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American Universities Under Attack For Challenging Pro-Israeli Political Consensus

23.05.2024 12:42

The legal battle over the definition of antisemitism and the right to teach an accurate history of the Palestinian people will define the soul and future of the American higher education system and its humanistic ideals Current anti Palestinian legislation reveals the most important aspect...

On the morning of May 16, Thursday, 65% of the professors at The Faculty of Arts and Sciences at Columbia University voted to pass a resolution of no confidence in the school's president, Nemat Shafik, condemning her leadership for violating the "fundamental requirements of academic freedom and shared governance," and causing "unprecedented assault on student's rights." On the same evening, pro-Palestinian students and faculty at Columbia University gathered at an alternative graduate ceremony at a packed hall near the campus, because the official graduation ceremony was canceled by the University president due to her concerns with security and safety.

Both acts by faculty and students at Columbia University aimed at protecting the scholarly dignity and humanistic ideals of their institutions, which were under attack because of student protests against the genocide in Gaza and their support of the rights and freedom of Palestinian people. After all, this was a university where Palestinian American Professor Edward Said, known for his influential book on the critique of the racism and Orientalism of the United States foreign policy in the Middle East, has taught for many decades. Today, there are thousands of university professors across North America who are continuing the humanistic legacy of Said in their teaching of courses on Middle Eastern history and the Arab-Israeli conflict. During the 1980s onwards, Bernard Lewis, the most important Zionist and anti-Palestinian historian of the Middle East, made his mission to attack Said's ideas, but Lewis lost the scholarly battle because of his deep racism towards Arabs and Muslims. Today, Lewis is only taught in American universities as a representative of biased and racist scholarship on Islam, Muslims, and Palestinians, not as a respected expert on the region.

The weaponization of the definition of antisemitism

Yet, it is Lewis' Zionist anti-Palestinian theories that dominate the speeches of American politicians. When US President Joe Biden supported harsh police measures against university students protesting an ongoing genocide as a necessary response to "antisemitism" on university campuses, he was repeating some of the arguments of Bernard Lewis, as formulated by the Israeli Lobby in the US on May 7, Biden labeled legitimate and peaceful student protests against Israel's indiscriminate killing of civilians as a form of antisemitism. He further insulted Palestinians as people with an "ancient hatred of Jews," a completely false argument that relies on an Islamophobic trope of Muslims as Jew-haters.

It has been very common among American liberal politicians and journalists to claim that Palestinian nationalism is motivated by innate animosity toward Jews and to depict the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a reflection of the millennial clash of civilizations between Islam and Judaism. In fact, the clash of civilizations thesis was formulated by Bernard Lewis in the 1980s to legitimize Israeli settler policies and denial of rights to Palestinians. Such historically inaccurate statements by Biden cannot be explained by his ignorance about the historical coexistence of Muslims and Jews in Palestine. This is a deliberate lie scripted by the Israeli lobby in the US to criminalize any expression in support of Palestinian rights and freedom. As part of this organized campaign, the Israeli Lobby weaponized a definition of antisemitism formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) that equates any criticism of Israel and Zionism as an act of hate crime against Jews. Currently, America's State Department and US Congress already adopted this Zionist definition, and there has been a systematic effort to pass similar legislations in various states and impose them in all universities in order to suppress free expression of support for Palestinian rights. No such parallel legislation would exist or make sense. For example, no one claimed that a critique of the Burmese government's policy of genocide against Rohingya as an anti-Buddhist hate crime, although there were Buddhist monks justifying and promoting it in the name of Buddhist Burmese nationalism. Critique of the Indian government would not be anti-Hindu, and no one ever passes legislation saying that critique of Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Pakistan would be considered anti-Muslim.

In contrast to this extremist pro-Israeli weaponization of antisemitism, the majority of the scholars across American universities would agree with The Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism, which does not criminalize "supporting the Palestinian demand for justice and the full grant of their political, national, civil and human rights, as encapsulated in international law." The Jerusalem Declaration states: "Criticizing or opposing Zionism as a form of nationalism or arguing for a variety of constitutional arrangements for Jews and Palestinians in the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean," should not be considered a hate crime. Jerusalem Definition similarly notes that it is "not antisemitic to support arrangements that accord full equality to all inhabitants "between the river and the sea," whether in two states, a binational state, unitary democratic state, federal state, or in whatever form."

Double standards and hypocrisy in the international order

What the legal attempts to impose the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition reveal is a fear of universities as a site to understand and challenge social inequalities and injustice. In that sense, it is important to remember that there have been similar systematic efforts to change the curriculum and content of American university education on the history of slavery and racism by white supremacist and Republican conservative legislators. Most notable of these is the Florida ban on teaching race theory and critical accounts of the history of Slavery in the US, with the argument that this would offend white Americans. What American conservatives tried to do with the challenge to teaching the history of race and slavery has been successfully achieved by the Israeli lobby about the history of Israeli oppression of Palestinians, this time with the support of liberal Americans and circles around so-called progressive newspapers such as the New York Times. As part of this, any professor and text teaching the truth about what happened to Palestinians in their indigenous homes in the last 100 years would be accused of antisemitism because this would inevitably talk about the injustice done to Palestinian populations by the British Empire, the Zionist movement, and the Israeli government.

There is also another irony in using the definition of antisemitism to create a new form of racism against Palestinians and Muslims. Criminalizing pro-Palestinian ideas demonstrates a fear and rejection of Palestinians articulating global values of equality and human rights, enlightenment, and justice. The more Palestinians and their allies use the universal languages of justice, equality, and rights, the more they expose the double standards and hypocrisy in the so-called rule-based international order created by the US and the Western powers. The only way to reject these claims for justice and equal rights is to invent new forms of racism toward Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims. In that sense, current anti-Palestinian legislation reveals the most important aspect of racism in general: that it is not a result of prejudice and hate due to differences of cultures or ignorance among people: It is a deliberately created ideology to deny humanity and justice to certain groups of people.

Recent attempts by the US Congress to control and censure university education in humanities, history and social sciences reflect an authoritarian desire to make sure that higher education remains as a vocational training of useful employees for big companies, without any critical examination of the nature of modern world and societies. In reality, the majority of the students themselves are getting higher education in order to get well-paying jobs and learn skills for their future careers. But, this was never supposed to be the noble goal of higher education in humanities and social sciences. Universities are sites where we examine the way humans create the modern world with the moral aim that we can change this world to make it more just for humanity and for our earth. The legal battle over the definition of antisemitism and the right to teach an accurate history of the Palestinian people will define the soul and future of the American higher education system and its humanistic ideals.

*Opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Anadolu. -

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