WE WILL NOT BE SILENCED: The Academic Repression of Israel’s Critics
Edited by William I. Robinson and Maryam S. Griffin
Forward by Cynthia McKinney and Preface by Richard Falk
280 pp. AK Press, 2017. $19.95.
There are many ways to try to silence people whose ideas you don’t like. You can bully, blackmail, violate, isolate, punish, and smear them until they shut up, back down, and/or lose the platform upon which they were speaking.
It’s not just autocratic despots or crooked attorneys who wield such strategies with tyrannical efficacy. The forces of the pro-Israel lobby have long carried out systematic campaigns of vilification and repression with a pugnacious energy that rivals even the mob’s. Anyone in the public eye who dares to level a critique of the State of Israel could find themselves targeted. And if you are a prominent and vocal Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) activist: fuggedaboutit.
This climate of censorship is especially hard felt on college and university campuses where a historic upsurge in successful pro-Palestine activism has led to a corollary increase in McCarthyist pressure by the dozens of Zionist organizations who have formed into a network called the Israel on Campus Coalition. Characterized by their shameless meddling in internal university proceedings, well-organized groups like the AMCHA Initiative, Stand With Us, Campus Watch, Canary Mission, and ADL are the most visible tip of a slander-industrial complex whose mission is to purge professors and students who challenge their own narrative.
When fear of reprisal has become the norm, speaking out becomes an act of courage and resistance. This is the premise of “We Will Not Be Silenced,” AK Press’s excellent new collection of first-hand testimonial accounts penned by pro-Palestinian scholars who have been targeted on U.S. campuses. With more than a dozen essays by some of the luminaries in the movement such as Richard Falk, Saree Makdisi, Rabab Ibrahim Abdulhadi, Nadia Abu El-Haj, Steven Salaita, Joseph Massad, members of the Irvine 11, and many others—”We Will Not Be Silenced” serves as an instructive compendium of the pro-Israel lobby’s bag of underhanded tricks and an invaluable playbook for how to preempt and defeat them.
Across the breadth of these infuriating yet illuminating essays, a consistent pattern of tactics emerges. Most of these tactics are predicated on the lobby’s willingness to breach basic standards of academic freedom and common decency to achieve their aims.
In their helpful opening essay, David Theo Goldberg and Saree Makdisi discuss the alarming implications of the Hasbara Handbook that is distributed by organizations like StandWithUs to help train pro-Israel campus activists to be effective propagandists. The handbook explicitly encourages its acolytes to avoid legitimate argument and debate with pro-Palestinian activists in favor of deceitful strategies like point scoring, emotional manipulation, and name calling—to create negative connotations “without allowing a real examination of that person or idea.”
The direct and damaging results of these methods are on full display in the pages of “We Will Not Be Silenced” where victim after victim narrates the life-altering consequences they have faced for their criticism of Israel.
William Robinson, one of the co-editors of the book, was brought up on spurious charges at UCSB for circulating a photo-essay that juxtaposed images from Operation Cast Lead in Gaza with the images of the Warsaw ghetto, accompanied by a text condemning Israel’s human rights record. After a strenuous fight, Robinson was cleared of all charges, but at a steep cost to his research and reputation.
David Delgado Shorter, whose only “crime” was to offer his students the option of researching the BDS movement as a case study in his “Tribal Worldviews” course, survived a demoralizing ordeal at UCLA at the hands of AMCHA that included death threats and false accusations of anti-Semitism that damaged his professional and personal life.
David Klein, a math professor at Cal State, Northridge and prominent BDS activist, was subjected to a similar coordinated campaign of censorship that stretched out for years and may not even be over yet. Unlike most of the scholars in this collection, Klein was fortunate that Harry Hellenbrand, the president of CSUN at the time, was an outspoken supporter of Klein’s academic freedom.
Most of these political witch hunts have been instigated and/or vigorously pursued by outside lobbyists, powerful politicians, or alumni donors. While these forces hold no contractual or professional affiliation with the universities, they often interfere with impunity in internal governance procedures. In some cases they help pro-Israel students file official complaints against pro-Palestinian faculty members, but often dispense with even that “nicety.”
What is especially disturbing is the alacrity with which many upper administrators quickly cave and often collude with pressure groups who have no interest in research and knowledge production, but rather have a vested interest in censorship and knowledge suppression.
The Israel on Campus Coalition has shown few scruples about smearing its opponents as supporters of terror, self-hating Jews, or anti-Semites. Groups like AMCHA, Hillel, StandWithUs have worked with political allies around the clock to cement the erroneous notion that opposition to Zionism is tantamount to anti-Semitism, and that a hatred of Israel’s policies of racism, ethnic cleansing and dispossession is the same as hatred of Jews qua Jews.
Given the horrific history of anti-Semitism, and the deplorable reality of its continued existence, even among some who identify as “supporters” of Palestinian rights, the grave charge of anti-Semitism is not to be taken lightly. As several of the essayists in this book point out, this highly fraught context gives the lobbying groups the perfect straw-man weapon to combat its opponents; and they wield it with a vengeance, in reckless disregard of the lives and livelihoods ruined in the process, and in reckless disregard of the important task of defanging the real anti-Semites.
The question becomes why—why are these extra-academic interests given such wide berth to operate on U.S. campuses? The answer, in part, has to do with the rise of the neoliberal university and the decline of faculty protections across the board. Kristofer J. Petersen-Overton, a doctoral candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center, situates his own persecution within the broader context in higher education—the increasing reliance on vulnerable adjunct labor, the steady elimination of tenure, and a prevalent “boardroom mentality” where administrators have become chiefly concerned with protecting “carefully cultivated brands.”
Lisa Rofel and Steven Salaita both draw pointed and sustained attention to the decline of the public university and its traditional commitment to the common good. In an era of “neoliberal graft,” where students are viewed as consumers, adjunct labor is exploited, and administrators command exorbitant salaries, we see a sharp increase in the profit-motives of upper management. In such a climate, wealthy donors, lobby groups, and board members are able to sway and even dictate hiring decisions and curriculum.
Though the death knell of academic freedom is tolling, all is not lost. The apt title of this book “We Will Not Be Silenced” indicates that the tables are beginning to turn. Despite cause for anger and outrage, these stories are leavened with encouraging lessons. In nearly every case, some small victory has been snatched from the jaws of defeat. With the unwavering support from scores national and international progressive and civil rights organizations, most of these scholars were eventually vindicated.
Despite appearances, the pro-Israel lobby is not winning these campus skirmishes. All of us who work for social justice should take heart and fight smart. We should embolden ourselves to speak out and assert our rights. We should donate and build stronger alliances with the organizations like the AAUP, the National Lawyers Guild, the ACLU, FIRE, Palestine Legal, and many others that have been steadfast in support of civil rights. We should denounce anti-Semitism where we find it, and strenuously educate on the immense difference between anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism.
Those of us working in academia should purchase the book, read it, and lend it our colleagues and administrators so they too can strengthen their resolve to defend our campuses from these unseemly and costly attacks. Rather than squelching discourse and avoiding “controversy,” campus leaders—whether students, faculty, staff, or administrators—should help cultivate an atmosphere of intellectual debate based on time-tested principles of academic freedom.
Professors and students have a right to engage in research and to disseminate that research, even it challenges long-cherished dogma. Colleges and universities are sites traditionally dedicated to the dialogical process of learning where ideas are put forth, tested, and debated, then accepted or rejected on the merit of the arguments. The misuse of money and power to warp this process is not just damaging to the brave individuals who refuse to be silent, but to the entire project of participatory democracy.