In October 2014, 40 professors of Jewish studies published a denunciation of a study that named professors who have been identified as expressing “anti-Israel bias, or possibly even antisemitic rhetoric.” While the 40 academics claimed they reject anti-Semitism totally as part of teaching, they were equally critical of the tactics and possible effects of the AMCHA Initiative report, a comprehensive review of the attitudes about Israel of some 200 professors who signed an online petition during the latest Gaza incursion that called for an academic boycott against Israeli scholars.
Calling “the actions of AMCHA deplorable,” the professors were insulted by the organization’s “technique of monitoring lectures, symposia and conferences,” something which, they believe, “strains the basic principle of academic freedom on which the American university is built.”
They also made another assertion, namely, that “AMCHA’s approach closes off all but the narrowest intellectual directions.”
Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) is troubled that a group of largely Jewish professors denounced a study which had as its core purpose to alert students to professors who have demonstrated, in a public forum, that they harbor anti-Israel attitudes. Since the individuals named in the report teach in the area of Middle East studies, they are also likely to bring that anti-Israel bias into the classroom with them, and students, therefore, would obviously benefit from AMCHA’s report.
SPME questions why the 40 academics would oppose such a report of bias that indicates where professors’ stand politically, especially, as in this case, when those anti- Israel attitudes are extremely germane to their area of teaching, namely Middle East studies. The AMCHA researchers did not furtively investigate the private lives of the 200 professors, nor did they delve into their association memberships, reading habits, or private writings without the professors’ knowledge or consent. They were not spied upon nor were their courses taped by students.
In fact, as AMCHA co-founder Tammi Benjamin noted, “I don’t understand why a professor has freedom of expression to sign a boycott petition and we don’t have freedom to say, look who signed the boycott petition. I find it sad that Jewish Studies faculty would rather attack an organization like AMCHA for raising legitimate concerns of importance to the Jewish community than say anything at all about their Middle East studies colleagues who rush to sign onto an antisemitic boycott of Israeli universities and scholars.”
Even more significantly, Ms. Benjamin noted that “It is interesting that of the nine UC Jewish Studies faculty who signed the statement attacking AMCHA, six of them, including the statement’s author, had previously signed a 2011 petition of UC Jewish Studies faculty supporting the 11 members of the Muslim Students Association arrested for disrupting the talk of former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at UC Irvine.”
SPME condemns the degradation of scholarship and all efforts to use academia to promote boycotts, divestiture, and sanctions against Israel, including the promotion by student governments of resolutions calling for divestiture, as they represent an abandonment of scholarly principles, a dilution of campus civility, and a violation of the precepts of unbiased, rational academic inquiry.
Of course, SPME is also alarmed at the increasing evidence of bias in teaching on college campuses, and the way that scholarship is regularly politicized in order to promote a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel narrative in academia. If students have resources, such as the AMCHA report, that can assist them if making productive choices about which professors are most likely to teach free of this bias and ideology, it is likely to result in a more productive learning environment.
About Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME)
SPME Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) is not-for-profit [501 (C) (3)], grass-roots community of scholars who have united to promote honest, fact-based, and civil discourse, especially in regard to Middle East issues. We believe that ethnic, national, and religious hatreds, including anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism, have no place in our institutions, disciplines, and communities. We employ academic means to address these issues.