(This is second in a series of articles where Ed Beck, SPME Co-Founder and Past President, 2002-2009, shares reflections on the historical growth and development of SPME which has become international largest group of academics addressing anti-Israelism and antisemitism in institutions of higher education, in the academic disciplines and in our communities.)
Since the founding of SPME in 2002, it was always our board of directors’ (for the most part) shared vision to be a “big tent grassroots independent academic organization” with voices from all sides of the discussion engaged in civil discussion and debate in an attempt to elevate the discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict from the polemics, sloganism, mis and disinformation which was being spread without much regard for problem solving, peace-making or truth. What was taking place at the time was pure advocacy, primarily by major advocacy organization without much regard for academic discourse and the real nuances and complexities of the situation and also without much regard for the important roles faculty had as stakeholders in the academic community.
The “big-tent, grassroots, independent academic organization” has been a difficult paradigm for many non-academics to conceptualize, but the fact that over 53,000 academics, including scores of Nobel Laureates and university presidents, have become involved with SPME at one level or another since our founding, indicates that it has struck a resounding note of acceptability amongst our colleagues. For the first time in history faculty from throughout the world have been engaged, educated and empowered, using academic and scholarly communications and networking, to address issues of anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism as they have permeated our academic disciplines, institutions and communities. The fact of the matter is that most competent academics with stature and integrity really want “fair and balanced” presentations of material before making their minds on most anything. Academics are trained to see the complexities of issues and to understand all sides of issues before taking sides.
Believing that through that through civil and honest academic discourse and striving for academic integrity and excellence in that discourse, it is our vision to elevate the discussion to arrive at constructive and resolution-oriented strategies to address the complex issues which are continually muddled by the eternally unhelpful 3 P’s…politics, polemics and propaganda which have made their way to campus.
As stakeholders in the academic community, we feel we not only have the right, but the obligation to hold the discussion of the Middle East conflict on campus to the same rigorous academic standards which are demanded of us and our students and challenge those polemicists and propagandists with political agendas who spoke in the name of “academic freedom” using academic accountability as our guide. Faculty members tend to outlive both students and administrators on campuses and strongly influence the academic standards, curriculum, and comportment policies on campus. SPME has engaged, educated and empowered faculty to network and work within their institution and discipline structures to enforce the standards and sanctions collectively established within institutions and disciplines. Many of these efforts we have done quite publically and many of these things have been done quietly depending on the situation.
In doing all of this SPME has been subject to a good many characterizations for our efforts. What has been most interesting however, has been the utterly contrasting perceptions of us that have emerged. Initially, when we first started and I was putting together a board to reflect the diversity of thinking that existed in our community. I myself come from a child of Holocaust Survivor background with a strong progressive, liberal background with strong personal ties to Israel. I had cut my leadership chops in my academic discipline and Jewish communal world having been president of both my state and national academic association among other professional and academic leadership responsibilities and had served as a Community Relations Council Chair for our local Jewish Federation.
Politically I had always been a liberal Democrat, but increasingly disenfranchised with new Democrats who were starting to back off prior commitments to Israel’s security.
In putting together the Founding Board, we sought individuals with varied backgrounds from the left, right and center with academic and/or leadership gravitas. Our original board had representatives with affiliations ranging from leftist, progressive European Social Democrats and the ACLU to self proclaimed conservatives and those who identified with more right-wing orientations.
However perception being different amongst even fair-minded people, our potential allies and detractors locked on to the extremes without understanding that we as a group were committed to finding common ground. In one of our very first meetings, a then high-ranking up and coming and now highest ranking official in a leading Jewish organization with a campus presence, chastised us for being nothing by a “right-wing” advocacy group. Just months later, a potentially significant donor and a number of others, withdrew six-figure pledges to because, we were “too liberal” and demanded my ouster. We limped along and survived on the donations of our network who seemed, for the most part, to “get it.”
On a daily basis we are asked to state what our positions are on many things are not part of our mission which is carefully focused on academic and primarily faculty matters as we believe there are enough organizations addressing the needs of students and the community in addressing these important issue. Our strength is that we are faculty-governed, faculty run and are trying to remain independently faculty. In doing so we can get closer to achieving our goals.