by Maria LaHood of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Radhika Sainath of Palestine Legal
The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) unsuccessfully attempted to censor a Columbia University workshop on Citizenship and Nationality in Israel/Palestine that took place this weekend. The day-long workshop for high school and college teachers, led by Columbia law professor Katherine Franke, used Zionist and Israeli texts to explore the issues of nationality and citizenship in Israel/Palestine.
Last month, without regard for the actual content of the workshop, ZOA wrote to the Middle East Institute, a co-sponsor of the workshop, complaining that the workshop title was inaccurate and misleading since there is "no country called 'Palestine,'" and demanding the names and affiliations of all speakers, copies of all readings and materials, and the names of any films to be screened to show that the workshop would comply with the Higher Education Act (HEA). ZOA claims the HEA requires "diverse perspectives," and said it had "good reason to believe" that the workshop would be "one-sided and riddled with anti-Israel bias."
But the HEA does not require "diverse perspectives" as a condition of funding university programs. And "diverse perspectives" does not mean that all ideas have equal merit; variety in programming must reflect scholarly judgment, not subjective political considerations about what is "pro-" or "anti-" Israel or anything else. In fact, the HEA explicitly states that the act cannot "be construed to authorize the Secretary [of Education] to mandate, direct or control an institution of higher education's specific instructional content, curriculum or program of instruction."
The ZOA's attack on the workshop and Professor Franke, who the ZOA claims "makes no bones about her hatred of and animosity toward the State of Israel," and its twisting of the HEA, are part of a larger lobbying effort by Israel advocacy groups to pressure DOE to police Middle East Studies programs to ensure that they fully support Israeli state policies. This particular attack is also part of a broader effort to threaten universities with the prospect of losing funding if they "permit" a free discussion of Israel/Palestine, whether federal money or private donations―the letter also contained a hardly-veiled threat that ZOA's members and supporters include many donors to Columbia.
Government regulation of academic programming is constitutionally suspect, vulnerable to politicization and would infringe on academic freedom. The ZOA's claims are not only meritless, but are intolerable intrusions on academic freedom that chill learning and undermine the purpose of the HEA. Fortunately, this time, academic freedom won the day; the Columbia workshop went on as planned, and more will follow.