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Why Some Israeli Professors Feel They Are the Victims of an Old-Fashioned Witch Hunt

“Are you a donor to Israeli universities?” the anonymous writer asks.

“Learn what is happening on Israeli campuses. Be informed about what is being done with your gifts and generosity.” These are the opening lines to a preposterous and dangerous new website called Israel Academia Monitor.

Presenting itself as a human rights movement of sorts, it declares that its aim is to bring to light abuses of academic freedom. Its nameless perpetrators consider themselves to be not only defenders of free speech but anti-McCarthyist campaigners.

The McCarthyists here are Israeli professors like myself who are critical of Israel’s rights-abusive policies while being inspired by a deep concern for Israel’s population and the occupied Palestinians. Apparently, our offense against free speech is that we do not allow zealous nationalists to voice their views – an absurd allegation considering that for some years now the balance of power within Israel has been tilted firmly towards the right.

At first sight only a twisted logic augmented by historical ignorance could draw a parallel between relatively powerless academics and those well orchestrated, government sanctioned redbaiters of 1950s USA. Indeed, the Monitor’s instigators would have failed introductory courses of both logic and twentieth century history. In this corner of cyberspace, the law of contradiction – that antithetical P and not-P cannot be true simultaneously – ceases to exist, allowing the site to intimate that donors should boycott all universities that employ professors who criticize state policies while at the same time denouncing those who favor a boycott of Israeli institutions.

But in reality, those behind the Monitor are accusing Israeli academics of McCarthyism in order to deflect criticism from the web inquisitors themselves as they set about exploiting fear.

The site is a bathetic attempt to copy Campus Watch, which was launched in 2002 to police and discipline those U.S. university professors who criticize their country’s policies in the Middle East and Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land. Campus Watch is closely connected to the academic journal Middle East Quarterly and to the Middle East Forum, a right-wing think tank whose members have access to the Bush Administration. Supporting this neo-con apparatus are numerous donors with deep pockets.

The Monitor dedicates a page to each major Israeli university, listing “extremist professors” who, in the words of the anonymous press release, promote “insurrection and lawbreaking” as well as “seditious” behavior.

These academics are accused of collaborating with “anti-Semites and enemies of Israel” and supporting “lawlessness and terror.” An innocent reader could be forgiven for thinking that Hamas terrorist cells led by rogue professors are currently operating within Israeli universities, preparing students for the Jihad.

The Monitor might have been just a tasteless joke if the times were not ripe for this kind of witch-hunt, if it were not symptomatic of a more general and ominous mood informed by a nationalistic and sectarian frenzy.

The site’s authors encourage students and scholars to pass on information about suspect professors. They promise to publish incriminating material. The goal, it seems, is to influence hiring and tenure decisions in order to purge Israeli universities of those who dare question the state, or, at least, silence them.

This assault, however, is not only aimed at academic freedom but at democracy itself. For the danger confronting contemporary democracy is not some new wave of overt authoritarianism, as it was in the early and mid-twentieth century. It is not even terrorism. Rather, the danger comes from those for whom the freedoms that accompany democracy represent a threat, an obstacle to their uninhibited pursuit of dominance and wealth.

Like its forerunner Campus Watch, Israel Academia Monitor is indicative of the much broader attempt to silence all those who confront the powers that be.