The media have devoted a lot of space in recent months to the so-called political correctness issue, conjuring up a portrait of college campuses patrolled by ideological truth squads ready to punish any deviation from left-wing orthodoxy. In the July-August 1991 issue of Tikkun, Evan Carton hit the nail on the head when he labeled this right-wing campaign against intellectual diversity and debate “Operation Campus Storm” — the domestic intellectual accompaniment to George Bush’s military adventure in the Middle East. The dominant orthodoxy on most US campuses, and the main threats to diversity and free speech, have come not from the left but from the right. When it comes to discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it is almost exclusively the self-proclaimed “friends of Israel” who claim the right to act as ideological gatekeepers and determine what can and cannot be said.

A good example of this surfaced last March in Berkeley, California, when the East Bay Express and eight local bookstores sponsored a talk by Noam Chomsky, with proceeds to benefit the Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) and radio station KPFA. In response, an organization called the “Israeli Action Network” launched a campaign of abusive telephone calls and threatened a boycott against at least one of the bookstores. Not to be outdone, the right-thinking intellectuals soon joined in to do their part. A group of 17 prominent University of California professors, led by Robert Alter (comparative literature) and including William Brinner (Near Eastern studies) and historian Gerald Feldman (notorious for having maniacally hounded promising young historian David Abraham out of the profession, purportedly because Abraham had not gotten all his footnotes quite right, but actually because Feldman could not abide Abraham’s Marxist interpretation of the Nazi rise to power), responded by firing off a letter to one of the bookstores denouncing MECA as “nothing but a pro-PLO; anti-Israel organization that cynically and hypocritically exploits the plight of suffering children to advance the PLO cause.”

The letter went on to accuse Chomsky not only of being a “defender of the PLO even when it was carrying out murder missions against Jewish children,” but also of defending the French author of a book denying that the Holocaust had occurred and of covering up the Khmer Rouge”s atrocities. The professors deemed it unseemly that the bookstores should “sponsor and promote an event that raises money for a propaganda organization dedicated to distortions and support of terrorists.”

The bookstores responded in just the right way: They strongly and publicly denounced the professors’ letter as a crude attempt to smear MECA and Chomsky, and to intimidate them from sponsoring similar events in the future. Robert Alter subsequently characterized this ringing defense of free speech as a kind of “McCarthyism of the left.” In November, the bookstores followed up by sponsoring a benefit to raise money for a bookmobile for the occupied West Bank and Gaza; the event, titled “Politically Direct,” featured Alan Ginsburg and other local poets. In the end, Alter and Co. may not have gotten the message. But the incident did expose what is really going on with all this talk of “political correctness”: Free speech is fine until it comes to criticism of Israel or the prevailing hierarchies of power, whereupon the self-proclaimed defenders of liberty promptly take up the cudgels of the thought police.

While we are on the topic of smears and distortions…here is a foretaste of what may lie ahead if the Bush administration tries to put the squeeze on Israel. We recently received a copy of a fundraising letter sent out by Sen. Arlen Spector, Republican of Pennsylvania, one of the heroes of the White House campaign to trash Anita Hill and get Clarence Thomas confirmed. Spector begins by recalling his election promise that one priority would be “to advance ihe mutually beneficial US-Israeli relationship.” So it was that he had fought the good fight for aid to Israel and Soviet Jewish emigration, and against US arms sales to “hostile Arab nations.” Spector goes on to claim that because his friend Sen. Rudy Boschwitz had not won reelection, “my work on behalf of Israel has expanded considerably,” and he concludes by asking for help with his reelection campaign.

So far just the usual pandering pitch. But accompanying Spector’s letter was a nasty little broadside signed by Max M. Fisher and Robert H. Asher of Citizens for Arlen Spector. Fisher and Asher claim that before Spector’s last reelection campaign, the National Association of Arab Americans had launched “one of the most vicious acts of political anti-Semitism ever directed against a public servant.” The NAAA’s “act” consisted of radio commercials which, the letter claims, “questioned the senator’s loyalty to his state because of his outspoken support for Israel and human rights.” According to Rudy Boschwitz, this was nothing less than “broadcast terrorism.”

It is all very simple: Any attempt to make an election issue of Spector’s unequivocal support for Israel amounts to “broadcast terrorism.” How do we know? Well, Rudy Boschwitz says so — the same Rudy Boschwitz who blew his own reelection campaign in 1990 by sending out a nasty election-eve smear letter questioning his opponent Paul Wellstone’s Jewishness. For the Israeli lobby, this is just business as usual. It may take these folks some time to figure out that a lot of people are not listening or responding quite like they used to.

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How to cite this article:

Al Miskin "Gatekeepers," Middle East Report 174 (January/February 1992).

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