And Now There's a Blacklist?

Two days ago I posted a piece on this blog that asked, “Is ‘Incivility’ the New Communism?”  In that post I suggested that recent attempts to enforce standards of “civility” at colleges and universities, often, as in the Salaita case at Illinois and the Marzec incident in Ohio, in response to pro-Palestinian expression, recalled previous efforts in the 1940s and 1950s to exclude alleged communists from the protections of academic freedom.  In the 1950s such efforts were often assisted – and not only or even mainly in academia – by the publication of privately produced  “blacklists” of individuals accused of being or associating with communists.  Perhaps the most famous example was the publication by the right-wing journal Counterattack of Red Channels, a pamphlet-style book that named 151 actors, writers, musicians, broadcast journalists, and others in the context of purported Communist activity in the entertainment industry. Some of those named were already being denied employment because of their political beliefs, background, or simple acquaintance with suspected “subversives,” but Red Channels effectively expanded the existing blacklist.

Now comes the Amcha Initiative, an organization “dedicated to investigating, documenting, educating about, and combating antisemitism at institutions of higher education in America.”  Recently Amcha published its own list of 218 faculty members in Middle East studies at U.S. colleges and universities who signed a petition calling for an academic boycott of Israel.  Amcha calls on people to “share this list with your family, friends, and associates via email, Facebook, Twitter, Google+, LinkedIn, or word-of-mouth.”  The organization asks, “How can professors who are so biased against the Jewish state accurately or fairly teach students about Israel or the Arab-Israel conflict?”  And they raise concerns that “many of these patently biased boycotters of Israel are affiliated with government-designated, taxpayer-funded National Resource Centers (NRC) on their campuses.”  Indeed, they charge that “NRC-affiliated faculty who have publicly vilified Israel and committed themselves to refusing ‘to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli institutions’ have violated both the letter and spirit of the federal law which funds their teaching and research.”

“Students who wish to become better educated on the Middle East without subjecting themselves to anti-Israel bias, or possibly even antisemitic rhetoric,” Amcha says, “may want to check which faculty members from their university are signatories before registering.”

Now this is not precisely a blacklist, but it comes perilously close to being one and should be criticized for that reason.

As I’ve often stressed, AAUP does not have a foreign policy and we take no position at all on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Among our members are both dedicated Zionists who fully support the Israeli government and fervent supporters of the Palestinian national movement, with the great majority probably finding themselves somewhere between these two positions.  AAUP does, however, oppose academic boycotts in general and the academic boycott of Israel in particular as antithetical to academic freedom in the United States, although individual members are free to and do dissent from this position and we take no stand on calls for economic boycotts or divestment.  Indeed, AAUP just last year in our online Journal of Academic Freedom provided a forum for supporters and opponents of the academic boycott movement to debate the issue.  I support the AAUP policy, but I – and AAUP – also support the right of advocates of such an academic boycott to promote their cause, just as we support the right of faculty members to promote other causes with which we disagree.

Moreover, as both a faculty member and a Jew, I am deeply troubled – no, insulted – by Amcha’s apparent equation of boycott advocacy, and perhaps any strong criticism of the Israeli government, with faculty antisemitism.  Israeli leaders have often asked that Israel be treated as a state like any other state, a reasonable request, I think.  But other states and their supporters do not necessarily label critics of their governments as bigoted enemies of that state’s predominant religion or ethnic group.  Should we construe U.S. limitations on trade with Iran (a kind of boycott) as prejudicial to Shiite Islam?  Should criticism of, say, the Polish government be labeled anti-Catholic?

The basic assumption behind this list, that students – in particular, Jewish students – should not be taking courses on the Middle East from scholars who support the academic boycott, is deeply misguided.  Faculty members have all sorts of ideas about a wide variety of issues.  Surely, the very nature of the conflict in the Middle East mandates honest scholars to draw conclusions that others may perceive as “taking sides.”  The notion that students should not take classes from teachers with a “bias,” anti-Israel or other – and by “bias” what is really meant is a political position that differs from those making the “bias” charge – both insults those teachers and infantilizes the students, much as so-called “trigger warnings” do.  All instructors – be they pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian – should be obliged to present controversial issues to their students honestly and fully and to make students aware of conflicting views, although I might note that it is quite unlikely that students enrolling in a class on the Middle East will not already know that there is intense disagreement about the conflicts in the region.  And teachers are compelled to treat all students with respect, independent of their viewpoint, religion, ethnic background, gender, or race.  If Amcha has concrete evidence that any of the scholars on their list systematically violate such norms, that might be a different matter, but the proposition that somehow any teacher who signs a petition will necessarily discriminate against or even “make uncomfortable” students who disagree with the petition’s goals is hardly tenable.

I wonder how Amcha would respond if a similar organization dedicated to combating anti-Islamic views published a list of faculty members who had publicly supported Israeli government actions or simply opposed the academic boycott and urged students to consider whether to register for classes with such individuals because of their “bias” against Islam?  And what if that group also raised questions about whether supporters of the Israeli government should receive federal funding?

What makes this Amcha list so dangerous?  Didn’t the signatories themselves, by endorsing a public petition in support of the boycott, open themselves up to this treatment?  After all, it is they who have taken a public stance.  Shouldn’t Amcha have the right to publicize their stance?  Well, they do have that right.  Certainly the principles of academic freedom should not bar private citizens from criticizing ideas and positions advanced by faculty members, whether  individually or in groups.  And it should not prevent those citizens, in the case of public institutions, from raising concerns with university officials and even legislators.  But just as I believe boycott advocates have the right to press their case, but I oppose academic boycotts, so too do I think that Amcha has the right to criticize the views of faculty members but should not be organizing a kind of counter-boycott, which is what this list effectively does.

Moreover, there is considerable evidence that lists of this kind can have serious negative consequences for the academic freedom not only of those on the list but of all faculty members.  To be sure, it is the responsibility of college and university administrators and trustees to resist efforts to establish political litmus tests for faculty and insofar as they fail to do this and bow to outside pressures it is those administrators who are guilty of violating academic freedom, not those who have pressured them.  Nevertheless, the revelation that UIUC’s decision to “summarily dismiss” Steven Salaita (as AAUP’s letter put it) came after intense pressure was exerted by wealthy donors and the advancement office suggests the possibility that similar donors (and politicians) elsewhere might conclude that a scholar’s presence on the Amcha list also constitutes grounds for dismissal and exert similar pressure.  And this alone makes such a list problematic at best.  Moreover, once a college or university caves into pressure in one case, it is nearly inevitable that other cases will arise around other issues and concerns, with increasing pressure exerted on administrators to ensure that the faculty is politically orthodox.

Amcha is hardly the first organization to compile such a list on this issue.  Earlier this year, soon after the American Studies Association (ASA) endorsed the call for an academic boycott of Israel, AAUP issued several statements (here, here, and here) opposing dangerous legislative efforts designed to “punish” the ASA and other advocates of the academic boycott.  I also posted an entry on this blog entitled, “How NOT to Oppose the Academic Boycott of Israel.”  At that time we expressed concern

that the decision by the ASA to endorse an academic boycott of Israel is producing a backlash that is potentially as dangerous, or more so, than the boycott itself.  Another example is the response of the Jewish organization Hillels of Georgia, which, by its own account, “compiled a list of all the Georgian professors or graduate students that voted in favor of the boycott, listed where they work, and encouraged our student body to choose wisely when they register for classes.” This measure,the organization states, “sends a clear message to university staff that they do not live in an ivory tower, and that their actions can and will have consequences on their immediate lives.”  In fact, this compilation is tantamount to a political blacklist, reminiscent of the McCarthy era.

It was never clear how the Georgia group obtained the names of those who voted in what was, after all, a secret ballot referendum, and as a result their list was replete with inaccuracies.  To that extent the Georgia list was “worse” than the Amcha one, but perhaps less dangerous because Amcha’s list has, it would seem, more extensive national backing and support.

As we declared back in January:

It is the position of the AAUP that academic boycotts contravene the principles of academic freedom. The Association has nevertheless asserted that it is “the right of individual faculty members or groups of academics not to cooperate with other individual faculty members or academic institutions with whom or with which they disagree.” Academic freedom is meaningless if it does not protect those who support unpopular positions, including the advocacy of academic boycotts. We urge opponents of academic boycotts to engage boycott advocates in dialogue, rather than seek to impose inappropriate restrictions on their activities that violate principles of academic freedom.

9 thoughts on “And Now There's a Blacklist?

  1. I looked at the AMCHA website linked here, including the list of faculty. I do think this is supposed to function like a blacklist. The reason is that AMCHA is convinced that it can achieve omnipotence in defining anti-Semitism as everything form of expression about Israel that they don’t like. Very troubling at the very least that we have people mobilizing to undermine any last thread of faculty governance and that so far they have been radically successful at U of I. That is why agreeing to and upholding the boycott U of I until the administration adheres to what it’s own faculty hiring process decided is so crucial at this point in time.

  2. I understand your concerns. I am personally not in favour of academic boycotts, but I acknowledge the rights of others to participate in them. However, just as someone should be free to take part in a boycott others should be free to boycott the boycotters in response. It has to be a two way street otherwise the original boycotters would be the only ones who have the right to choose who they associate with whilst simultaneously demanding that others associate with them potentially against their will.

    • Those who are for Boycott are already boycotted. Steven Salaita was fired from a tenured position. I had not one single job offer even at a community college!!!

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