Rabbi Dr. Peter J. Haas, President of the organization Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, recently took some time to answer a few questions from the New Vina Review about the work of SPME and the state of debate and discussion on university campuses around the world when it comes to Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Rabbi Dr. Haas is the Abba Hillel Silver Professor of Jewish Studies, Director of the Program in Judaic Studies and Chair of the Department of Religious Studies at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
NVR: For readers who may not have heard of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, can you give us a brief overview of the work that your organization does?
SPME is a grassroots organization of scholars and academics on campuses worldwide who support the right of Israel to live in peace with its neighbors and who find the widespread demonization of Israel, of Zionism, and even of Jews in general, to not only be against the standards of academic discourse, but to actually be an obstacle to all sides in the region for finding an accommodation. We are dedicated to ensuring that all discussions on college and university campuses be conducted in a civil and informed way, with academic integrity. We feel that demonization of any side in the conflicts only encourages extremists to shut down dialogue and block efforts for peaceful coexistence.
NVR: How long has the group existed? What was the inspiration for starting it?
The organization was started by about a dozen academics in late 2002, in the midst of the Second Intifada and in the wake of the notorious Durban Conference on Racism. The immediate cause was the virulent anti-Israel demonstrations that were beginning to break out on campuses, maybe most notoriously at San Francisco State University. As such activities increased, and morphed into “Israel Apartheid Week” events and calls for university divestment and boycotts of Israel, and Israeli academics, SPME responded and grew. A previous group, American Professors for Peace in the Middle East (and its Canadian parallel) were active in the early 1990’s, but disbanded after the Oslo Accords.
NVR: How would you describe the general tone of debate and discussion when on university and college campuses these days when it comes to Israel?
In general discussion about Israel and the Middle East on college and university campuses are conducted in academically acceptable ways. But on many campuses, the discourse gets hijacked by radicals, from on or off campus, who stage lectures, “discussions”, or “symposia” which move beyond what is academically sound and become occasions for what can only be called “Israel bashing”, or even “Jew bashing”. Other campuses have suddenly found themselves embroiled in heated debates about sanctions, divestments or boycotts of Israel or Israelis.
NVR: SPME recently released a statement signed by 32 Nobel Laureates which called on members of the academic community to oppose boycott and divestment efforts aimed at Israel – why did you think it was necessary to issue such a statement? What do you hope doing so will accomplish?
Actually the statement now has 38 signatures, and a few more may be coming in. The idea is to have a powerful statement from leading, internationally recognized scholars from all fields who are standing up to say publically that academic boycotts are simply not acceptable. As the statement says, “Academic and cultural boycotts, divestments and sanctions in the academy are… antithetical to principles of academic and scientific freedom,” The statement also notes that such activities do not encourage moves toward peace, but are actually counterproductive.
NVR: It often seems that civility and facts have become casualties in the war of words when it comes to discussing Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict – do you feel it is possible restore some sense of civility to discussion of such issues? If so, how?
We do believe it is possible to restore some civility and academic integrity on campuses where the discourse has been hijacked, and we feel strongly that professors and administrators on the campus are the ones who can do that most effectively and with the greatest credibility. Our primary goal is find such people and support them in these efforts in any way we can.
NVR: Can you tell us a little about your own background and how you became involved with SPME?
My primary expertise is in Jewish Studies, but over my career I have come to teach many courses in Western Religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) and eventually also on the role of religion in the Middle East crises. When I moved to my present position at Case Western Reserve University, and eventually became chair of the Department of Religious Studies, I came into contact both with academics who felt good honest and open discussion of the region was essential, but also with professors, and outsiders, who saw campuses as open opportunities to politicize the discussion and take it in very partisan and even hateful directions. I originally joined SPME because I was looking for other scholars who shared my views and who could support me as I worked to keep the discourse on my campus at an academically high level.
NVR: Who can join your organization ? How can readers find out more about SPME?
Everyone is invited to visit our very active website at www.spme.org. As will become apparent, we are open to any academic, at any level from any discipline and at any institution of higher learning wherever located. We do not charge membership dues per se, but rather want people who subscribe to our principles and mission statement and are willing to work on their own campuses when necessary. I should stress that we have members, and active chapters, not only in the U.S. and Canada, but also in several countries in Europe, and are seeing more interest and organization in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere. We are truly international. Ultimately we seek to be a society of scholars and academicians who are committed to working with colleagues and administrators on our campuses to ensure that discussion of the Middle East, and Israel-Palestine, in particular, in conducted in civil, academically sound ways.
NVR: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Only that we feel that ultimately peace in the Middle East will be the result only of talks among the parties themselves. Colleges and Universities should not be forced to take sides and “impose” solutions. We especially want to be sure that students, whether Jewish, Muslim, Christian or anything else, do not become victimized by rapid partisans and extremist rhetoric. We as academics need to be role models of how complex issues can be discussed and understood without resort to name-calling or demonization.
Copyright 2010 – The New Vilna Review