THE BLOG
11/29/2010 05:03 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Whose Land Is it Anyway?

When I read about the altered interpretation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, heralded by the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), I felt the familiar cold creep of attack settling in my spine. Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance. A large research university, such as the one at which I teach, is the beneficiary of many funds from federal agencies, and could lose this funding if it is found that we have discriminated on the basis of race, color, or national origin, and voluntary compliance cannot be achieved. Thus, if the ZOA's report that anti-Semitism is to be an emendation to Title VI is accurate, once again we shall be in the tactical sights of the Campus Watchers. Anti-Semitism is undoubtedly despicable, but it is miserable to be subjected to false charges of anti-Semitism merely for presenting Palestinian voices.

I've endured such false charges previously. They are wretched to live through, intimidating, and hostile to a culture of free academic inquiry. Palestinian aspirations for freedom are intentionally suppressed through falsified and misleading accounts and negative comments about pro-Palestinian classes and lectures. After some anonymous threats delivered by late-night phone calls to my home, the University gave me added security protection, and had plain-clothes security sitting in the audience as well as uniformed people at events. However, none of the leading administrators ever attended one of the events that caused the threats.

ZOA president Morton Klein notes schools could lose funding under the new US Department of Education interpretation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act "if they do not protect students from anti-Semitic harassment, intimidation, and discrimination." Provided in the ZOA press release is a letter dated October 26, 2010 from Russlynn Ali, Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights in the U.S. Department of Education, stating that "anti-Semitic harassment can trigger responsibilities under Title VI. While Title VI does not cover discrimination based solely on religion, groups [such as Jews] that face discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics may not be denied protection under Title VI on the ground that they also share a common faith."

How many professors will decide it's not worth the trouble to challenge the narratives of the well-organized Hillel, AIPAC, ZOA, Campus Watch, and other right-wing, pro-Israel groups that descend upon those who teach interpretations different from the Israeli hardline? Where will the line be drawn between criticism of Israeli policy and genuine anti-Semitism? Will it be deemed anti-Semitic for a Palestinian to assert that he regards Israel as an illegitimate state because it stole his family's land, ethnically cleansed him, and refuses to extend equal rights to those Palestinians who remain? Some expansive definitions of anti-Semitism regard such talk as a textbook case of anti-Jewish bigotry. The Jewish pro-Palestinian speakers I have hosted were called self-hating Jews, and the non-Jewish speakers were identified by the Hillel-led group as anti-Semitic, anti-Zionist, and worse. It's absurd, but true, and could be coming soon to a campus near you.

For most of my academic career, I have believed that controversy in the classroom eventually leads to a stronger community. Silencing conflict through a bland insistence upon political correctness confirms the fear that controversy is both uncomfortable and to be avoided at all costs. Students may love Kermit's lament that it is not easy being green, but it is far tougher to hear from a classmate that it is not easy being brown.

On the plane home from my usual summer trip to the West Bank, I thought about the struggles Palestinian students and faculty have at the West Bank's Birzeit University in getting to school when the Israelis set flying checkpoints. I thought of the younger kids aimlessly playing in grim refugee camps, although they are refugees in their own land. I decided to challenge my undergrads to struggle through the subtleties of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Having taught and survived the backlash against feminist and multicultural perspectives, I knew most of the challenges of teaching against the grain.

Thus, I offered a course entitled "Whose Land is it Anyway?," which was rife with the pitfalls of politics, religious tensions, and realities of the Occupation that had never been offered at my university. Contemporary politics are not of great interest in this midwestern research university in which the majority of students focus on the hard sciences and engineering. Although we have a Jewish Studies minor, we do not at this time teach Arab history, culture, or literature.

As a biblical scholar, I intended to present a foundation for the Israeli claims to the "Holy Land," and then to study the historicity of these claims. With these ancient textual claims discussed, we would move to the contemporary issues of land and border disputes. We wrestled with scholars who write against the grain: important voices arguing the case that the Israeli Occupation is in reality an ongoing Palestinian genocide, which evoked Holocaust comparisons. During the semester we grappled with the effects of the Zionist eradication of Palestinian names of towns, streets, mountains, and landscape, replacing them with biblical names. One student asked if Arabs could speak Hebrew. Another insisted that there were no such people as Palestinians.

To supplement the course, I invited internationally known scholars to speak at the University about the realities of the forty-plus years of Israeli Occupation, the role of American Jews in support of Israel, the Israeli occupation forces bulldozing of Palestinian houses in the West Bank, and the illegal Israeli settlements. Class discussions remained civil and occasionally passionate, though a self-described Zionist columnist wrote a nasty piece in the student newspaper.

At least students are thinking about these issues, I reassured myself. But when Zionist community leaders claimed that I was striking fear into Jewish students on campus, I knew I would have to defend myself, in spite of the misrepresentations and exaggerations about the course and the speakers who had presented their views.

After a campus appearance by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, coincidentally while their book was enjoying a place of prominence on the best-seller list, outraged emails poured in and late-night telephone threats began. None of the emails from colleagues were from those who attended the event. Rather they were from people I did not know personally, who excoriated me for supporting an "anti-Israel" position. Several demanded of the president that I be fired.

By the time Norman Finkelstein, Ali Abunimah, and Alison Weir had spoken here, I was told that the University had received more than 60 letters from irritated alumni, donors, and community leaders. While the administration acknowledged that I have academic freedom, they insisted that I must present "both sides" in future events. There must be no thought that I was demonizing the state of Israel. I, of course, have no problem with presenting compelling and powerful Jewish voices addressing the subjugation of Palestinians under Israeli rule. But I have no desire to use my time and energy to bring defenders of the domination of another people to campus. Certainly, I would not have worked two decades ago to bring defenders of apartheid to campus to provide "balance." It is unreasonable to ask for such balance on Israel and Palestine.

Strikingly, a few months later, the University joined with Hillel and the Jewish Studies program to bring Harvard's Alan Dershowitz to the University, without a speaker to present the other side. Only a few weeks ago, the University joined with the same co-sponsors to bring Israeli right-winger Natan Sharansky to speak. In the University publicity about Sharansky's appearance, he was characterized as "helping people fulfill their life dreams. His story of how one person can make a difference is inspiring." The coverage in the Cleveland Jewish News did not mention Palestinians. During his US college tour, Sharansky was quoted during a speech at Stanford, "I'm ready for a Palestinian state. But only if they stop teaching their children to hate. Palestinians want to live normally, and their identity must mean something more than killing Jews," he continued. "There is no shortcut to peace. We need to build partnerships with those who want to live in peace. It will take time." This was a solo event, heavily advertised by the University (as the Finkelstein talk was not according to Hillel's own documentation) with no reactions to such statements.

Tired of protesting the paltry support pro-Palestinian students received from the administration and faculty on campus, while the pro-Israel group had the finances of the University and the Jewish Federation behind them, the small Students for Justice in Palestine group dissolved. It's an ironic situation since close to half of the students in the group were Jewish. There is still a Muslim student group, but these days they invite the campus to nonpolitical events. Instead of talking about their fears living in the US with Muslim being too often synonymous with terrorist, they serve falafel and hummus at their open meetings and play Arab hip-hop music.

It is hard not to be astonished at the melodrama of the ZOA and other organizations supporting them. They persist in their undocumented claims that Jewish students are frightened, indeed persecuted, whenever faculty members expose the realities of the Israeli Occupation, support the return to the 1967 borders of the state of Israel as stated in UNSC Resolution 242, and use terms such as ethnic cleansing. I have not seen any evidence of persecution of Jewish students on my campus or the campuses of my colleagues. In spite of the Campus Watch groups, started by Daniel Pipes, in which right-wing student informers report on "pro-Palestinian" lectures, classes, or campus events, many of us persist in trying to offer our students views other than those from Hillel, ZOA, and the newly minted Christians United for Israel (CUFI), CUFI on Campus.

Being a veteran of ZOA half-truths, I read their triumphant press release with suspicion and checked the Government tracking site for Congressional bills in progress to see if the new bill was a rewording of the Ali letter mentioned above. It was not. The two additions proposed in the bill touted by ZOA, sponsored by Senator Arlen Specter (D-PA) and Congressman Brad Sherman (D-CA), do not refer directly either to anti-Semitism or to Jewish students. The bill does indicate that schools must protect students' right to take time off for religious obligations and accommodate their dietary restrictions. While that wording would certainly include Jewish students, it would also embrace the religious obligations and dietary restrictions of all faiths. If that bill were to become law, perhaps the administration here would accommodate Muslim students by canceling required Friday afternoon classes and lunch meetings during Ramadan.


Professor Alice Bach holds the Archbishop Hallinan Chair in Religious Studies and directs the Hallinan Project for Peace and Social Justice at a major midwestern university.