Israel’s War Against Palestine: Documenting the Military Occupation of Palestinian and Arab Lands

Scholars condemn attack on academic freedom at UC-Santa Barbara

29 April 2009

By Jeb Sprague, – 29 Apr 2009

SANTA BARBARA — Internationally renowned author and linguistics professor Noam Chomsky has added his voice to a campaign by dozens of scholars worldwide to demand that the University of California at Santa Barbara cease its investigation of “anti-Semitism” charges made by the Anti-Defamation League against sociology professor William I. Robinson.

Robinson introduced materials critical of Israeli state policies in a course on globalization in January. They included a photo essay that he forwarded to students from the Internet and that had been circulating in the public realm. The photos compared images of Israeli abuse against Palestinians during the recent military invasion of Gaza with Nazi abuses during the holocaust. Two students took offense at the images and withdrew from the course, prompting the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to demand that the university investigate Robinson for “anti-Semitism.”

Chomsky said that the charges form part of an ongoing campaign of harassment and intimidation by the ADL against all scholarly criticism of the Israeli state.

“There’s been a rash of it around the country,” Chomsky said. “It’s usually confined to harassment, but there are a number of cases where it’s led to denial of tenure or termination of faculty members. I see it myself all the time.”

Chomsky said the case against Robinson is a “complete violation” of academic freedom.

“It’s nobody’s business — especially when we’re talking about organizations outside of the university administration — to try to dictate the content of his course,” Chomsky said. “The course structure is up to the professor.”

Charges of “anti-Semitism” are part of the ADL’s long-standing strategy to equate any criticism of Israel with anti-Jewish bias, Chomsky added.

“They try to label any criticism as anti-Semitic, but they never respond to the criticism itself, because they can’t,” Chomsky said. “Decades ago, the ADL was an authentic and serious organization that defended civic rights, but in the last 40 years it’s become a Stalinist-style organization dedicated to supporting anything Israel does and to destroying all opposition to Israeli policies.”

The charges against Robinson — which the Academic Senate is now formally investigating — spurred an angry backlash on campus. Students formed a Committee to Defend Academic Freedom and created an online blog to coordinate efforts to cease the investigation.

The committee initiated a letter writing campaign on April 20 to demand that university Chancellor Henry Yang intervene to halt proceedings against Robinson. The campaign has so far generated more than 200 letters, among them dozens of outraged responses from scholars in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Wayne State University sociologist David Fasenfest, himself the child of a holocaust survivor, said the accusations appear aimed at blocking Robinson from engaging students in legitimate debate of the Israeli-Palestinian situation.

“We have seen this sort of tactic used time and again, in this country and others, to silence and recast legitimate discussion,” Fasenfest said.

David Peetz, a global and international studies professor at Griffith University in Australia, said there’s no reasonable basis for labeling criticism of the Israeli government as anti-Semitism.

“I am astonished that a university would even consider laying charges of anti-Semitism against one of its faculty on the basis of his or her having criticized, or disseminated criticism of, the Israeli government,” Peetz said. “Do I take it that, if a staff member made similar criticisms of an African leader, he or she would be charged by the university with being racist?”

Professor emeritus Alan Nasser of Evergreen State College in Washington, said it’s a “textbook case” of violations of academic freedom.

“This kind of thing has happened repeatedly: critical comments regarding Israel have been met with well-funded campaigns to denounce the alleged ‘anti-Semite’ and indeed to sever his/her employment at his/her institution,” Nasser said.

Mario Barrera, an ethnic studies professor at UC-Berkeley, said the charges should have been dismissed “out of hand.”

“In my forty years of teaching on five UC campuses, I have never seen a case based on such flimsy evidence and clearly faulty reasoning proceed to a formal hearing,” Barrera said.

UCLA professor Sondra Hale — acting co-chair the Islamic Studies Program and chair of the faculty advisory committee for UCLA’s Center for Near Eastern Studies — warned that UCSB’s actions constitute a form of harassment against all academics.

“Such blatant lack of protection of faculty by its primary governing body (the Academic Senate) can be highly damaging to USCB and to the UC system as a whole,” Hale said.

In fact, the California Scholars for Academic Freedom, which includes more than 100 academics at 20 California institutions, said the group is “deeply disturbed” about the charges against Robinson.

A similar letter was sent by the entire staff of the UK-based scholarly journal Race and Class.

“We are shocked that these charges have been pursued against professor Robinson,” the staff wrote. “It is patently absurd to allege that his circulating of material comparing the Nazis and Israel’s human rights abuses of Palestinians is evidence of anti-Semitism.”

All letters can be viewed in their entirety on the Committee to Defend Academic Freedom blog site at

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