Monday, November 9, 2009

Bard and the Lobby

November 9, 2009

Bard and the Lobby
Final Thoughts on the Kovel Affair

By JOHN HALLE

In June of 2007, the left website CounterPunch published a short piece of mine addressing the decision of Depaul University to deny tenure to Prof. Norman Finkelstein. Among the forty-odd emails I received in response was one from Bard Professor Joel Kovel. Having served as a Green Party ward Alderman, I was familiar with Joel's Green Party activism and had read occasional articles by him over the years. Also, I had just accepted a position at the Bard Conservatory of Music and was looking forward to having at least one other co-worker to compare notes with as we entered the post-Bush era.

I would have been pleased to have had communications from others at Bard but none was forthcoming. Whether this was due to Joel being the only faculty member to read CounterPunch, simple reticence on the part of those who did, or lack of interest in, or lack of sympathy with Finkelstein's plight, I can't say. As I recall, I assumed the latter, as this was consistent with a longstanding belief on my part that the reputation of colleges as bastions of left wing thinking is grossly exaggerated, most notably when it comes to the Israel/Palestine question. Nothing in the subsequent years here has given me much cause to revise this presumption, not, to be sure, the Bard community's response to Joel's termination, as I will discuss shortly.

Some months after Joel's email, I had the opportunity to return the favor and to revisit the question of Bard's general political orientation. Joel's book "Overcoming Zionism" had been withdrawn by its publisher Pluto Press under pressure from the Israel lobby in what can reasonably be described as the contemporary equivalent of a book burning. Just as he had been the only Bard faculty member to respond to my piece in Counterpunch, so too was I the only member of the Bard community to respond to his request to join the thousands of others who had sent expressions of protest.

When Joel returned to Bard in the fall of 2008, we decided to get together for a weekly meeting which would develop into the eco-socialist lunches, billed in flyers we distributed around campus as an informal discussion of political events from a left perspective, open to all interested students, staff, faculty and community members. Most weeks the group numbered between 8 and 12. Aside from ourselves (and my wife, on occasion) all of the participants would be students. No faculty member attended or expressed any interest in attending or even (with one exception) asked about the group.

While much of the conversation tended to revolve around the Obama campaign and the prospects for an Obama administration, Israel and attitudes towards Israel on the Bard campus were an occasional topic. While no particular consensus was reached, it is fair to say that the administration's later description of "anti Zionism" as "uncontroversial" would have been greeted with some skepticism by most of those attending.
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Following the Israeli attack on Gaza in December, our shared skepticism as to the willingness and capacity of the Bard community to view Zionism critically would be strongly vindicated. Insofar as anti-Zionism is interpreted, minimally, as criticism of military aggression by the Israeli government, there was nothing of the sort to be found at precisely the time when its presence ought to be most apparent. One searched in vain for joint letters, demonstrations, flyers, teach-ins, or other expressions of concern at the unfolding atrocity.

There was, it should be noted, one faculty member, the college chaplain, who conspicuously weighed in on the subject of the Gaza attacks-on the side of the Israeli Defense Force. While I had, as mentioned, long since parted with any illusions as to what to expect from academics in these sorts of circumstances, it was still a bit shocking to find a supposed voice of moral conscience in an appearance on the far right radio station WABC, championing the bombing of civilian targets and denouncing as anti-semitic those who raised questions as to its moral legitimacy.

This constituted the extent of the visible faculty response to Gaza. There may have been private expressions of concern or even grief-and perhaps public expressions, though if so, none of them found their way back to Bard in any visible form. Given that more than a few Bard faculty members are frequently granted high profile platforms for the expression of their views, any expression of protest would have registered, so it is a reasonable assumption that they didn't exist.

I would like to emphasize that I bring up these facts not out of any personal dissatisfaction with the Bard faculty as a group or animus towards the college chaplain as an individual. My years at Yale were notable for many cordial relationships with colleagues who were universally to the right of me politically and who were, in more than a few cases proud and even virulent reactionaries. Imposing a political litmus test for those with whom I work and socialize would be a recipe for professional suicide, not to mention, misanthropy.

Rather, this context is required to respond to repeated claims emanating from the Bard administration in response to the Kovel affair that Bard is a campus which not only tolerates and but celebrates dissident political views. This general proposition is not supported by any facts that have been apparent in my two years here. And on the specific claim in question, that anti-Zionism is uncontroversial, the silence with which the faculty greeted the Gaza attacks is a prima facie refutation of this proposition, one which is even more glaring when seen in the light of the numerous cris-de-coeur emanating from some of Israel's staunchest advocates in the months since the attacks.

I should also mention here that it does not follow from the above that Joel's charges of political interference in Bard's decision not to renew his contract have any de facto or de jure legitimacy. Nor does it follow that the faculty members who served on the committee evaluating Joel's contributions to Bard (one of whom was the Bard chaplain mentioned above) were unable to exercise independent judgement of Joel's work. However, with the particular issue in question, suspicion is surely called for given the numerous and well document instances of interference in academic affairs by what has become known as the Lobby.
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By now, the Lobby's crackdown on criticism of Israeli human rights abuses on college campuses should be more than familiar, as every week seems to brings a new and disturbing attempt at academic suppression. The most recent is a charge of misconduct being brought against UC Santa Barbara Prof. William Robinson on direct orders from ADL chairman Abe Foxman. Not long before came news of Clark University having rescinded an invitation to Norman Finkelstein under pressure from Jewish student organizations. Prior to that was an effort at intimidation waged by Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz against Hampshire College students supporting sanctions directed at firms profiting from the West Bank occupation. These join targeted attacks on Columbia Professor Joseph Massad, University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole, and, of course, Finkelstein himself, to mention only a few cases.

That none of these have been mentioned by the administration in responding to Kovel's charges of political interference is disappointing and has fueled suspicion outside of Bard in capitulating to pressure in its decision to remove Kovel academic freedom has been, yet again, violated. There is also at least a whiff of arrogance in Bard's assumption that the illustrious legacy of Hannah Arendt and its description in the Princeton Review as "the most liberal of the liberal arts colleges" exempts it from answering questions about the troubling context of Kovel's termination.

But as the school's connection with its storied radical history recedes into the distant past, it will find that this defense is increasingly less available. Indeed, by now there are very few remaining indications of the radical dissent which it claims to be encoded in its institutional DNA. A strong indication along these lines can be obtained by a perusal of faculty lists in the relevant departments. It will be immediately noticed that the most recognizable names derive from their association not with, for example, the New Left Review, Z, the Left Forum, or even the Nation but with the establishment neo-liberalism of the New York Review, the New Yorker and New Republic (whose publisher, uber-Zionist Martin Peretz, serves on the Bard Board of Trustees). Few Bard faculty would be described, or, I would guess, would describe themselves as political radicals.

Another indication of the actually existing political orientation of Bard is provided by Kovel's replacement in the Alger Hiss chair by an historian whose work provides a defense of, and has been celebrated by those embracing, the most strident varieties of cold war anti-communism. Then there is the increasingly close relationship with its Hudson Valley neighbor West Point which has resulted in appearances on the Bard campus by military functionaries addressing such topics as counter-insurgency warfare. These augment other recently invited speakers discussing Islamic fundamentalist terror and violence, with few if any challenging establishment orthodoxy on these matters. All this, according to administration critics, signals a broader effort to legitimate Bard in establishment circles one which requires that it rid itself of left-wing gadflies such as Kovel.
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These and other efforts at mainstreaming Bard have, it would appear, met with some success among their target demographic, namely those major donors who are lavishly financing campus initiatives including the much trumpeted Bard-Al Quds joint degree program, a multi-million dollar Frank Gehry designed performing arts center, and an elegant new science building. At the same time, there is some evidence that the strategy has begun to backfire with its primary constituency (or, more precisely, market), namely the students who are willing to dispense with the $40,000 yearly tuition which, it is said, accounts for the bulk of Bard's operating revenues. This base consists of more than a few who, despite their necessarily privileged backgrounds have more or less leftist sympathies and come to Bard based on its reputation-as opposed to its current reality. Some eventually come to recognize that while these views are not actively discouraged, nor are they encouraged or nurtured by the current composition of the faculty. The surprising level of activism precipitated by the Kovel case was likely indicative of a growing dissatisfaction among these sorts of students and the administration is correct to be concerned of the possible effect on Bard's traditional applicant pool and by extension, finances.

There is a chance, albeit a small one, that bottom line considerations will make it necessary for Bard for to reassert its identity as a bulwark of what used to be called the dissenting academy. If so, it has more that a little work to do. Rehiring Kovel is one step in this direction; however, Joel is now 70 and doing so would amount to no more than a reaffirmation of Bard's past. What is needed is a tangible demonstration that a commitment to dissent defines Bard's present and, one hopes, Bard's future.

An action which Bard could take along these lines would be to install Norman Finkelstein as the next occupant of the Alger Hiss chair. Finkelstein's presence at Bard would, of course, indisputably remove any question as to influence of the Lobby on Bard's hiring decisions. But, more importantly, Finkelstein's combination of an impressive scholarly resumé with a long standing record of challenging the most sacrosanct conventional wisdoms make him a scholarly model for the traditions which have defined Bard, and which continue to have resonance for more than a few Bard students.

This is what we should expect of the academy at its best-one which takes seriously its responsibility to tell the truth and expose lies.

It is more than likely that this suggestion will be passed off as frivolous by those who are in a position to act on it. If so, those doing so should consider that this itself is an indication of the gap between Bard's self-image and the objective reality of where it stands when it is called to do so.

Perhaps the best possible outcome of the Kovel affair is for the school to begin to recognize how far it needs to go to bridge this gap.

John Halle is Director of Studies in Music Theory and Practice at Bard College. He can be reached at: halle@bard.edu

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