On Oct. 21, 2004, the women’s studies department at UC Santa Cruz sponsored a talk by Hedy Epstein about “The Question of Israel/Palestine,” in which she compared Israel to a Nazi state and excused suicide bombings. Epstein’s “credentials” for speaking on the topic included her membership in the International Solidarity Movement, an organization linked to terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and whose leaders have openly endorsed an armed struggle to destroy Israel.
In contrast, the Santa Cruz women’s studies department declined to cosponsor a talk on campus about the same topic two weeks later by Nonie Darwish, a journalist and Arabic translator who spent the first 30 years of her life in Egypt and Egypt-occupied Gaza. Instead of demonizing Israel, as Epstein had done, Darwish directed her criticism at the Arab world, which in her estimation is conducting a campaign of death and destruction against Israel for the purpose of turning the world’s attention away from heinous human rights violations taking place within the Arab world, itself.
Whereas Epstein did not touch on any topic directly relevant to the academic discipline of women’s studies, Darwish spent a significant amount of time addressing the oppression of Muslim women and calling for reforms which would raise their status in the Arab world. Why, then, did women’s studies sponsor Epstein but refuse to sponsor Darwish?
The evidence suggests that the department endorses Epstein’s message but not Darwish’s. For instance:
. • In May 2000, women’s studies sponsored a week of events “in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for human justice.” (From the departmental newsletter, The Wave, Vol. III, No. 1, Summer 2000.)
. • In May 2001, as part of the Women of Color Film and Video Festival, co-sponsored by the women’s studies department, a video was shown detailing the plight of two Palestinian women political prisoners who were, according to the festival program, “detained, tortured, mentally, physically and sexually terrorized by the Israeli occupier for their unquestioned beliefs in the moral, historic and basic human rights to resist the Israeli occupier/colonizer on their land.”
. • Last March, the department sponsored a talk by Dalit Baum, an Israeli lesbian feminist who founded an organization against “the occupation of Palestine” by Israel.
During that same period of time, no talk or event was ever sponsored by women’s studies that condemned Arab violence against Israeli citizens or focused on human rights abuses in the Arab world, particularly of women.
Moreover, a survey of the 11 professors who have appointments in the UC Santa Cruz women’s studies department reveals that more than half have publicly expressed anti-Israel bias: Four faculty members, Angela Davis, the current chair of the women’s studies department; Gina Dent; Carla Freccero, and Jody Green, are signatories of a petition calling on the U.S. government to cut off military aid to Israel and demanding that the University of California divest from Israel and from all U.S. companies that sell military equipment to Israel.
Two faculty members, Bettina Aptheker, previous chair of the women’s studies department, and Helen Moglen, have signed an open letter to the American government calling for the withdrawal of all American aid to Israel. Aptheker wrote an article for The Wave (Vol. V, No. 1, Summer 2002), in which she expressed her personal sympathy for Israeli and Palestinian “anti-occupation activists” and praised the refusal of Israeli reservists to serve in the “occupied territories.”
Whereas all Americans have the right to any political ideology, faculty at a public university do not have the right to abuse their position so as to indoctrinate students. The academic freedom rules of the University of California 1934-2003 state: “The function of the university is to seek and to transmit knowledge and to train students in the processes whereby truth is to be known. To convert or make converts is alien and hostile to the dispassionate duty. The university assumes the right to prevent exploitation of its prestige by those who would use it as a platform for propaganda.”
The university’s mission is to be a free marketplace of ideas, a forum for critical analysis and discussion. When the political ideology of faculty members translates into a departmental bias which promotes political propaganda without critical analysis and omits other perspectives, the university is failing in its primary mission.
By exploiting the prestige of the University of California to legitimize their own personal political biases, the faculty of the UC Santa Cruz women’s studies department brings into question its academic integrity and diminishes the prestige of the entire university. But the real losers are the students, who are denied access to a truly diverse and well-rounded education because of departments like Santa Cruz’s women’s studies.
Leila Beckwith is a UCLA pediatrics department professor emeritus and member of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.