10/09/2014 08:09 pm ET Updated Dec 09, 2014

Jewish Studies Scholars Shouldn't Whitewash Campus Israel Bashing

A group of Jewish Studies professors recently signed a letter deploring a perceived threat to "the kind of spirited academic exchange that is the lifeblood of the university." What so infuriated these academics? Campus Israeli Apartheid Weeks? Epidemic anti-Israel bias in the classroom? The fear that many Jewish students have of being bullied for supporting Israel? No, the professors were criticizing a group called the AMCHA Initiative, whose purpose, they say, is to "monitor centers for Middle Eastern studies on American campuses." They add:

AMCHA has ... circulated a list of more than 200 Middle Eastern studies faculty whom it urges Jewish students and others to avoid because, it asserts, they espouse anti-Zionist andeven [sic] antisemitic viewpoints in their classrooms.

As a lowly American historian, I am not as smart as these Jewish Studies professors. But I have to wonder: Does the big threat to academic freedom really come from a minor organization fighting campus anti-Semitism too passionately? Their worries seem misplaced, like warning firefighters confronting a 12-alarm fire that leaking hoses cause water damage.

I share some of their concerns. The scholar's mission is to seek the truth boldly, wherever it may be found. We need open classrooms and campuses where issues are debated honestly, substantively, and civilly. And having devoted their smarts and their souls to making Jewish studies embody academic excellence, they must be devastated to see their corner of the academic world threatened by bullying and boycotting. The charged atmosphere around Israel risks clouding every lecture they give, every paper they write, every student interaction they have. Both the attacks and counterattacks have a "chilling effect."

Unfortunately, my colleagues' unfair allegations against a minor player obscures the real problem and culprits: the many anti-Israel attackers, not the few counterattackers. Their skewed vision and perverse priorities fail our students, who need their leadership.

AMCHA appears to be mostly a one-woman show. Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a Hebrew-language teacher at the University of California, Santa Cruz, endured anti-Israel hostility that occasionally degenerated into anti-Semitism. Feeling abandoned by colleagues, she now fights the campus culture of contempt that all too regularly targets Israel.

We need balance. Few campuses are burning.

Some defenders of Israel are too quick to brand Israel's critics as anti-Semitic. But totalitarian Israel bashing has become too trendy on many campuses. Hysterics exaggerate the troubles; fools ignore them.

The Jewish Studies professors' letter unfairly accuses AMCHA of "launch[ing] a boycott initiative of its own." AMCHA outs professors who advocate boycotting Israel. As of last week, the list was posted without commentary. Rossman-Benjamin told reporters that students "may want to check which faculty members from the university are signatories before registering." That's "buyer beware," not boycotting.

The letter claims that AMCHA's "technique of monitoring lectures, symposia and conferences strains the basic principle of academic freedom." Really? In this age of consumerist students, tendentious colleagues and intrusive Internet, academic life is all about monitoring, more elegantly labeled "assessing," "rating" and "evaluating." Every word I utter, every word I write is scrutinized intellectually, politically and stylistically. And whereas once, judgments circulated through informal networks of student and professorial gossip, today we rate professors on a million blogs. Much of this monitoring is healthy; some is libelous; much is sophomoric. Students have a right to assess my teaching, sift for bias, and share those concerns. I don't fear the scrutiny.

Hostility to Israel is so systemic in Middle East Studies departments that many Jewish Studies professors helped establish Israel Studies as a separate discipline. A colleague of mine who is critical of Israel nevertheless denounces the "whodunnitism" that reduces many Middle East Studies scholars into anti-Israel prosecutors.

The Jewish Studies professors' coy assertion that their universities offer "a broad array of courses dealing with Israel and Palestinian affairs" ignores the assaults on academic freedom that anti-Israel professors commit regularly. In hiding the real problem from the public and targeting AMCHA, they render invisible and let down those students, Jewish and non-Jewish, who question skewed syllabi caricaturing Israel as a villain, feel intimidated when professors celebrate Palestinian terrorism, and squirm when forced to enter class through an "Israeli apartheid" wall that treats the Arab-Israeli conflict as a racial conflict rather than a national clash. These educators invalidate the pain of the two Berklee College of Music students who were called "Zionazi whores" this summer, and the many students over the years who have told me of being humiliated by professors for defending Israel in class. A balanced letter could have acknowledged this pervasive problem while still criticizing any AMCHA excesses they dislike. The missive's one-sidedness -- and the fact that, of all things, AMCHA was the issue that finally mobilized these heavy hitters -- reveals a stunning insensitivity to the problem's true dimensions.

I wonder: Why this overheated letter demonizing AMCHA rather than a balanced letter tackling the bigger problem? Why not an open letter to the university community calling for calm, reassuring nervous students from all camps, and condemning classroom indoctrination and intimidation? Why not launch a serious initiative to counter educational malpractice, encouraging professors of all disciplines to stop turning classroom podiums into political platforms? Launching this initiative instead feels like a pathetic attempt to curry favor and appear politically correct on the eve of what may be a stormy year. Rather than teaching the university community how to be good, open-minded scholars while having passionate political beliefs if they wish, rather than showing students how to defy academic trendiness, they prefer this empty posture that might appear courageous in faculty lounges but isn't. Pretending the anti-Israel pile-on doesn't exist enables the bullies.

Fortunately, an easy remedy exists. The 40 professors are already networking with one another, so I challenge them to issue a follow-up letter that shows the way toward combining civility, objectivity and political passion. If these caring deep thinkers can find the right formula, they will be doing a service for all of us, on campus and off.