The shockwaves of 9-11 have had a chilling effect on civil liberties in the form of the Patriot Act and the repressive measures taken by a plethora of government agencies. One must add to this the fallout from the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, and it becomes evident that even universities are not immune from the chill. Now freedom of speech, academic freedom and democracy itself are all at risk–the values that America so greatly cherishes have been greatly diminished.
Case in point. Last July Prof. Shahid Alam of Northeastern Univ. in Boston wrote an eloquent article calling for an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions; it appeared in both CounterPunch and Al Ahram . The article gave an overview of the Palestinian condition, a criticism of the “West” in allowing this situation to continue, and then a carefully reasoned argument why academics and students should engage in the time honored peaceful protest, an academic boycott of Israeli institutions. When Professor Alam invited some academics to consider joining the academic boycott against Israel, he said, “one wrote back saying how disappointed he was that I should support this boycott, since it was destructive. I felt called upon to explain why I thought the boycott was morally justified.” Such a boycott has been applied before in the case of South Africa to end apartheid, and it proved to be effective. Even Israeli academics like Prof. Illan Pappe have called for such a measure–stating that there must be consequences to the Israeli oppression and dispossession of the native population.
One seldom thinks about the consequences for someone in writing or expressing their views. We take it for granted that there is freedom of speech, and that a writer need not fear for their life, safety or livelihood. In the case of Prof. Alam, a smear campaign was set in full swing after the publication in Al Ahram. The first salvo was an article in the Jerusalem Post , a newspaper owned by Conrad Black, an ardent Zionist, and owner of the Daily Telegraph of London. The JP article completely altered the thrust of Prof. Alam’s argument; the first sentence read: “An economics professor at Boston’s Northeastern University has justified Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israel.” The thrust of his article, a call for a boycott, a peaceful means to protest, was distorted into a support for violence and the suicide bombers. The article ended with a reference to a course Prof. Alam will teach in the fall. So first there is a smear, a lie, and then a none too subtle suggestion to some readers of a way that Prof. Alam could be harassed.
The second salvo in the campaign came in the form of articles by different American newspapers regurgitating the Jerusalem Post interpretation of Prof. Alam’s article. The Boston Herald’s version : “Prof. shocks Northeastern with defense of suicide bombers.” Two things are evident: the author, Ed Hayward, didn’t read (or chose to ignore) Alam’s original article, and didn’t bother to contact the author directly. His statement: “Attempts to reach him by phone and e-mail were unsuccessful yesterday” is false. Prof. Alam has stated that he replied by email, suggested that the author read the original article, and made himself available for further questions. Mr. Hayward based his article entirely on the Jerusalem Post’s scurrilous version of Prof. Alam’s article. He then added a few quotes of one Northeastern Univ. faculty replying to a question about “Prof. Alam’s defense of suicide bombers.” The answers elicited have more to do with character assassination than reporting on an important debate among many academics. (Repeated attempts to reach Mr. Hayward by email elicited only a “no comment” reply.)
The requests for interviews and comment poured in at the same time suggesting an orchestrated campaign. To top off the requests for interviews came the “O’Reilly Factor”–a sensationalist current affairs program– the program responsible for slandering Prof. Sami Al-Arian, a professor at Univ. of Florida. Prof. Alam wisely turned down the request.
This tactic of initiating the smearing campaigns in Israel has everything to do with undermining the legal protection a libeled person should have in the US. It becomes very costly to prosecute an Israeli newspaper, and the legal outcomes in Israeli courts will likely favor the Israeli newspaper. Therefore, it is convenient for the smears to start there. Thereafter the smear campaigners can regurgitate the libelous statements without much fear–they can always state that they quoted a “respected Israeli newspaper.”
The third salvo in the smear campaign was an email sent by an impostor claiming to be a Prof. Alam and using his very email address. This new form of cyber-smearing is called “email-spoofing.” The email first emphasized that Prof. Alam is a Moslem, and then proceeded to attribute anti-Semitic remarks to him. Grammatical mistakes were rampant in the document–perhaps another way to taint Prof. Alam. These sentences convey the gist of the impostor’s message: “I will not remain silent while Jews in Israel use Palestinian blood as wine. I, will not remain silent while my Moslem brothers and sisters are being raped, murdered, and beaten to death by a government that claims to conduct itself according to ‘Jewish values.’ No kidding.” The email was sent to 52 faculty members at Northeastern Univ., the entire Economics Dept., and to several dozen media related addresses.
The modern world affords many new threats to freedom of speech; one of them is the “hate website”. In the context of the Middle East conflict, there are several Zionist websites listing people and making intimidating comments or veiled threats. Sam Bahour, an American-Palestinian living in Ramallah, uses the enforced “spare” time due to the recurrent curfews to write about the Palestinian condition. His articles clearly show what it means to live under occupation, and the articles are widely distributed by sympathizers. His popularity has attracted the attention of various hate websites, e.g., Jewish Watch Dog (Canadian based website).
Although appearing on such a website could frighten some, Sam Bahour hasn’t been fazed. His reaction was: “Upon seeing myself listed on this right-wing Jewish Watch Dog site, I chuckled in satisfaction. If my efforts, from my computer chair at home, under curfew, under occupation, have ruffled their feathers, then we are absolutely on our way to freedom. Why? Because thousands of other Palestinians have sacrificed much more than their time and pen […] So if one man’s pen gets him the honor of being “a most dangerous person” then I accept this as a token of my modest efforts to tell the world enough is enough – end the occupation now!”
Topping the list of the hate groups is Dr. Hanan Ashrawi, an eloquent Palestinian spokesperson who resigned from the Palestinian Authority some years ago. During her recent US university speaking tour bodyguards were necessary to safeguard her safety given the visibly hostile reception by Zionist and extreme Christian groups. These same people interrupted her speech, and intimidated others in the audience.
Another disturbing development is campus-watch.org, a website compiling “black lists” of faculty at US campuses whom it considers biased, and compiling “dossiers” on them. Not surprisingly, this website is yet another creation of Daniel Pipes, an ardent Zionist pundit. The website employs McCarthy-ite tactics that do not promote academic freedom or open debate. In an open and democratic society, academic debate is advanced by the force of argument, and not by sinister slander or veiled threats. “We are watching you,” isn’t the behavior expected in US academia. Or as Prof. Alam, one of those targeted, put it, “I see it as a serious challenge, indeed, an affront, to academic freedom and freedom of speech in United States. By creating a dossier on professors who have written critically about Israel, they are inviting their colleagues and students to spy on them and perhaps harass them. What would happen to academic freedom if every group in this country did the same?”
Since the names of the eight professors appeared on the Campus Watch their email accounts have been attacked by spammers, i.e., computer hackers sending thousands of huge files, obnoxious emails, and fraudulent business offers. These people have rendered inoperable the targeted professors’ email communications. In the words of Prof. Alam: “Since this morning [Sept. 23, 02], the eight professors on the campus-watch.org are being spammed and spoofed. First came the spams (thousands) from several sources. When this stopped, there followed spam combined with spoofs– emails supposedly originating from the seven [other professors] on the CW site.”
At UMIST (University Manchester Institute of Science and Technology) in the UK, Prof. Mona Baker attracted the ire of the Zionist groups when she acted on the call to boycott Israeli academic institutions. She dissociated the journal she edits from the Israeli scholars who were previously on the board on a pro bono basis, as representatives of Israeli institutions. Thus, no economic hardship ensued–it was only a symbolic statement of disapproval of the Israeli occupation and an expression of her rejection of the ‘business as usual’ mode given the level of atrocities being committed by Israel. Her courageous stance unleashed a wave of hateful emails directed at her personally, and a wave of protest against the university. There was no discussion–just ad hominem attacks–her stance was branded either anti-Semitic or stupid. The calls for this inquisition came from, among others, the Union of Jewish Students . Predictably, pro-Israeli academics in the US and Canada (including the Canadian Association of Academic Freedom) joined the bandwagon of protests. Even well known academics joined the clamor to shout down Mona’s call, and behaved in a most “non-academic” fashion by e.g., demanding her dismissal.
These groups were making an example of Dr. Baker to frighten off any other academics seeking to take a principled stance–they didn’t want her symbolic act to set a precedent. Never did a small journal devoted to Translation Studies and circulated to less than one thousand academics garner so much (unwelcome) attention.
The Internet has provided new means for these hate groups to intimidate those raising their voices. As this author can attest, there have been attempts to hack into his own computer, having received numerous virus-infected emails, fraudulent business offers, and huge files to disrupt email service. It is also disconcerting to receive sympathetic emails, and when one replies to such an email, to find the subsequent reply to be seriously hostile. There is an attempt to make writers suspicious of any email they receive–and an attempt to eliminate further dialogue on whatever issue. Also, there may be also attempts to trace the email account of the hounded authors.
Another dirty trick used by these people is to enter web forums dealing with the situation in Palestine, submit awful remarks attributed to the victimized person–another type of spoofing. It is baffling to receive dozens of irate emails from people responding to the impostor’s remarks–that always contain the victim’s email address or telephone number.
It is annoying to receive unambiguous death threats and then find no way to identify the person, have their email privileges revoked, let alone to prosecute the person. Thus, queries to the ISP are referred to the police, and these in turn will send the query back to the ISP. The situation is worse if the threatened author resides overseas. A Palestinian writer, a resident of the Occupied Territories, recently received several serious email death threats (including his home address), and upon complaining to the US-based ISP, he received a suggestion that the matter should be followed up with the local authority. The address given to him was an Israeli agency.
Finally, we also have witnessed the ultimate threat to freedom of speech, the assassination. Alex Odeh, the regional director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, led a campaign to inform the American public of the massive no-strings-attached economic and military aid to Israel. His activities provoked JDL terrorists to murder him in 1985.
It seems that the “smear mongers” go to extraordinary lengths to silence their opponents. If their cause had any merit, then their best approach would be to engage in a frank and honest debate. Their illicit acts instead indicate that they are fighting a rear-guard action in a lost cause that relies on lies and smears to keep people from having a critical discussion. Among the most dangerous acts are those that suppress discussion about what Israel is doing, its history, and the fact the US bankrolls its existence, thereby heaping the wrath of the people in the area upon itself. One only wonders to which extreme these people will go to stem the rising clamor for justice.
Readers of this magazine know that the influence of pro-Israeli groups has undermined democracy in the US. Huge financial resources recently targeted and subsequently unseated
Congresspersons Hilliard and McKinney–pro-Israeli money determined the outcome, and brought the nature of America’s democracy into question. The smear campaign by pro-Israeli groups now threatens other cherished aspects of American society: free speech and academic freedom. These threats diminish the US, and they help perpetuate injustice around the world–the massive injustice perpetrated against Palestinians foremost among them.