Bard College president-for-life Leon Botstein
Today the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that Bard College’s President-for-life Leon Botstein has closed ranks with other university presidents in opposing the American Studies Association (ASA) vote to boycott Israeli institutions:
Leon Botstein, president of Bard College and a boycott opponent, said calls from alumni to take a stand against the boycott had also played a role. “As an active member of the Jewish community, I recognize that the American Jewish community is disproportionately generous to American higher education,” he said. “For the president of an institution to express his or her solidarity with Israel is welcomed by a very important part of their support base.”
In other words, people like Leon Botstein worry about the “support base” because it is what fills their coffers. How can you fund an endowment if wealthy Jewish alumni threaten to boycott their alma mater?
In an apparent breach with two other prestigious universities, Botstein has refused to break ties with Al Quds University in occupied Palestinian territory. Although Syracuse University and Brandeis University are both opposed to boycotting Israeli institutions, they had no problem breaking ties with Al Quds on grounds far less substantial than those that are fueling the BDS movement. Supposedly, a rally by Islamic Jihad on the East Jerusalem campus of Al Quds was punctuated by Nuremberg type Nazi salutes. Without conducting any serious investigation into the matter, Syracuse and Brandeis abandoned Al Quds. Why would Leon Botstein, an ardent supporter of the state of Israel that now puts forward the demand that the Palestinians recognize it as a “Jewish state”, not follow suit? The explanation for that requires understanding the particular place that Bard occupies in the American academy and the pressure that Botstein would be under to maintain the illusion that he is committed to free speech.
Carolyn Karcher, a Jewish member of the ASA, wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times defending the vote:
On our first day in Bethlehem, my husband and I met a young man who had received a scholarship from George Mason University in Virginia but was not granted an exit visa by the Israeli authorities. Instead of embarking on a promising journey in academia, this young Palestinian had to resign himself to a job selling souvenirs to tourists. We learned that Palestinian students of all ages endure harassment at military checkpoints, frequent school closures, unprovoked arrests, imprisonment and sometimes death at the hands of trigger-happy soldiers.
Within Israel proper, schools are segregated and, following the model of the Jim Crow South, the government allocates significantly less funding to Palestinian schools, which are often overcrowded and understaffed. Palestinian university professors in Gaza rarely receive permission to travel abroad for conferences, those in the West Bank also face difficulties, and international faculty have been prevented from visiting Palestinian universities. These are the true assaults on academic freedom that the ASA resolution addresses.
Here in the U.S., students and faculty who challenge the dominant view of Israel risk baseless accusations of anti-Semitism, arrest, blacklisting or denial of tenure, promotion or academic positions. There are dozens of known incidents and likely hundreds that go unreported.
This is not to speak of far more damaging attacks on Palestinian academic institutions:
Israeli warplanes bombed the Islamic University in the Gaza Strip on Sunday, a significant Hamas cultural symbol, in the latest of a series of aerial attacks in the coastal territory, the Islamist group said.
An Israeli army spokeswoman had no immediate comment on the strike. Witnesses said a series of explosions rocked the Gaza city campus. Israel has killed 298 Palestinians in an aerial offensive since Saturday in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.
–Reuters, December 28, 2008
Apparently Botstein considers the ASA policies to be “clumsy and offensive”. I can’t imagine them being more clumsy and offensive than an IDF missile.
One can certainly understand why powerful figures such as university professors would feel threatened by the ASA vote. With perceptions of Israel changing from a beacon of democracy to a brutal apartheid state, every effort must be bent to salvage the nation’s reputation. It has reached the point where Hillel, a campus organization of Jewish students, is slowly waking up to Israeli’s ugly realities even as they still remain wedded to a fading Zionist mythos. The N.Y. Times reported on December 29:
At Harvard, the Jewish student group Hillel was barred from co-sponsoring a discussion with a Palestinian student group. At Binghamton University, a Hillel student leader was forced to resign his position after showing a film about Palestinians and inviting the filmmaker’s brother to speak. And on many other campuses, Hillel chapters have been instructed to reject collaboration with left-leaning Jewish groups.
Alan M. Dershowitz, a professor at Harvard Law School who was once a faculty adviser for the Harvard Hillel, said in an interview: “I don’t think this is a free-speech issue. The people who want divestment and boycotts have plenty of opportunity to speak on campus. The question is a branding one. You can see why Hillel does not want its brand to be diluted.”
Basically, there is a class dynamic at work here. A Harvard undergraduate has not yet entered the ranks of the bourgeoisie, a goal of course of such an education. The Leon Botsteins, Alan Dershowitzes, and Martin Peretzes travel in different circles. They hobnob with hedge fund billionaires who throw fancy dinners and cocktail parties where funds are raised for their institutions. How, after all, can you keep a university going in the U.S.A. unless you cater to the whims of the one percent?
To this day, I don’t think anybody has ever summed up the role of college presidents better than Upton Sinclair:
Thus the college president spends his time running back and forth between Mammon and God, known in the academic vocabulary as Business and Learning. He pleads with the business man to make a little more allowance for the eccentricities of the scholar; explaining the absurd notion which men of learning have that they owe loyalty to truth and public welfare. He points out that if the college comes to be known as a mere tool of special privilege it loses all its dignity and authority; it is absolutely necessary that it should maintain a pretense of disinterestedness, it should appear to the public as a shrine of wisdom and piety. He points out that Professor So-and-So has managed to secure great prestige throughout the state, and if he is unceremoniously fired it will make a terrific scandal, and perhaps cause other faculty members to resign, and other famous scientists to stay away from the institution.
The president says this at a dinner-party in the home of his grand duke; and next morning he hurries off to argue with the recalcitrant professor. He points out the humiliating need of funds-just now when the professor’s own salary is so entirely inadequate. He begs the professor to realize the president’s own position, the crudity of business men who hold the purse-strings, and have no understanding of academic dignity. He pleads for just a little discretion, just a little time-just a little anything that will moderate the clash between greed and service, the incompatibility of hate and love.
To understand Leon Botstein’s stance in the Al Quds controversy, you have to start with his need to go one step further in reconciling Mammon and God. Bard College has a reputation as being some kind of “progressive” liberal arts institution and cutting ties to Al Quds would be counter-productive from a marketing standpoint. Let’s say you are some successful professional in New York who voted for DiBlasio and subscribes to the Nation Magazine and NPR. Would you want to send your kid to a school that broke with a Palestinian university on the basis of a witch-hunt organized by the Israeli right and its friends in the U.S. like Pamela Geller?
The best commentator on the Al Quds incident is Richard Silverstein who attended Jewish Theological Seminary and Columbia University, earning a BA and Bachelor of Hebrew Literature. Like Carolyn Karcher, he is just another Jew who is sick and tired of the hypocrisy of the Israel lobby. On Christmas day, he had this to say:
I wrote several posts a few weeks ago about Brandeis University’s abrupt severing of all ties with the Palestinian Al Quds University and its remarkable president, Sari Nusseibeh. In those posts I rebutted false claims suggested by Brandeis President Frederick Lawrence that there had been a “Nazi-like” rally on the Palestinian campus which extolled terrorists and suicide bombers. What was astonishing to me was that Lawrence, the leader of a major liberal arts university would accept as prima facie evidence, information proffered by the right-wing pro-Israel bloggers Pam Geller, Tom Gross and Israel Matzav, who led the ‘jihad’ against Al Quds. Since then even the NY Times has falsely called the same campus rally “Nazi-like,” though it had absolutely no association with Nazism. By the way, I wrote an e-mail to the reporter and the Times’ public editor complaining of the false charge. I received no reply.
I’ve been able to trace the Israeli origin of the charges against Al Quds to a November 11th article in Maariv. The article deals in general with the theme of so-called Palestinian incitement against Israel. In its litany of “sins,” it lists the Al Quds rally and a separate incident in which residents of the South Hebron Hills village of Beit Ummar purportedly hung a Nazi flag.
If you read the translation, you’ll see how a sloppy reading by someone looking to sensationalize the facts would allow all the blame to fall on Al Quds:
Documented: Nazi Salutes and Flags in the Palestinian Authority
At Al Quds University, students were photographed with arms raised, while a Nazi flag was flown over a Palestinian village.
Photographs taken at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem feature masked men affiliated with Islamic Jihad as they march with arms raised in salute. In other pictures, students may be seen also raising their own arms in a Nazi salute.
The article links to a November 6th blog post by UK Jewish, anti-Palestinian blogger, Tom Gross, who calls the salutes “fascist-style.” He added:
Students were encouraged to give what other students at Al Quds described as Hitler-style salutes…
All this raises the question: who took these photos? Gross refuses to acknowledge who took them or how he received them. Curiously, the photos displayed at his site are hot-linked from Pam Geller’s blog, Atlas Shrugged. The date of her post is also November 6th. So they both, almost simultaneously, published their information on the Al Quds rally. Geller does link back to Gross but the latter makes no mention of his collusion with Geller in this smear campaign.
I’d hazard a guess that Gross, who prides himself as being an “independent” Middle East analyst, preferred not being associated with Geller’s bellicose reputation. In a related matter, Geller’s Islamophobic American Freedom Defense Initiative suffered a legal defeat as a federal judge found its Boston MTA ads which called Muslims “savages” to be offensive. He found that the discriminatory nature of her message trumped her so called free speech rights.
Coincidentally, Gross also omits from his website biography that he’s a member of the international advisory board of the far-right NGO Monitor and a founding member of the pro-Israel, neoncon Henry Jackson Society based in the UK. Not as “independent” as he makes out to be.
Robert Spencer and Pam Geller have in the past paid anti-Muslim activists to spy on pro-Palestine rallies by videotaping them. My guess is that she and Gross secured the photos either directly or indirectly from the Shabak or its Palestinian informants. They, in turn, likely passed them on to the government hasbara apparatus. From there it was but a hop, skip and jump to Geller, Gross and Fred Lawrence.
One thing that otherwise reputable people like Fred Lawrence may want to consider is whether they want to make decisions based on material proffered to them by ideologues like Gross and especially Geller.
What Leon Botstein understands better than the presidents of Syracuse University and Brandeis is the special role of Al Quds. Despite the impression that its enemies on the ultraright try to create, its real role in Palestinian society is to create a layer of educated elites who are committed to “Western values”. One of the primary funders of the school is George Soros who has used his billions to create a receptive environment for his “open society” values. It is doubtful that he would have been happy with Leon Botstein cutting ties to Al Quds in light of statements he has made about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here’s Soros from the April 12, 2007 New York Review of Books:
The pro-Israel lobby has been remarkably successful in suppressing criticism.4 Politicians challenge it at their peril because of the lobby’s ability to influence political contributions. When Howard Dean called for an evenhanded policy toward Israel in 2004, his chances of getting the nomination were badly damaged (although it was his attempt, after his defeat in Iowa, to shout above the crowd that sealed his fate). Academics had their advancement blocked and think-tank experts their funding withdrawn when they stepped too far out of line. Following his criticism of repressive Israeli policy on the West Bank, former president Jimmy Carter has suffered the loss of some of the financial backers of his center.
Anybody who dares to dissent may be subjected to a campaign of personal vilification. I speak from personal experience. Ever since I participated in a meeting discussing the need for voicing alternative views, a torrent of slanders has been released including the false accusation in The New Republic that I was a “young cog in the Hitlerite wheel” at the age of thirteen when my father arranged a false identity to save my life and I accompanied an official of the Ministry of Agriculture, posing as his godson, when he was taking the inventory of a Jewish estate.5
That footnote number five, by the way, is to this: Martin Peretz, “Tyran-a-Soros,” The New Republic, February 12, 2007. Peretz is a member of the Bard College board of trustees since the mid-1980s. Leon Botstein accosted me at the last reunion I attended in 2010, for the class of ’65, and demanded an explanation why I wrote such hurtful things about him on my blog—even his children read it.
Well, as Arnold Schwarzenegger said in “The Terminator”, “I’ll be back” in 2015 for my 50th. Assuming that Leon will still be ensconced as president-for-life, I’ll be awaiting his bared fangs with my usual aplomb and a video camera set to record.