May 22, 2009
Investigation of sociology professor is frontline in nationwide campaign to silence criticism against Israel on college campuses
SANTA BARBARA, Calif. — Noam Chomsky is no newcomer to harassment by pro-Israel organizations.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) once compiled a 150-page dossier on the famous author and linguistics professor, apparently to find information it could use against him, Chomsky said in an interview in late April.
An ADL insider sent Chomsky the file, which included conversations, correspondence and other materials. Chomsky said it read like an FBI file.
“It’s hard to nail this stuff down in a court of law, but it’s clear they essentially have spies in classrooms who take notes and send them to the ADL and other organizations,” Chomsky said. “The groups then compile dossiers they can use to condemn, attack or remove faculty members. They’re like J. Edgar Hoover’s files. It’s kind of gutter stuff.”
Such covert tactics have yet to emerge publicly at the University of California at Santa Barbara. But the effort to discredit and censor criticism of Israeli policies has taken a potentially ominous turn.
The ADL and the Israel advocacy group “Stand With Us” are leading an aggressive, direct campaign to pressure UCSB administrators and faculty to investigate and discipline sociology professor William I. Robinson for having introduced materials critical of Israel in a course on global affairs.
The materials included a photo essay that Robinson forwarded to students from the Internet juxtaposing images of Israeli abuse against Palestinians with Nazi abuses during the holocaust. Two students took offense at the images and withdrew from the course, prompting the ADL to pressure the university to pursue charges of “anti-Semitism” against Robinson.
The pressure campaign includes face-to-face meetings with university officials and faculty, use of Internet-based media to influence public opinion, and a formidable letter-writing effort that relies particularly on UCSB donors, some of whom have threatened to withdraw their support for the university.
Some meetings — such as an hour-long encounter between ADL National Director Abraham Foxman and UCSB officials and faculty — may have seriously violated university policies. The Foxman meeting generated concern that pressure by the Israel lobby may have influenced the Academic Senate in its decision to open a formal investigation against Robinson.
Other meetings are only now coming to light.
Aaron Ettenberg, a UCSB psychology professor and member of the Academic Senate’s Charges Advisory Committee, has confirmed that he met with Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer prior to the committee’s recommendation to investigate Robinson.
Gross-Schaefer is interim director of the local chapter of Hillel, an organization that works with Jewish communities on college campuses. Hillel met with the two students who withdrew from Robinson’s class before those students filed their grievances against Robinson.
Both Gross-Schaefer and Ettenberg told Anthony Fenton — a reporter based in Vancouver who writes for the “Asia Times Online” and “The Dominion” of Canada — that they had met and discussed the Robinson case.
“I really didn’t discuss that with him very much,” Gross-Schaefer told Fenton in a telephone interview. “We see each other socially, it wasn’t any meeting or anything in particular…It wasn’t…set up to discuss that at all actually.”
Ettenberg told Fenton he is “just friends” with Gross Schaefer.
“I can’t say anything at this point,” he said. “I didn’t have a meeting with him formally to discuss any of these kinds of things.”
Whether formal or not, that they met and discussed the Robinson case may constitute a serious breach of Academic Senate procedures for dealing with student complaints.
In a public statement on May 4, Robert Potter — professor emeritus of the Department of Theater and Dance and former chair of the Academic Senate Committee on Privilege and Tenure — expressed deep concern about the “campaign of accusations” against Robinson.
“This orchestrated attempt by outside agencies to pressure the university into disciplining a faculty member over the content of a course is an entirely improper attack on academic freedom,” Potter said. “The campus community should express concern over this very troubling sequence of events.”
Members of the California Scholars for Academic Freedom, which includes nearly 140 academics at 20 institutions, say the campaign at UCSB reflects a major escalation by the Israel lobby to silence criticism at universities in California and elsewhere.
Mark Levine, a Jewish professor of Middle Eastern Studies at UC-Irvine, said pro-Israel groups have, in effect, created a “large machine” to attack Israel critics on college campuses.
“That’s why this case is so important,” Levine said. “These are powerful, organized groups in the Jewish community who use fear and intimidation to try to make sure Israel doesn’t get criticized. They go after anyone, even more so when the critics are Jews, because they fear that if we can criticize them, then everyone can.”
Sondra Hale, a UCLA professor and founder and coordinator of the California Scholars, said the Robinson case stands out because the Israel lobby’s pressure tactics have been so public.
“A lot of incidents at other campuses have been more subtle types of pressure, but this case is very straightforward,” Hale said. “The evidence is right there. It’s very clear cut.”
For detailed information about the Robinson case, visit the Committee to Defend Academic Freedom Web site at www.sb4af.wordpress.com.