Academic freedom and Middle East Tensions Flare Again in U.S.





The academic year in the United States is opening with flare-ups of tensions over the Middle East, and specifically over scholars who write critically of Israel.

On Tuesday, the Middle East Studies Association released two letters protesting what the group considers to be serious violations of academic freedom. One concerns Norman Finkelstein, the DePaul University political scientist who was denied tenure in June and who has since been placed on a paid leave, with his classes called off and his office shut down. The other concerns the decision by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs to call off a lecture by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, two scholars who have written a book that is harshly critical of the influence of Israel and its supporters on U.S. foreign policy.

Today, Finkelstein is expected to stage a protest over his situation by teaching the class that the university canceled and then going to his old office, from which he has been barred. Finkelstein has vowed to enter the office, even if that gets him arrested, in which case he says he will go on a hunger strike. (Update: On Wednesday, Finkelstein and the university announced a settlement. Details will appear tomorrow on this site.)

Meanwhile, at Barnard College, a tenure case that has been attracting attention since last fall is getting more intense (at least among those outside the college). Competing Web sites offer analyses of the work of Nadia Abu El-Haj, an anthropologist whose book that criticizes the use of archaeology by Israel has been praised by some and panned by others. A critic’s column this week that suggested that El-Haj’s status as a Palestinian was an important area of inquiry is being cited by Middle Eastern studies scholars as a sign of how ugly some of the debates have become.

In all the cases, there are claims and counterclaims. And the Middle East has of course long been a source of debate on American campuses. But to people with a range of views on the issues, it seems that this academic year is starting off with these disputes as tense as ever, with enough flashpoints to assure numerous conflicts.


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