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Middle East Studies Association says University of Arkansas is failing to 'defend its faculty'


The Middle East Studies Association recently sent a letter to the administration at the University of Arkansas that said they were concerned by their “failure to uphold academic freedom.” Zachary Lockman is a professor of modern Middle East history at New York University and the chair of the Committee on Academic Freedom for MESA in North America. He said that unfortunately, the letter that was sent to the University of Arkansas is similar to letters he has sent to many universities since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7th.

Zachary Lockman: There's been a massive escalation in doxing and attacks on faculty, sometimes by other faculty, but largely by outside organizations who — as we see it — are trying to silence the expression of certain perspectives, generally perspectives critical of Israel. This seems to be a pretty organized campaign, and well supported and well funded by outside groups. To what extent it's coordinated I don't know. In this particular case, because of criticism from within perhaps from without canceled the panel back in November. The University of Arkansas has some excellent scholars in the Middle East, people who've been doing this for decades. They're eminently qualified to offer their expertise through a discussion of what's going on, and why and where things are going. Because of complaints by — apparently some faculty — they cancel this. And then beyond that, at least one member of the University of Arkansas faculty has been — in some nasty ways — attacking other faculty members. Now, he has the right to free speech he can say whatever he wants, of course, and we're not for a moment suggesting that the university suppress his right to free speech. But it does say that it's committed to civil discourse among its faculty. And more broadly, when faculty members are being attacked, I think universities have a responsibility to speak up without negating the right of those who are criticizing them to exercise their free speech to say people are being defamed. They're being accused of some really nasty things including antisemitism, which is a serious allegation to make, and especially if what is really going on is people are weaponizing that allegation in order to silence criticism of Israel and I think that's been happening all over the country, unfortunately, especially in the last months, people are being accused of antisemitism, when really what they've done is insane things critical of Israel, and that's a very dangerous set of things to conflate.

Matthew Moore: In your letter, you say that there's a failure to defend its faculty. From your vantage point, what do you see as an appropriate response that a university should take if these sorts of allegations are happening? Do you have any examples of universities who were taking appropriate action in your view?

ZL: Well, many universities have paid lip service to academic freedom and freedom of speech, but most of them unfortunately, are running scared in this period. And despite their avowed commitment to academic freedom and free speech, they've been very hesitant to defend their faculty and unfortunately, the University of Arkansas is no different. Again, we're not calling on the university to take sides about this to express any opinion about what's going on in Gaza, or about what it thinks about criticism of Israel. But if members of its faculty and the Center for Middle East studies — which is an academic unit of the university — are being accused of antisemitism or being accused of support for terrorism, whether by a faculty member or by anybody else, you know, the university should, I think, say, ‘Everyone in the United States is entitled to free speech, they can say what they want, but the university wants to protect its faculty and and feels that it's factually should not be subjected to baseless accusations’ and simply leave it at that but unfortunately, that hasn't been happening.

MM: In 2017, a law was passed in Arkansas, and it's a law that we saw in a lot of states around this time that is informally known as an anti BDS law, which is a Boycott, Divestment and Sanction law, which essentially says that any entity who wants to do business with the state of Arkansas and by proxy, the University of Arkansas, they have to sign a pledge that they are not to boycott Israel or its settlements. Do you imagine that this sort of law that is in place in Arkansas, along with dozens of other states across the US are impacting the decisions that school administrations are making?

ZL: I think it's this law and the other laws, as you said, which have been enacted by legislatures at the state level, sometimes and local levels are very dangerous. Personally, I can't see how they're not unconstitutional. The courts have rendered mixed verdicts on that in some cases, they've been found unconstitutional. In other cases, they've been upheld. They're basically saying that that people can choose to boycott any country, in principle, to express their political views their dissatisfaction with the policies of that government. They're singling out Israel to protect it from advocacy of a boycott of Israeli goods or things made on Israeli settlements, which in the opinion of the US government are illegal.

This kind of thing is I think very much part of the campaign to silence critics of Israel, who should be just as free to express their disagreement with Israeli policies as people who support Israel. We should have free and open debate about this, especially at universities. But at this moment, again, especially since October 7. Universities are running scared, they're very afraid that their donors will go after them and withhold funding. We've seen many instances of this at universities across the country. They're afraid of their state legislatures, which for public universities like the University of Arkansas have a lot of power and have signed on to this agenda of the Israeli Right. And unfortunately, of segments of the Jewish community in the United States who feel I think that they've lost the battle or sympathy and support on campuses, and therefore they're trying to suppress speech.

Again, whether by doxing, whether by enacting these kinds of anti-BDS legislation. In Florida by trying to criminalize student organizations that are advocating for Palestinian rights, a whole set of things which to my mind is deeply contrary to the mission of our colleges and universities, which are to encourage open, rational discussion of all issues.

This is an issue people disagree about, [including] Jews and non-Jews. I'm Jewish myself. I think people should discuss these things. And we should hear the voices of people who've spent long careers studying these things. That doesn't mean that one has to agree with them. Like we should have more panel discussions, more teachings, more discussion of all these issues, rather than acquiesces as university administrations are doing a fair amount of in efforts to shut down certain perspectives and thereby favor other perspectives.

MM: We're more than five months into this conflict now. Have we seen any sort of shift in tone from universities from your perspective? Have you seen any sort of whether it's more favorable towards Israel or more sympathetic towards Gaza and Palestine, have you seen any sort of shift in tone from universities writ large?

Well, it depends what you mean by universities. There are students and faculty and there are administrations, and they all operate very differently. You know, the administration's began issuing statements condemning the Hamas attacks of October 7. From my point of view, war crimes were committed, sexual violence. This is not a happy event to put it mildly. Some terrible things happened. The initial statements tended to try to reassure Jewish students, and then some of them remembered they also have Muslim students and Palestinian and other Arab students. So, they’d issue other statements. It was a very incoherent and not very effective response. Some people have made the argument that universities and colleges in this country should just not issued statements altogether. That's a that's another set of issues.

I think, by and large, if you look at faculty and students, even if there was a lot of shock and disapproval of what happened on October 7, the massive Israeli military responses has had a huge effect. And there's been very large and unprecedented mobilization of students and faculty as well to criticize the Israeli government, and also to express unhappiness with the policy of the Biden administration. And worse is possibly yet to come. This population is on the on the edge of starvation. It's already begun to set in.

My sense is there's a lot of deep anger and distress about what's going on in Gaza and the policy of the Biden administration. Many university administrations are trying to contain this. Their response is, ‘let's bury our heads in the sand, let's not talk about this, because if we allow an open discussion with all viewpoints reflected, some of our donors, our Board members, state legislatures, will be unhappy.’

Criticism of Israel is systematically conflated with antisemitism. There's the faculty member who is accusing several fellow faculty members at the university and the Center for Middle East studies of advocating antisemitism. I don't think there's any evidence that any of these faculty members ever said anything antisemitic, they may have expressed criticism of Israel and specifically today of Israel's war in Gaza. That's not antisemitism. There are a lot of Jewish faculty and Jewish students out there also critical of Israel, are they anti Semites? Makes no sense.

But this allegation, which is a very powerful allegation, and of course, we all want to fight antisemitism and racism and Islamophobia, that needs to be done. But it's dangerous than to treat any criticism of Israel or Zionism as a political ideology as antisemitic. And there's been a lot of that going on and it's extremely dangerous.

MM: Reporting from NPR on February 29 says that Gaza is health ministry said that the number of Palestinians killed in the war has surpassed 30,000. At this point, do you think that the tenor of this conversation has changed over the last five months when we look at this was an attack on Israel to now we've seen more than 30,000 people who have been counted as dead in Gaza?

ZL: I think it's definitely shifted. There was a lot of sympathy for Israel early on, or at least a lot of understanding of the shock Israelis had experienced with some numbers now over 1,100 killed — most of them civilians. To my mind, killing civilians is never okay. Doesn't matter if they're Israelis or Palestinians. October 7, involved some war crimes, involved some horrific things. Israel's response, I think, was massively disproportionate and it's pretty clear the Israeli military no longer cares about killing civilians.

As somebody who's studied the Middle East and written a lot about the Israeli Palestinian conflict, it's a delusion that they're going to dismantle Hamas, it was always a delusion. I think some Israelis have come to understand that. Pursuing this war means that the hostages remaining will never come back alive. And a lot of Israelis are in the streets protesting against their own government, because it's pursuing this war at the cost of those hostages.

And more broadly, this kind of military operation has killed many tens of thousands of Palestinians wounded hundreds of thousands and devastated Gaza. It's reduced most of Gaza rubble and created a massive refugee and humanitarian problem, again, facilitated by the United States. I think it's a generational shift in part, it affects different segments of the American population differently, but there's much greater sympathy for the Palestinians today than there ever was.

MM: At the end of the letter you write, “We therefore call upon you, the University of Arkansas, to publicly denounce the defamation of the professors involved, and to vigorously and publicly reiterate your commitment to defend the right to free speech and academic freedom of all University of Arkansas faculty, students and staff. We further call on you to actively foster an atmosphere of free academic inquiry and discussion on your campus including with regard to the Israeli Palestinian conflict.” Does that feel attainable?

ZL: Well, I'm not in a position to judge, since I'm not there on campus. I suspect it's not something that the university's administration will respond to positively in the short term. But we see our job is to call on colleges and universities to live up to their avowed commitments and the policies they have on paper. They talk a lot about academic freedom. They talk a lot about free speech and the mission of the university to foster open discussion. Our colleges and universities are some of the few places in the United States where you can have serious discussions about complicated difficult issues, including the Israeli Palestinian conflict, about which people have very strong and contradictory and conflicting feelings. The universities say this is our mission. And we're simply saying ‘Okay, live up to your mission.’

Zachary Lockman is a professor of modern Middle East history at New York Univeristy and a chair of the Middle East Studies Association. We spoke over Zoom last week. Ozarks at Large reached out to the University of Arkansas multiple times requesting an interview or a statement regarding the letter. They did not respond to our requests.

Ozarks at Large transcripts are created on a rush deadline by reporters. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of KUAF programming is the audio record.

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Matthew Moore is senior producer for Ozarks at Large.
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