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Academic Freedom Under Fire As Gaza Burns

Above photo: Pro-Israel rally at Stanford University in California on Oct. 10. Kefr4000, Wikimedia Commons.

As Israel resumed its bombing campaign, now focusing on southern Gaza, the push to hold back the growing tide of disgust is intensifying.

Academic freedom and freedom of expression on university campuses across the Anglosphere have continued to come under attack in the past week with Israeli lobbyists conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.

As Israel resumed its bombing campaign, now focusing on southern Gaza, the push to hold back the growing tide of disgust is intensifying, as the official Palestinian death toll in the strip nears 16,000.

On Tuesday, the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are being hauled before a U.S. congressional committee to face accusations that protests on their campuses were anti-Semitic in nature.

The hearing, named Holding Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism, will see MIT’s Sally Kornbluth, Harvard’s Claudine Gay and Penn’s Liz Magill face the House Education and Workforce Committee, chaired by  North Carolina, Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx.

In a statement introducing the hearing, Foxx claimed there had been “countless examples of antisemitic demonstrations on college campuses” and that college administrators had “largely stood by, allowing horrific rhetoric to fester and grow.”

The move comes after New York’s Columbia University last month suspended Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) after a task force found the groups violated university policies by facilitating “threatening rhetoric and intimidation.”

Last month, the U.S. Department of Education’s office for civil rights launched an inquiry into possible ancestry or ethnic discrimination at several universities, at least five alleging anti-Semitic harassment.

While student protesters cry out for the end of an active genocide of Palestinians, Harvard has come under attack from alumni, including Utah Senator Mitt Romney, for supposedly not doing enough to keep Jewish students “safe.”  Donors to Harvard have signaled that their funding is at risk of being pulled.

Academic freedoms were already at risk before Israel’s current attack on Gaza. Earlier this year Israeli consul for public diplomacy in New York, Yuval Donio-Gideon, objected to Bard College’s Apartheid in Israel-Palestine course on the grounds it breached the highly-contested International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism.

The course, designed and taught by Jewish American writer and researcher Nathan Thrall, explores the apartheid practices of the Zionist state. Bard’s decision to defend it provoked a concerted campaign and threats to withdraw funding from donors, including property developer Robert Epstein, who resigned from Bard’s board of trustees.

The Israel lobby’s attempts to marginalise academics and stifle academic freedoms have been mirrored elsewhere in English-speaking countries.

From UK To New Zealand

In one of the more striking examples, U.K. Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology Michelle Donelan, at the end of October, published an open letter to U.K. Research and Innovation (UKRI), an independent, public- funding body that directs academic research.

In it Donelan attacked a number of academics the body had appointed, pointing to their “extremist views on social media,” which she said included references to genocide and apartheid.

The UKRI immediately launched an investigation, promising “swift and robust action.”

Over 3,000 academics countered by signing an open letter to the UKRI pointing to “the current wave of repression and attempts at censorship led by the government against lawful expressions of solidarity with Palestinians and criticisms of the Israeli military’s heavy bombardment of the Gaza Strip since 7 October.”

In New Zealand, these ad hominem attacks on scholars are being carried out by individual Zionist entities without media scrutiny. Several academics critical of Israel have had their work mischaracterized as anti-Semitic or extremist in nature and their universities contacted.

In October, a complaint was made against senior lecturer Phillip Borell at the University of Canterbury after a student approached Zionist lobby group Israeli Institute of NZ (IINZ) over the content of his lectures.

Borell had drawn historical parallels between the experience of indigenous M?ori and Palestinians subject to colonial domination and theft of land.

It was claimed Borell characterised Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel army bases and settlements on Oct. 7 as actions of people who had “been marginalised and oppressed for approximately 80 years fighting back.”

That attack left approximately 1,200 dead, according to Israel officials, including approximately 400 soldiers and police. The circumstances of that day are still being investigated amid revelations that the Israel Defence Force killed scores of Hamas fighters as well as Israelis on that day.

The IINZ complained to Borell’s university and that the scholar’s lecture recordings were requested for further scrutiny under an Official Information Act (OIA) request.

IINZ Co-Director David Cumin expressed his opinion in local media that Borell’s comments justified the deaths, as opposed to offering commentary on the dynamics of colonial violence and counter-violence.

Others have been targeted. Canterbury University’s Associate Professor of Political Science & International Relations Jeremy Moses has been repeatedly attacked online since attending a Christchurch Palestinian solidarity rally in October.

“I’ve always been wary about teaching or researching on Israel/Palestine politics because I’d seen how divisive it was back when I was studying in Australia 25 years ago,” he told Consortium News.

“But sometimes you have to be prepared to wade into the murk, particularly when your own government is hypocritically silent.”

Nevertheless, Moses said he was taken aback by the reaction he received after posting a photo of the event. This included the IINZ tagging his employer in several of its X (Twitter) posts, one accusing him of fueling hate speech for using the word “genocide.”

In another post, the IINZ asked: “Do you give your students the truth at all? Do you fail them if they disagree with your amoral and reckless rhetoric?”

The organisation said it would be seeking to inspect recordings of his lectures.

Moses said he could see why many colleagues preferred to remain silent on Palestine, as the type of attention speaking on the subject drew had a chilling effect on public discourse.

He told CN:

That the Israel Institute thought it could intimidate me by tagging in my employer and demanding information about my lecture content was certainly eye-opening and I can understand why many colleagues would not want to draw this kind of attention to themselves.

It becomes easier and less stressful to just stay silent, regardless of how angry you may feel about the atrocities we’re all witnessing. But as someone who has researched and published extensively on pacifist and anti-war politics, I found it offensive and just plain wrong to be typecast as a ‘reckless, false, grotesque, inflammatory, and amoral’ supporter of terrorism.

This brand of anti-terrorist rhetoric has been deployed to justify war and silence criticism of war for several decades now.  We’ve seen academic critics of Israel subjected to these kinds of malicious, public attacks for many years in other parts of the world, but it’s sad to see that happening now in New Zealand, when public action for peace is more needed than ever.

At the beginning of November, Josephine Varghese, a Canterbury University human services lecturer, was smeared with an anti-Semitism charge by Zionist commentators online after she wrote an article for a news platform urging the New Zealand government to call for a Gaza ceasefire and peace process.

Varghese told Consortium News the “purposeful mischaracterizations” of her work aimed to distract the public from the horrors Palestinians were currently facing in the occupied West Bank and in Gaza.

She said the persistent slanders aimed at academics, activists and students supporting the rights of Palestinians was also an attack on academic freedom, an important cornerstone of education and scholarship.

“As an academic I welcome and support robust debate. However, debate should be in good faith and should not aim to silence people by threatening their livelihoods and creating an environment where we are in fear of speaking publicly. Personal attacks that simply seek to denigrate character do not foster a free-thinking academic environment,” she said.

Varghese said academics had a responsibility to engage in public discourse, especially around key geopolitical events like the situation in Gaza and the role of Western governments, led by the United States. She said:

A state backed by the biggest military power in the history of humankind is not above criticism. As social scientists and scholars studying imperialism, it is our job to observe carefully and analyse U.S. foreign policy, which has been a source of so many avoidable conflicts, wars, coups and interventions globally.

Consortium News contacted the Israeli Institute’s Co-Director Cumin for comment but he declined to answer questions.

The IINZ has a history of confronting academics and in many cases accusing them of extremism.

In March 2019, Cumin wrote a piece on the IINZ website accusing Auckland University Professor Nicholas Rowe of affiliating with a terrorist group. He also pointed to an Israel Academia Monitor report that “outed” Otago’s Professor Richard Jackson as “a self-identified terror sympathiser” and had “identified a number of concerning PhD topics.”

In the same piece, Cumin also attacked Professor Mohan J Dutta, University of Massey’s dean’s chair in communication,  for supporting a supposed anti-Semitic tweet by U.S. Congresswoman Ilan Omar.

Indian-born Dutta has faced renewed attacks over the past five weeks for his own “decolonisation” critiques on Israel. He took to X on Nov. 5 to state his opinion that the IINZ and other Zionists were targeting his writings as “part of a global far-right attack on academic freedom of those of us speaking out against Zionist settler colonialism.”

In an earlier blog post on Oct. 23 Dutta documented the personal abuse he said he was receiving. Describing one incident, Dutta wrote: “At 3:32pm, my office phone rang. I was occupied and the call went to the voicemail. “Dutta, you are a murderous, f***ing, racist c***. Go back to where you belong… I will see to your termination in New Zealand.”

Dutta told Consortium News Zionists had been strategically mis-framing his writings on decolonisation as support for terrorism.

“This strategy is a mixture of Zionist attacks on academic freedom globally through right-wing infrastructures such as Canary Mission and a broader far-right attack on decolonisation scholarship,” he said.

Although debunking Zionist propaganda was straightforward, repetition of false statements had serious consequences, he added.

“The lies have led to targeted racist attacks that mis-identify me as Muslim, threaten to deport me back to ‘where I came from,’ and mobilisations to get me fired from my job at Massey.”

Dutta pointed out academic freedom was enshrined in New Zealand’s law and said academics were pushing back.  He said:

The genocidal atrocities being perpetrated by apartheid Israel are being challenged by academics and the labelling of criticisms of Israeli atrocities as antisemitism is being debunked on a global scale.

The voices of Palestinian accounts on digital infrastructures witnessing the large-scale violence perpetrated by Israel are disrupting and dismantling the propaganda infrastructure that has been assembled by Israel.

Christian Zionism at Work

Pointing to the Christian Zionist presence in New Zealand, co-founder of the country’s Alternative Jewish Voice, Marilyn Garson, said the IINZ had a majority-Christian composition dedicated to a secular political project. Garson, a practicing Jew who lived in Gaza for four years, was concerned local Jewish groups had allowed a perception to develop that it spoke for her community.

“People should understand that the IINZ is not a Jewish entity,” she told Consortium News. She said:

Two-thirds of its directors are Christian, and they all overlap with right-wing, secular lobbying in New Zealand. They have a local project underway and they have harnessed Zionism to that project. They have been eagerly importing the racialised language of Israel’s war and attaching that to racial fear here.

Those actions have implications for the individuals they target, of course, and also for any sense of social cohesion in our communities.

I cannot understand why our Jewish institutions are silent. They are allowing the community to be — apparently — spoken for this way without objection and thus to be drawn into race-baiting of the worst kind. Jewish institutional silence permits the most radical purveyors of outright hate to claim the name of my community.

For years, Zionism has been trying to wrap Jews up in Israel, to make it difficult or impossible for open-minded people to understand that Jewishness is not Zionism. Well, now Israel’s government is making clear statements of genocidal intent and they are carpet-bombing and starving civilians.

One local side effect of that long Zionist project is that Jewishness is being blamed. Even as we fight like hell to save lives in Gaza, we’ve also got to ceaselessly undo that religious and ethnic damage: Judaism is an ancient and beautiful religion. Zionism is a modern nationalism and an increasingly Christian political lobby.

Christian Zionism has a much more significant presence in the wider Pacific region.

In October, the majority of Pacific-island nations voted against a non-binding U.N. resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Although nations like the Marshall Islands and Palau have sovereignty-annulling “compact of free association” agreements with the U.S. and are effectively expected to vote with the U.S. as a quid pro-quo for financial aid packages, others like Tonga and Fiji voted against the motion partly due to Christian Zionist ideological leanings.

Professor Steven Ratuva, director of the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies,  told Consortium News religious groups within the Pacific nations had been “energised” by evangelicalism’s political expression in the U.S.

“They all have had their links with Israel over the years and one of the driving forces behind it is the growth of evangelical religion, exacerbated by the election of (Donald) Trump and a wave of evangelical movements in the United States,” he said.

Mick Hall is an independent journalist based in New Zealand. He is a former digital journalist at Radio New Zealand (RNZ) and former Australian Associated Press (AAP) staffer, having also written investigative stories for various newspapers, including the New Zealand Herald.

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