On my way to Rockefeller Chapel for the symposium on the Israel Lobby, two things were uppermost in my mind. One was whether the Israel Lobby was the only force preventing the formation of the Palestinian state. The other was why I couldn’t get my hair to lie straight. I needn’t have worried about either one.
As it turned out, the afternoon’s festivities were not about Palestine at all, but rather about a subject closer to home: the denial of tenure for two DePaul professors. And the U of C fashion statement for the semester seems to be tousled hair, drab dark colors, and flimsy twisted scarves, wound around the neck once with both ends hanging in the front.
Featured speaker Noam Chomsky didn’t make it on account of his wife’s illness, but sent a video. Summaries of the speakers’ comments “In Defense of Academic Freedom” are available elsewhere on the net, as are discussions of the Norman Finkelstein/Mehrene Larudee tenure issues.
But how does the Israel Lobby work? Some answers came out during the question and answer session. In the U.S. congress, the Middle East is a “small issue” but a bridge is a “big issue”. The Israel Lobby does not provide direct money or direct pressure. Even if a legislator has no problem getting reelected they still can’t afford to offend the Israel Lobby. They would sacrifice their career, since they would be able to get no bills through, to get the bridges and local projects that get them reelected. The Israel Lobby is not a conspiracy, it is just a policy group like the NRA. It is part of the legitimate political process. The way it is not legitimate is when it tries to stifle academic discussion.
The way that the Israel Lobby influences academic decisions like tenure was not made really clear. Apparently this is also not an overt process, the schools simply “know” what they are expected to do. Academians are told through the grapevine they could have problems if their names become linked to people like Finkelstein. Possibly they anticipate a smear campaign. Even sitting on the same stage with someone like Israel Lobby co-author John Mearsheimer could have repercussions for their careers, they are told.
Suddenly the importance of someone with Chomsky’s reputation lending his name to this issue became clear, as did the clearing of the stage after the question and answer session, to allow all new speakers to come out–including the two DePaul professors–for a separate session. Ah, academia.
Yes, the world needs people like Chomsky, Finkelstein, Juan Cole. Not because their assertions are necessarily true, or even because they believe what they say themselves. The way I understand it, it’s a huge case of “the game’s afoot.” It’s a way to arrive at truth. One group takes one side of an argument and argues it vehemently. The other group takes the other side. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Academic reputations are made on the twist of a phrase or an insult that no one else can understand. Meanwhile , youths burning embassies in Turkey or the Middle East take the whole dialog seriously, believing they have discovered the truth in the academics’ statements. They have only discovered a process meant for arriving at the truth.
Who knows how closely the academic discussion actually mirrors real life events. Does it matter? After all, tenure for professors–like bridges–is a “big issue”. The Middle East is a “small issue.” I wonder how I could explain that one to my Palestinian friends. Still, not having those voices would mean quite the lopsided public discourse.