When conspiracies are not imagined

February 19, 2009

In News


In January, 1988, I was appointed to the Alger Hiss Chair of Social
Studies at Bard College. As this was a Presidential appointment outside
the tenure system, I have served under a series of contracts. The last
of these was half-time (one semester on, one off, with half salary and
full benefits year-round), effective from July 1, 2004, to June 30,
2009. On February 7 I received a letter from Michèle Dominy, Dean of the
College, informing me that my contract would not be renewed this July 1
and that I would be moved to emeritus status as of that day. She wrote
that this decision was made by President Botstein, Executive
Vice-President Papadimitriou and herself, in consultation with members
of the Faculty Senate.

This document argues that this termination of service is prejudicial and
motivated neither by intellectual nor pedagogic considerations, but by
political values, principally stemming from differences between myself
and the Bard administration on the issue of Zionism. There is of course
much more to my years at Bard than this, including another controversial
subject, my work on ecosocialism (/The Enemy of Nature/). However, the
evidence shows a pattern of conflict over Zionism only too reminiscent
of innumerable instances in this country in which critics of Israel have
been made to pay, often with their careers, for speaking out. In this
instance the process culminated in a deeply flawed evaluation process
which was used to justify my termination from the faculty.

_A brief chronology_

  • 2002. This was the first year I spoke out nationally about Zionism. In
    October, my article, “Zionism’s Bad Conscience,” appeared in /Tikkun/.
    Three or four weeks later, I was called into President Leon Botstein’s
    office, to be told my Hiss Chair was being taken away. Botstein said
    that he had nothing to do with the decision, then gratuitously added
    that it had not been made because of what I had just published about
    Zionism, and hastened to tell me that his views were diametrically
    opposed to mine.
  • 2003. In January I published a second article in /Tikkun/,
    “’Left-Anti-Semitism’ and the Special Status of Israel,” which argued
    for a One-State solution to the dilemmas posed by Zionism. A few weeks
    later, I received a phone call at home from Dean Dominy, who suggested,
    on behalf of Executive Vice-President Dimitri Papadimitriou, that
    perhaps it was time for me to retire from Bard. I declined. The result
    of this was an evaluation of my work and the inception, in 2004, of the
    current half-time contract as “Distinguished Professor.”
  • 2006. I finished a draft of /Overcoming Zionism/. In January, while I
    was on a Fellowship in South Africa, President Botstein conducted a
    concert on campus of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, which he has
    directed since 2003. In a stunning departure from traditional concert
    practice, this began with the playing of the national anthems of the
    United States and Israel, after each of which the audience rose. Except
    for a handful of protestors, the event went unnoticed. I regarded it,
    however, as paradigmatic of the “special relationship” between the
    United States and Israel, one that has conduced to war in Iraq and
    massive human rights violations in Israel/Palestine. In December, I
    organized a public lecture at Bard (with Mazin Qumsiyeh) to call
    attention to this problem. Only one faculty person attended; the rest
    were students and community people; and the issue was never taken up on
  • 2007. /Overcoming Zionism/ was now on the market, arguing for a
    One-State solution (and sharply criticizing, among others, Martin Peretz
    for a scurrilous op-ed piece against Rachel Corrie in the /Los Angeles
    Times/. Peretz is an official in AIPAC’s foreign policy think-tank, and
    at the time a Bard Trustee—though this latter fact was not pointed out
    in the book). In August, /Overcoming Zionism/ was attacked by a watchdog
    Zionist group, StandWithUs/Michigan, which succeeded in pressuring the
    book’s United States distributor, the University of Michigan Press, to
    remove it from circulation. An extraordinary outpouring of support (650
    letters to U of M) succeeded in reversing this frank episode of
    book-burning. I was disturbed, however, by the fact that, with the
    exception of two non-tenure track faculty, there was no support from
    Bard in response to this egregious violation of the speech rights of a
    professor. When I asked President Botstein in an email why this was so,
    he replied that he felt I was doing quite well at taking care of myself.
    This was irrelevant to the obligation of a college to protect its
    faculty from violation of their rights of free expression—all the more
    so, a college such as Bard with a carefully honed reputation as a
    bastion of academic freedom, and which indeed defines such freedom in
    its Faculty Handbook as a “right . . . to search for truth and
    understanding without interference and to disseminate his [sic] findings
    without intimidation.”
  • 2008. Despite some reservations by the faculty, I was able to teach a
    course on Zionism. In my view, and that of most of the students, it was
    carried off successfully. Concurrently with this, another evaluation
    of my work at Bard was underway. Unlike previous evaluations, in 1996
    and 2003, this was unenthusiastic. It was cited by Dean Dominy as
    instrumental in the decision to let me go.

_Irregularities in the Evaluation Process_

The evaluation committee included Professor Bruce Chilton, along with
Professors Mark Lambert and Kyle Gann. Professor Chilton is a member of
the Social Studies division, a distinguished theologian, and the campus’
Protestant chaplain. He is also active in Zionist circles, as chair of
the Episcopal–Jewish Relations Committee in the Episcopal Diocese of New
York, and a member of the Executive Committee of Christians for Fair
Witness on the Middle East. In this capacity he campaigns vigorously
against Protestant efforts to promote divestment and sanctions against
the State of Israel. Professor Chilton is particularly antagonistic to
the Palestinian liberation theology movement, Sabeel, and its leader,
Rev. Naim Ateek, also an Episcopal. This places him on the other side of
the divide from myself, who attended a Sabeel Conference in Birmingham,
MI, in October, 2008, as an invited speaker, where I met Rev. Ateek, and
expressed admiration for his position. It should also be observed that
Professor Chilton was active this past January in supporting Israeli
aggression in Gaza. He may be heard on a national radio program on WABC,
“Religion on the Line,” (January 11, 2009) arguing from the Doctrine of
Just War and claiming that it is anti-Semitic to criticize Israel for
human rights violations—this despite the fact that large numbers of Jews
have been in the forefront of protesting Israeli crimes in Gaza.

Of course, Professor Chilton has the right to his opinion as an academic
and a citizen. Nonetheless, the presence of such a voice on the
committee whose conclusion was instrumental in the decision to remove me
from the Bard faculty is highly dubious. Most definitely, Professor
Chilton should have recused himself from this position. His failure to
do so, combined with the fact that the decision as a whole was made in
context of adversity between myself and the Bard administration, renders
the process of my termination invalid as an instance of what the
College’s Faculty Handbook calls a procedure “designed to evaluate each
faculty member fairly and in good faith.”

I still strove to make my future at Bard the subject of reasonable
negotiation. However, my efforts in this direction were rudely denied by
Dean Dominy’s curt and dismissive letter (at the urging, according to
her, of Vice-President Papadimitriou), which plainly asserted that there
was nothing to talk over and that I was being handed a /fait accompli/.
In view of this I considered myself left with no other option than the
release of this document.

_On the responsibililty of intellectuals_

Bard has effectively crafted for itself an image as a bastion of
progressive thought. Its efforts were crowned with being anointed in
2005 by the /Princeton Review /as the second-most progressive college in
the United States, the journal adding that Bard “puts the ‘liberal’ in
‘liberal arts.'” But “liberal” thought evidently has its limits; and my
work against Zionism has encountered these.

A fundamental principle of mine is that the educator must criticize the
injustices of the world, whether or not this involves him or her in
conflict with the powers that be. The systematic failure of the academy
to do so plays no small role in the perpetuation of injustice and state
violence. In no sphere of political action does this principle apply
more vigorously than with the question of Zionism; and in no country is
this issue more strategically important than in the United States, given
the fact that United States support is necessary for Israel’s behavior.
The worse this behavior, the more strenuous must be the suppression of
criticism. I take the view, then, that Israeli human rights abuses are
deeply engrained in a culture of impunity granted chiefly, though not
exclusively, in the United States—which culture arises from suppression
of debate and open inquiry within those institutions, such as colleges,
whose social role it is to enlighten the public. Therefore, if the world
stands outraged at Israeli aggression in Gaza, it should also be
outraged at institutions in the United States that grant Israel
impunity. In my view, Bard College is one such institution. It has
suppressed critical engagement with Israel and Zionism, and therefore
has enabled abuses such as have occurred and are occurring in Gaza. This
notion is of course, not just descriptive of a place like Bard. It is
also the context within which the critic of such a place and the Zionist
ideology it enables becomes marginalized, and then removed.

For further information:; Joel Kovel, “Overcoming
Impunity,” /The Link/ Jan-March 2009 (

To write the Bard administration:

Leon Botstein

Executive Vice-President
Dimitri Papadimitriou