How The Israel Lobby Stifles Debate and Dissent on Campus


This is an interesting article over at Al Jazeera and it gives some insight into why the Israel Lobby is so effective at stifling dissent on college campuses. The media largely ignores these efforts, presumably because it is unseemly and flies in the face of academic freedom and freedom of speech. Also, it is interesting how the Israel government itself gets involved in putting pressure on colleges and universities on issues related to Israel-Palestine. That seems beyond inappropriate. Can you imagine the Ambassador to China calling Harvard and complaining about a symposium on Chinese human rights and Tibet?

Excerpt from the article but definitely go read the whole thing:

Over the past year, I have obtained public records that shed light on how the Israel lobby works on US campuses. At UC Berkeley, my alma mater, as well as at UC Hastings School of Law, the documents reveal how the Israel lobby pressures university administrators to interfere with campus activity – both academic and political – that addresses Israel’s policies towards and treatment of the Palestinian people.

My requests were made in the shadow of two high-profile backlash campaigns to counter events at UC Berkeley and UC Hastings School of Law. In March 2011, esteemed legal academics and practitioners attended a conference called “Litigating Palestine” at UC Hastings School of Law.

On the eve of the conference, the UC Hastings Board of Directors voted in a closed emergency meeting to withdraw its sponsorship of the event without explanation. Though the conference was permitted to proceed, the Dean of the Law School was asked not to give opening remarks as planned.

A year earlier, a historic decision by UC Berkeley’s student government to divest from companies profiting from Israeli human rights violations and war crimes and occupation was overturned in response to similar pressure. Though the bill initially passed with a 16-4 majority, the student body president vetoed it and, after weeks of intense lobbying, the student senate was one vote short of overcoming the veto.

Though the fact of lobby pressure is a matter of common knowledge, it requires demystification. The records I obtained tend to reveal some of the ways in which the lobby actually applies its pressure. They contain valuable lessons for those who wish to defeat it. I draw several hypotheses from these documents.

Foremost among them is the proposition that the lobby’s influence stems primarily from the fact that, despite public criticism, it is largely uncontested by organised campaigns. Subject to intense pressure, university administrators often make decisions they do not like because they feel they have no other choice.

No Arab, Muslim, or progressive Jewish voices

In hundreds of pages I obtained from UC Berkeley, UC office of the president, and UC Hastings School of Law, I saw communications between the highest level university administrators – people who students can rarely meet or address – and lobbyists in Washington DC at the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee, the Zionist Organisation of America, and more.

Yet not a single letter came to these administrators on issues like UC Berkeley’s divestment campaign or the UC Hastings’ conference from similarly high-profile national community organisations like the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Arab American Institute, the Council for American-Islamic Relations, or the Muslim Public Affairs Council.

As a result, university administrators were presented with a one-sided view and the impression that the only organised feedback was negative. In both cases, they ultimately adopted the view in front of them, caving into pressure on policy decisions without making an effort to solicit the input of other groups.

Where issues were clearly important not only to Jews but also to Arabs, Muslims, and others, administrators only took into consideration the position represented by the Israel lobby. But there is no rational reason why one group’s perspective should be privileged over the others.

In some cases, the relationship was inappropriately cozy. On March 18, 2010, hours after the student government passed the divestment initiative at UC Berkeley, the Israeli consul in Northern California had called the chancellor’s office to request a meeting.

[snip]

Letters relied heavily on misrepresentations of the Israeli/Palestinian issue or the specific actions they attacked. Others, in equating criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, rely on logical fallacies and non sequitur. Many contained shocking undertones of racism, bigotry, and unfair ad hominem attacks. Yet they managed to persuade university administrators to take reactionary steps, not through the power of reason but by using power as reason.

At the end of the article the author talks about strategies student groups and others might want to utilize to combat the influence of the lobby.

I think a big factor in all of this is $$$$$$$$$. Alumni threaten to withhold donations, members of the Board of Directors threaten to quit, etc. etc. It puts student activists at a disadvantage because when going up against monied special interests, it is more likely than not that the college administration will side with alumni who threaten to stop giving donations.

An example of how the heavy-handed and irrational actions of the Israel Lobby can backfire on college/university campuses is the incident involving CUNY’s initial refusal to grant playwright Tony Kushner an honorary degree because of his criticism of Israeli policies (and see here). The story received an unusual amount of attention, in part because Kushner is so well respected and in part because the actions of the Board of Trustees was so flagrantly irrational that faculty, students, staff and alumni rallied to Kushner’s defense and CUNY overturned it’s decision. And that’s key and what makes the Kushner incident different from so many others involving pressure from the Lobby- Kushner is a wildly popular artist with a huge following in the gay community and artist circles. It certainly got CUNY’s attention when past CUNY honorary degree recipients like Barbara Ehrenreich informed CUNY (and the media) that they would be returning their honorary degree due to the treatment of Kushner. Had that sort of support not materialized, he may not have ended up getting the degree after all.

One thing student activist groups can do is try to expose the tactics being used, ie. undue influence to silence pro-Palestinian or anti-occupation viewpoints. That can be difficult given the mainstream media’s general refusal to report on these issues unless something that happens to force them to do so. The article excerpted above appeared in Al Jazeera English- that in and of itself says a lot- do you think the author would have a chance at getting it on CNN.com or NYT.com or the Washington Post? I don’t think so.

UPDATE: MJ Rosenberg highlights an AIPAC video where they discuss exactly how they try to promote no dissent on the issue of Israel-Palestine on college campuses.

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About Stacy

Attorney, Publisher, Foreign Policy wonk

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