Saturday, April 4, 2020

Prof. Saree Makdisi (UCLA) and the Issue of Campus Anti-Semitism

UCLA English and literature Professor Saree Makdisi is one of those dime a dozen university professors who is part of the traveling speaking tour of activists opposed to the very existence of the state of Israel. Though he teaches English and literature, he works in concert with many other academics in the Middle East studies departments of various universities who are dedicated to the destruction of Israel. In January, Makdisi wrote an article for the liberal website, The Nation, on the issue of campus anti-Semitism. Let me rephrase that: Makdisi's article is more an attempt to complain about President Trump's efforts to withhold federal funding from universities that turn a blind eye to the intimidation of Jewish students over the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

"It ought to be obvious that Trump’s move has nothing to do with fighting expressions of genuine anti-Semitism (which targets Jews for who they are, rather than a state for its brutal policies), in which he has himself frequently indulged. Rather, this order, which was apparently urged by his partisan son-in-law Jared Kushner, is the culmination of years of effort by Israel’s defenders to shield that state from criticism on American campuses, including the one where I teach."

Though I have my own opinions on the Israel-Palestinian conflict (I am pro-Israel), I will not address Makdisi's arguments against Israel because I have no on-site experience and don't consider myself an expert on the details of the conflict. I oppose the Palestinian movement mostly because it is based on violence and terror. What I will address is his argument that efforts of the Trump administration, and specifically Ken Marcus, head of the Dept. of Education Office of Civil Rights to address anti-Semitism, are just a thinly-disguised effort to silence legitimate criticism of Israel. I will address that because it is an issue I have been involved in. From 1998-2016, I taught part-time at UC Irvine Extension and observed the constant Israel-bashing events which all too often crossed the line from legitimate criticism of Israel's policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians to blatant Jew hatred. I have attended the events, and I have heard the speakers, from Mohamed al Asi to Amir Abdel Malik Ali to Hatem Bazian to Omar Barghouti to Hussam Ayloush to George Galloway and so on. I have been present when members of the Muslim Student Union and Students for Justice in Palestine have disrupted Jewish pro-Israel events. I have met and interviewed Jewish students who have been bullied on campus by pro-Palestinian supporters. I have also complained constantly to school administrators that they are allowing Jewish students to be bullied. Nobody can tell me that campus anti-Semitism isn't a problem. And it is not coming from neo-Nazis or white nationals because for one thing, they have no real influence on campuses. No, it is coming from pro-Palestinian forces, including students and professors who do have influence on campus.

In fact, I have seen Makdisi speak at UC Irvine on two occasions.The first was in 2009 at an all day sucker entitled, "Whither the Levant", in which the day was devoted to one Israel-basher after another including As’ad Abukhalil, Norman Finkelstein, UCI professors Mark LeVine, Chuck O'Connell, Lisa Haddad Kreidie, Gabriel Piterberg, and David Theo Goldberg among others. Who are all these people?

You don't wanna know.

I did note in my posting at the time that Makdisi was the most impressive speaker of the lot, a very low bar, however considering his company.

He was much less impressive the second time he came to UC Irvine. On the second occasion in 2016, Makdisi  used that same line of argument, erroneously stating that the State Department definition on Anti-Semitism declared any criticism of Israel to be anti-Semitic, which is not true. It is true that the DOS definition does have points particular to Israel, but they address denying Israel's right to exist, condemning Israel for human rights violations while ignoring those of its neighbors, referring to Israelis as "Nazis", and blaming Jews worldwide for the actions of Israel, all of which are reasonable.

"A proliferating array of advocacy organizations has sprung up in order to foster support for Israeli apartheid among skeptical and well-informed university students. That is no easy task, and to facilitate it, these organizations have repeatedly tried either to crowd out or simply suppress voices critical of Israeli policy, including by developing crudely caricatural blacklists of students and faculty and engaging in vulgar forms of intimidation and harassment."

Here Makdisi accuses the pro-Israel forces of engaging in the very same activities the pro-Palestinian forces regularly engage in. How many times do you see pro-Palestinian events and their speakers disrupted? How many times do you see pro-Palestinian displays torn down? How many times do you see Jewish students try to physically intimidate pro-Palestinian  students? From my own observations, Jewish students at UC Irvine for years have tried to engage in dialogue with the pro-Palestinian  students. They are routinely rebuffed. In my opinion, it is a wasted effort.

"Their energies have recently centered on administrative suppression of free speech on campus, especially via the adoption of the new definition of anti-Semitism just embraced by Trump. In 2016, for instance, a coalition of Israel advocacy organizations campaigned to have the Regents of the University of California redefine anti-Semitism on campus along exactly these lines."

I was involved in that effort, mostly in coordination with the AMCHA Initiative. I spoke twice at Regents meetings on the issue-at UC Irvine and subsequently at UCLA, where I outlined my own personal experience witnessing anti-Semitism on campus. The definition we sought to have included in the Regents Statement of Principles on Intolerance was that of the State Department. We also worked to have that statement specifically address anti-Semitism and not water it down with a general condemnation of all forms of intolerance-which would have meant nothing. In the end, we were successful in our efforts, but in my view, the Statement is nothing more than a scrap of paper given subsequent events which have continued unabated in virtually every UC campus-including swastikas scrawled on campus walls.

And then there is the attack on Ken Marcus, which in my view, is unwarranted. Full disclosure: I know Marcus personally, and I have great respect for him. He is concerned with the rights of all students, but he knows full well from years of experience that there is a specific problem of campus anti-Semitism that goes beyond criticism of Israel. Marcus is not trying to shut down criticism of Israel; rather he is trying to protect Jewish students from intimidation.

Makdisi enjoys the freedom to spout his views, and I, for one, would never attempt to silence him. We do, however, have the right to refute his statements. 

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