I only recently learned of Illinois Governor Pat Quinn’s trip to Israel this past summer (2011) for a “week-long educational mission where he sealed two important agreements and received briefings from high-ranking Israeli officials, academic experts and business leaders on topics ranging from high-tech development (read Motorola), energy, water conservation and environmentalism (sic) to disaster preparedness, Iran, and U.S.-Israel relations.” This is reported on the website of Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago. The reader is expected, of course, to find the high-minded and triumphant tone of this article to be unproblematic.
The article states: “The Governor’s educational visit was part of a JUF initiative that, for the past two decades, has brought influential leaders to Israel.” Quinn signed a “formal agreement on academic cooperation between Ben Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba and the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) to establish a wide-ranging partnership. The agreement will promote faculty and student exchanges, joint research, and other academic activities of mutual interest. The agreement greatly expands the existing relationship between the universities in the field of public health.”
Beyond principled opposition to such academic agreements between our public universities and those of the apartheid Jewish state, it’s important to note that the academic merit and social outcomes of such agreements are obviously limited by the political context that provokes fundamental opposition from advocates of social justice. In relation to Motorola, for example, it’s impossible to believe that there will be public discussion promoting the public interest regarding military applications in general or surveillance technology in particular.
Similarly, such an agreement cannot conceivably promote consideration of fundamental and historical water resource and environmental degradation issues pertaining to political conflict between Israel and Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan. It’s also highly unlikely that the essentially political nature of such an academic agreement would allow or encourage researchers to address the public health concerns of Palestinians, either as citizens of Israel or in the occupied territories; nor would they likely address, for example, the conditions of African immigrants in Israel who find themselves increasingly despised and unwanted.
A biased and discriminatory political agenda, dictated and limited by Israeli state interests and U.S. hegemonic interests in the region, is thus inevitably part and parcel of such academic agreements. The public university and its scholarly and scientific reputation is commandeered and exploited by the Israel Lobby in order to serve and legitimize that agenda.
Beyond this particular “academic exchange,” my perspective is informed by the principles of the BDS movement and the challenges inevitably presented to the movement by the Israel Lobby’s incessant pressure on public officials and institutions at all levels. As a long-term resident of Illinois and employee of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), I have been a journalist and activist regarding the manner in which Jewish and Zionist institutions have come to occupy the putatively public space of our public university—clearly to the detriment of dignity and justice for the Palestinians, as well as informed discussion in a democratic and scholarly context of the Israel/Palestine issue.
Continuing from an article that I wrote for Electronic Intifada in 2009, I argue here that the developments noted above constitute egregious extensions of the Zionist infrastructure that has been promoted by the Israel Lobby in state government in general and in public higher education in Illinois. I would hope that this opportunistic, outrageous, and cynical agreement between Governor Quinn and Israeli officials creates a critical mass of awareness and potential activism within and beyond the BDS movement in Illinois. I would hope to see a clear response to the manner in which the Lobby feels entitled to self-righteously promote—without objection—what are repugnant and sectarian political interests in state politics and higher education—disingenuously and transparently framed in terms of technological, scientific, and economic development.
From my perspective as a Jewish pro-Palestinian activist in Urbana-Champaign, I have observed two primary developments: first, the establishment of a privately-funded Program for Jewish Culture and Society two decades ago and its attendant moral emphasis on the Holocaust and Jewish victimization in general; second, the use of PJCS as an institutional and moral umbrella for an Israel Lobby-funded and baldly propagandistic“Israel Studies Project,” which has moreover been clearly racist in its exclusion of Palestinian Israelis from its purview.
Blatant conflicts of interest regarding PJCS in relation to the Israel Lobby were obvious from the start, and dovetail with Governor Quinn’s junket. The promoters of PJCS were two professors with prominent positions in local Jewish institutions—religious, secular, and Zionist. One professor, Michael Shapiro, is the father of Daniel Shapiro, current U.S. ambassador to Israel.
In 2004, Michael Shapiro worked closely with Michael Kotzin, JUF Executive Vice President, to fund the Israel Studies Project, part of a state-wide effort by the Israel Lobby at both public and private universities. Kotzin wrote in the Forward in 2004 that the “manner in which Israel and the Middle East are taught about in the nation’s university classrooms has increasingly come to the fore as one of the most difficult and far-reaching challenges facing the Jewish community.” In translation, this is to say that the Lobby needs to take serious measures to intervene in academia to promote Israel’s interests, in response to students who are increasingly enlightened regarding the plight of the Palestinians.
Kotzin, a long-time Lobby apparatchik in Chicago, accompanied Governor Quinn to Israel, commenting “It is particularly gratifying to be here with Gov. Quinn today when that partnership moves to a new level.” Quinn’s group was addressed in Israel by Ambassador Shapiro, who tellingly “called his address to the group ‘his first official duty’ after arriving the day before to assume his responsibilities as U.S. Ambassador to Israel.”
I would add that the Urbana campus has also procured, for the past two academic years, a visiting Jewish-Israeli professor of Israel Studies whose position is by no means disinterestedly funded by the Schusterman Family Foundation and the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE). According to the Jewish Virtual Library, “The aim of the program is to present American students with a broad understanding of Israel's history, society, politics, culture and relations with its neighbors and the broader international community.” In plainer language, the aim of this program—as of the Israel Studies Project at UIUC and the broader Israel Studies movement in general—is to promote a sanitized version of Zionism, Israel, and Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. The current visiting professor at the Urbana Campus, Rhona Seidelman, has well-served this purpose.
It is unacceptable that a visiting professor essentially hired by the Israel Lobby is charged with teaching the one class offered at UIUC on the history of the Israel/Palestine conflict. Perhaps needless to say, UIUC has never hired a professor of Palestinian or Arab background specifically in relation to teaching and research regarding the topic of Israel/Palestine. Regarding any other oppressed minority, it would be unheard of for faculty members to be bought and paid for by interests promoting and justifying such oppression. But in the case of the Israel Lobby on campus, it is business as usual. At UIUC and other campuses in Illinois, the Lobby has de facto attempted to limit the institutional space within which Palestinian perspectives can be understood and legitimized.
The political proficiency and resources of the Israel Lobby in Illinois and elsewhere present formidable challenges to pro-Palestinian and BDS activists. Nevertheless, popular support for Israel, including among Jews and on campuses, is at an all-time low. The recent and welcome radicalization of the notion of “occupy,” combined with the principles and goals of the BDS movement, suggests assertive and persistent responses to Lobby business as usual on campus and in state government.