the actual proportion of imprisoned journalists but even the absolute number of reporters on the ground. Worse, it rewards closed societies with few journalists and punishes open democracies that are crawling with them, because in the democracies, the larger group increases the odds that one will commit a crime. This is the stuff of high school statistics.

(3) Any comparison between Israel and totalitarian regimes is morally vacuous. Israel is one of the few places in the world where journalists “go native” during wartime and start actively aiding one side. When they’re caught, they’re given an open trial guided by the rule of law. Even CPJ notes that one of the journalists was detained by Israel due to “terrorist activity.” To compare that to what happens in Iran is simply untenable.

Martin tips his hand when he compares Israel to Palestinian groups, noting that “Israel jails more journalists than… [the] militant group Hamas (three).” That’s the only place where he uses absolute numbers rather than his per capita statistic. Had he been consistent, he would have had to acknowledge that Hamas’s three imprisoned journalists divided by Gaza’s 1.5 million people swamps the Israeli per capita number.

This is at least the second CJR post by Martin denigrating Israel’s democratic institutions, so the editors there know how they’re being used. As for any journalist who passed around Martin’s hackjob as if it was solid work, they should be asked to explain whether they just didn’t read the post, or if they didn’t recognize his transparent mistakes, or if they didn’t care.

I don’t believe Martin is sloppy enough to have missed that the CPJ numbers were bad; or statistically ignorant enough to think scaling by total population was meaningful; or ethically shallow enough to think it’s “powerful” to compare Israeli and Iranian press treatment; or careless enough to accidentally slip into absolute figures only when talking about Hamas.

I believe he’s just pretending that he is.

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More U.N. Officials Step Up to Push Anti-Israel Smears and Pro-Hamas Propaganda

UNRWA’s Chris Gunness has personally stepped up to fulfill his organization’s traditional role as a wartime propaganda outlet for Hamas, describing Israel’s self-defense operations as “sick sick sick.” The UN group routinely peddles anti-Israel falsehoods even during relatively quiet periods – e.g. their scapegoating Israel for UNRWA’s terror-promoting schools – but during conflicts their media manipulation becomes particularly shameless.

Now even non-UNRWA UN officials have taken to broadcasting false anti-Israel smears, per new information about a tweet that Alana first covered earlier this week. You’ll remember that Khulood Badawi tweeted a picture of an injured Palestinian girl, with a caption asserting that the girl had been hit in an Israeli air strike. The photo spread like wildfire, garnering 300 retweets and becoming the day’s top “#Gaza” tweet.

The entire thing was a fabrication. The photo wasn’t taken this week and the girl wasn’t hurt by Israeli munitions. The picture was actually snapped by Reuters in 2006, and the girl had fallen off a swing. Honest Reporting ran down the original.

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UNRWA’s Chris Gunness has personally stepped up to fulfill his organization’s traditional role as a wartime propaganda outlet for Hamas, describing Israel’s self-defense operations as “sick sick sick.” The UN group routinely peddles anti-Israel falsehoods even during relatively quiet periods – e.g. their scapegoating Israel for UNRWA’s terror-promoting schools – but during conflicts their media manipulation becomes particularly shameless.

Now even non-UNRWA UN officials have taken to broadcasting false anti-Israel smears, per new information about a tweet that Alana first covered earlier this week. You’ll remember that Khulood Badawi tweeted a picture of an injured Palestinian girl, with a caption asserting that the girl had been hit in an Israeli air strike. The photo spread like wildfire, garnering 300 retweets and becoming the day’s top “#Gaza” tweet.

The entire thing was a fabrication. The photo wasn’t taken this week and the girl wasn’t hurt by Israeli munitions. The picture was actually snapped by Reuters in 2006, and the girl had fallen off a swing. Honest Reporting ran down the original.

Now it turns out Badawi is an official at the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), where she works as an Information and Media Coordinator. Again the story is on Honest Reporting, which has helpfully posted OCHA’s contact information in case you feel moved to protest how a UN media coordinator is using new media technology to spread lies.

Compared to Badawi’s hit-and-run resentment, or to the rants about the “big lies of Zionists” that other UNRWA officials are posting as blog comments, Gunness’s open gushing is almost refreshing. Not only is he a sort of happy pro-Hamas warrior, but viewed from a certain angle what he’s doing is admirably consistent with UNRWA’s historical behavior. As opposed to OCHA workers, who are neophytes on the institutionalized anti-Israel propaganda scene.

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“Anti-Israel” the Same as “Israel-Firster?”

JTA editor Ami Eden draws our attention today to the fact that M.J. Rosenberg has waved the white flag on his penchant for labeling supporters of Israel as “Israel-firsters.” That term is redolent of anti-Semitic stereotypes that seek to smear Jews with the charge of dual loyalty. On his Media Matters blog, Rosenberg writes he won’t use the term any more, but writing in his characteristically obnoxious and abusive manner, Rosenberg doesn’t admit that what he had done was wrong but merely discards it now as a “distraction” from his great work of preventing a war with Iran. That is, I suppose, some sort of progress. With Rosenberg, style long ago became substance as his impotent rage at the fact that his views have been rejected by Israel’s voters and the vast majority of American Jews, bubbled over in abusive language aimed at anyone who disagreed with him. “Israel-firster” was just the tip of the iceberg for Rosenberg, whose writing and tweeting has become an object lesson in the myth that liberals or leftists believe in civil discourse.

However, Eden takes Rosenberg’s concession as an opportunity to play the moral equivalence game with those who have criticized the Media Matters staffer. He pivots the discussion into one about the way the term “anti-Israel” has been applied to critics of Israel’s government and asks whether right-wingers will give up that practice now that Rosenberg has taken the pledge. But the problem with this argument put forward by my old friend and colleague is that there is a big difference between the two charges.

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JTA editor Ami Eden draws our attention today to the fact that M.J. Rosenberg has waved the white flag on his penchant for labeling supporters of Israel as “Israel-firsters.” That term is redolent of anti-Semitic stereotypes that seek to smear Jews with the charge of dual loyalty. On his Media Matters blog, Rosenberg writes he won’t use the term any more, but writing in his characteristically obnoxious and abusive manner, Rosenberg doesn’t admit that what he had done was wrong but merely discards it now as a “distraction” from his great work of preventing a war with Iran. That is, I suppose, some sort of progress. With Rosenberg, style long ago became substance as his impotent rage at the fact that his views have been rejected by Israel’s voters and the vast majority of American Jews, bubbled over in abusive language aimed at anyone who disagreed with him. “Israel-firster” was just the tip of the iceberg for Rosenberg, whose writing and tweeting has become an object lesson in the myth that liberals or leftists believe in civil discourse.

However, Eden takes Rosenberg’s concession as an opportunity to play the moral equivalence game with those who have criticized the Media Matters staffer. He pivots the discussion into one about the way the term “anti-Israel” has been applied to critics of Israel’s government and asks whether right-wingers will give up that practice now that Rosenberg has taken the pledge. But the problem with this argument put forward by my old friend and colleague is that there is a big difference between the two charges.

Calling someone “anti-Israel” is wrong if the persons at whom it is aimed are in fact merely supporters of Israel who are critics of its current government. But it is more than apt when applied to those who actually are foes of Israel, such as those who are either neutral about or supporters of the movement to boycott, divest and sanction the Jewish state.

But contrary to Eden’s formulation, it is not just the right that plays the “anti-Israel” game. In recent years, people like Rosenberg and others on the left have taken to labeling those who support the settlement movement or even those who regard the issue as superseded by security concerns as “anti-Israel” because they think the “occupation” is a threat to the country’s future. Eden is right when he lambasts those who seek to view anyone who dissents from a particular position on Israeli politics as foes of the state though nowadays that’s a sin that left-wingers are as likely to commit as their foes. However, he goes too far when he claims the term “anti-Israel” has led “to as much bullying and violence, probably even more, than the use of terms like ‘Israel-firster’ (see the Yitzhak Rabin assassination and the failed assassination plot against Shimon Peres, death threats and attacks against left-wing activists, and efforts to blackball some liberal groups from communal settings).”

Bringing up the Rabin assassination in conjunction with an argument about whether American Jews are sufficiently supportive of Israel is nothing but a red herring. It has long been used in Israel as unfair tactic intended to smear anyone who opposed or raised questions about the Oslo Accords as having somehow been connected to an extremist unconnected with any real political movement. It has no bearing on this discussion and dragging it into this dispute does nothing but to further muddy the waters. Moreover, the idea that liberal American Jewish critics of Israel are living in fear seems the stuff of satire more than anything else. If there is anything that we have learned in the last 30 years as Israel-bashing has become one of the mainstream media’s favorite sports it is that it takes little courage to run with the pack of abusers of the Jewish state.

As for the charge of “bullying,” it is more than a little out of place when discussing a vigorous public debate about the future of Israel. Civility and good manners are always to be encouraged, but as M.J. Rosenberg and others of his ilk on the far left has showed us the idea that the right has a monopoly on bad behavior is a joke.

Let’s also remember that while “anti-Israel” is sometimes used promiscuously and incorrectly, there are a lot of people out there who really are “anti-Israel” and many, if not most of them, are on the left. Even worse, when Jewish newspapers like the Forward honor those who call for economic war to be waged on Israel with flattering profiles, editors should not be surprised when some observers begin to question their motives.

It is also a mistake to minimize the damage the term “Israel-firster” can cause. To call the pro-Israel community “Israel-firsters,” as Rosenberg repeatedly did, is an attempt to delegitimize more than just his ideological foes. It’s a canard intended to silence all Jews. Using it is an implicit endorsement of the Walt-Mearsheimer conspiracy theory that is thinly veiled anti-Semitism. Those who do so cross a line that no supporter of Israel or Jew should cross. The fact that Rosenberg has begrudgingly and belatedly given it up does little to restore his credibility.

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