'Israel Lobby' Threatening Free Speech at Berkeley?

Are sinister Jewish forces really silencing people from speaking about Palestine?

The title of a recent panel discussion at the University of California, Berkeley was ominous: “SHHHH! Don’t Talk About Palestine: Chuck Hagel, Judith Butler, and the Israel Lobby’s Threat to Free Speech on Our Campus.” Taking place in Boalt Hall at UC Berkeley’s School of Law and sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine, the event drew what appeared to be sixty hardcore anti-Israel activists—most in their early twenties—eager to embrace the notion that UC Berkeley is under siege by “pro-Israel advocates seek[ing] to silence debate about Palestinian human rights and divestment from Israel’s occupation.”

Although the event was billed as a discussion about the (nonexistent) efforts by the “Israel Lobby” to delay the appointment of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense and its criticism of the political science department at Brooklyn College for co-sponsoring a recent talk on Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) by UC Berkeley rhetoric professor and anti-Israel activist Judith Butler, neither subject arose. Instead, the panel engaged in paranoid fantasies about being “silenced,” which, given that this was a well-publicized event at a prestigious law school on a campus where the Palestinian narrative is constantly promoted both inside and outside the classroom, were patently and even hilariously false.

Hatem Bazian, a senior lecturer in the departments of Near Eastern and ethnic studies, was introduced as the main speaker, one the “500 most influential Muslims in the world,” and, in a false claim, the originator of the term “Islamophobia.” While the latter is untrue, Bazian does have the dubious distinction of directing UC Berkeley’s Islamophobia Research & Documentation Project.

Announcing that, “I come first to discuss this subject as a Palestinian and a Muslim,” Bazian launched into the usual accolades surrounding the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley during the 1960s. Far from being a free speech advocate facing censorship, Bazian is an activist who uses his academic position to advance an anti-Israel agenda. A promoter of the BDS movement and executive director of the Holy Land Foundation-linked American Muslims for Palestine, he is infamous for having called for an “Intifada in this country!” at a San Francisco anti-war rally in 2004.

In an attempt to conflate the unrelated issue of affirmative action with the “Palestinian narrative,” Bazian hailed a failed court challenge to Proposition 209, which put an end to race, gender, and ethnicity-based quotas in California universities in 1996, describing it melodramatically as having given a “voice to the voiceless against an attempt to erase people from history.”

Demonstrating the myopia that afflicts Middle East studies academics who believe, against all evidence, that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the central focus of the region, he continued:

The Palestinian narrative also faces the euphemism in the university of the term, ‘Middle East studies’ [sic] that often erases the people and is inclusive by means of omission.

He went on to maintain that, “In the 60s and 70s, anyone who spoke about Palestine were [sic] considered communists and harassed and not allowed to speak.” If such a claim were true, clearly it’s no longer the case, as Bazian himself establishes on a daily basis.

After praising the writings of the late Columbia University English professor and Orientalism author Edward Said and the late Kansas State University political science professor Michael Suleiman, both contributors to the politicization of Middle East studies, Bazian launched into an incoherent tirade against Middle East scholar and reformer Martin Kramer:

The future of Middle East studies always had Palestine surrounding it. Martin Kramer blasted academia for not predicting the [1979 Islamic] revolution in Iran as if academia was directing things. The academic discourse was always saying to support the Shah [Mohammad Reza Pahlavi]. Martin Kramer and his ilk were always supporting the Shah, and Middle East studies [sic] was challenging Palestine by using non-governmental sources and U.S. sources.

Given that Martin Kramer was a graduate student at Princeton University at the time of the Iranian revolution, he was hardly in a position to “support the Shah,” unless, by that, Bazian meant his opposition to the ascendance of Ayatollah Khomeini and the resulting theocratic and bellicose regime.

Bazian then turned to Saudi funding for UC Berkeley’s Center for Middle East Studies, accusing critics or, as he put it, “the Israel camp,” of labeling the donations “blood money.” Considering the despotic nature of the Saudi regime and the apologist bent of the Middle East studies academics benefitting from its agenda-driven generosity, “blood money” is an apt description. Bazian, however, maintained that such opposition creates a “toxic” climate on campus by implying that Arab and Palestiniangoals are negative and, in a nonsensical claim given America’s military alliance with Saudi Arabia, discourages funding for the academy in order to promote national defense.

Intoning the need to “liberate people,” Bazian called for a transformation of the university grading system in order to counter what he called “colonial discourse.” He described the Academic Bill of Rights, which was created by the David Horowitz-initiated Students for Academic Freedom for the purpose of discouraging one-sided indoctrination, as “controlling the discourse intellectually” and eliminating “academic freedom in the classroom.”

He berated “agencies of the government,” and in particular the California State Assembly, for passing laws intended to combat anti-Semitism in state colleges such as HR 35. The result of these efforts, he claimed, was that graduates ended up seeking out a profession rather than becoming activists. As he put it:

If you get a B.A., you get a cubicle for your job when you graduate. If you get a Master’s, you get a cubicle with a window.  And if you get a PhD, you get a cubicle with a window and a bathroom.

Apparently, for Bazian, becoming a productive member of the work force is a worst-case scenario.

Another panelist, UC Berkeley Associate Professor of Rhetoric Samera Esmeir, after noting proudly that she was one of the first founding members of the national chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, explained that she wanted to take a different route in promoting the Palestinian cause:

For my part, it was not a question of presenting criticism of Zionist or Israeli policies, but to utilize speech that addresses Palestinians. . . . My hope is to speak in Jeffersonian ways about Palestine. . . . What we need is empowerment.

Accusing Palestinian campus groups of being equally problematic in their approach, Esmeir was opposed to framing the dispute as “between two entities: Israel-Palestine or Palestinians and Israelis.” She complained that the “rhetoric of the conflict” promoted the idea that two populations were competing over the same land and that it “gave credibility to Israel as a state that was born out of colonization and apartheid.” Employing garbled language to try and compare the Israeli perspective to that of a slave holder, she then posed the question,“Did we ask African [sic] slave-landholders to give white people’s takes on slavery?”

Esmeir favored using the concept of a struggle against oppression over that of Palestinian victimhood. She cited how in 1973 at the World Festival of Youth and Students in East Berlin, the late Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) leader Yassir Arafat, radical activist Angela Davis, and representatives from various leftist movements met at the Berlin Wall where it was decided that “the PLO would take up the global struggle from the Vietnamese and the struggle for Palestine would change Palestinians from refugees to ‘freedom fighters.’”

She was indeed promoting a strategy that had already been implemented. According to terrorism expert Yosef Bodansky, Arafat sent lieutenants to Vietnam in the 1970s to study how North Vietnamese intelligence reconstructed communist goals into a national liberation movement. Those lessons turned the tide for the PLO on the world stage by changing its image from that of a terrorist to a liberator. As early as the late 1960s, Arafat, as described by Ion Pacepa, a director of the Romanian intelligence services who later defected from the Soviet bloc, was “being financed and manipulated by the KGB.”

Despite Esmeir’s prompting, the youthful audience likely remained either oblivious to or undeterred by the communist-inspired origins of the language of “liberation” against a “colonial occupier” they themselves employ in advocating for a Palestinian state.

Far from producing examples of anti-Israel academics, activists, and students at UC Berkeley who have been “silenced,” the panel discussion was nothing more than a workshop on how to promote the “Palestinian revolution” on campus—in part by using the field of Middle East studies as a vehicle. Tellingly, the concept of peace for two states living side-by-side never arose. If this is the extent of the “Israel Lobby’s” impact on how “Palestine” is discussed on campus, it poses no threat to the legions of anti-Israel advocates.

Contact information for the office of UC-Berkeley's chancellor, Robert J. Birgeneau:

Email: [email protected]
Phone: 510-642-7464
Fax: 510-643-5499

Lee Kaplan is an investigative journalist and columnist who writes for Isracampus.org.il, Israel National News, and the Northeast Intelligence Network. He is a Fellow at the American Center for Democracy and the founder of DAFKA.org and StoptheISM.com. He wrote this article for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.

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