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When the U.S. Ridicules the Principles of Free Speech

Monday, November 5, 2012

Interview with Prof. Terri Ginsberg
By: Kourosh Ziabari

Prof. Terri Ginsberg is an American university professor, film scholar and cultural critic. She made the headlines in 2008 when she was dismissed from her post at the North Carolina State University as a professor of film studies for criticizing the apartheid policies of the Israeli regime and its mistreatment of the Palestinian citizens.

She was “punished with partial removal from — and interference in — duty, non-renewal of contract and rejection from a tenure-track position” and then realized that the whole universities across the United States had boycotted her after she applied for 150 jobs but was denied even interviews, which she says was something very unusual for someone with her publishing and teaching track record.

According to Electronic Intifada’s Nora Barrows-Friedman, Prof. Ginsberg and her lawyer struggled for over a year and filed a lawsuit against the NCSU, but the North Carolina Superior Court denied the case and ruled in favor of the university’s denial of the tenure. Subsequently, Prof. Ginsberg and her lawyer, Rima Kapitan, filed an appeal to the North Carolina Court of Appeals, but the appeals court dismissed the appeal and upheld the lower court’s verdict.

Firing Terri Ginsberg from the university, simply for voicing her criticism of the Israeli regime and its ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians unequivocally ridiculed the principles of free speech which the U.S. Constitution and the First Amendment are supposed to sustain and showed that the United States is not that utopia of freedom and democracy which many people have wrongly come to believe.

What follows is the text of Iran Review’s exclusive interview with Prof. Terri Ginsberg about her dismissal from the North Carolina State University, the Palestinian culture and civilization, the continued oppression of the Palestinian people by the Israeli regime and the rise of Islamophobia in the West.

Q: The United States has always boasted of itself as a beacon of freedom and pioneer of democracy; but what happened in 2008 when you were fired from the North Carolina State University for criticizing Israel demonstrated the opposite. Your petitions and appeals to the North Carolina courts were not upheld, as well. What do you think about the decision they made in expelling you?

A: NCSU’s decisions perfunctorily to eliminate me from consideration for a tenure-track position, and then to fire me, were very troubling on several levels. First, the decisions were made on clearly impermissible grounds. NCSU claimed falsely that I had no expertise in the area stipulated in the job description, when in fact I had just published a scholarly monograph in that general area and was in the process of contracting for my second editorial collection in that area (a book that was published last February).

NCSU also claimed that I was “overqualified” for the tenure-track position, by which it meant that I had published many more books and articles than my anticipated superiors, who as a result might feel interpersonal “weirdness” toward me. Oddly, NCSU did not seem concerned that I was similarly “overqualified” for the lower ranked, non-tenure-track position for which it had already hired me!  Finally, NCSU was concerned that my position on Palestine/Israel, which favors the airing of Arab and Muslim perspectives, posed a threat to the “best interests” of the university. On those grounds, I was compelled to resign from co-curating a Middle East screening series on campus, and was told by a teaching evaluator that material concerning the censorship of Jewish anti-Zionist views was inappropriate—too “radical” or “controversial”—for inclusion in one of my courses, despite the fact that the syllabus called for it in particular instances.

In turn, when I complained about these actions, NCSU retaliated by removing me from the search committee’s short-list, where I had been ranked number one, then by denying me a campus grievance hearing on the excuse that, as a non-tenure-track faculty member with professional status (called “Special Faculty” at NCSU), I had no legal right to such a hearing, and that in any event I had filed my grievance too late—which was patently untrue.

Second, these decisions were made with the expectation—evidently correct—that the university could get away with such adverse employment actions. The ensuing legal proceedings made a mockery of both academic freedom and the U.S. legal system. The university’s (state-appointed) attorneys provided only the feeblest counter-arguments in defense of the accused, in the course of which many facts were distorted or went completely unacknowledged. Inexplicably ignoring the standard of proof in First Amendment cases, the North Carolina courts then disallowed me a rightful trial by jury, by persistently denying the existence of the mountains of evidence, both hard and circumstantial, which I supplied in support of my claims.

In effect, recalling Nancy Reagan’s dictum for the “war on drugs,” the courts “just said no.” The courts’ irregular actions were in fact over-determined by their concern—in coordination with NCSU—that my potential trial would convene an official, public occasion for expressing Arab, Muslim, and Jewish criticism of Israel in all seriousness, during a time in which U.S. bellicosity in the Arab and Muslim world was increasing daily (as it still is).Indeed the real reason for NCSU’s actions against me is best represented in the words of one faculty search committee member, who wrote in a report to the committee that I had “too much focus on Jewish/Israel” and was “now working with Palestinian/Israeli.” In addition, the courts were upholding cherished right-libertarian views, exacerbated under McCarthyism, that academic hiring and promotion decisions are somehow “uniquely subjective” (to quote from a recent Illinois decision) and should therefore be regulated only minimally. Such views presume that academic decisions are entirely without objective, and that non-academic decisions are entirely devoid of subjective elements—which is sheer ideology! In a travesty of academic freedom, furthermore, such views attribute undue liberty to university administrators, who, facing institutional financial crises, are often under pressure from corporate funders to curtail academic focus on subjects that might be offensive to private interests, over and above the professors whose sometimes unpopular scholarship administrations are supposed to encourage and protect.

In this light, the formal praise given to recent “Arab spring” events in an NCSU 2011-2012 report issued by the university’s current chancellor, Randolph Woodson, is hypocritical. To his discredit, Woodson has unabashedly sought entrepreneurial collaboration with the state of Israel, particularly its business sectors, and has refused to shift ground in the face of multiple letters from persons and organizations requesting that he revisit my grievance case and permit me the campus hearing I deserve.

Neither the U.S. academy nor the U.S. justice system should be allowed to get away with silencing critical academic speech in order to protect opposing views, for whatever reason, nor should academic faculty become intimidated from speaking critically for fear of being disciplined or losing their jobs.

The fact that I was consistently denied a formal hearing, either at NCSU campus or within the NC court system, resonates clearly not with American ideals of freedom, liberty and justice, however, but with the history of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli oppression. Palestinians are seldom given the opportunity to air their views freely—without, that is, interference from dominant ideological interests calling for “balanced” or “neutral” discussion. Nor has the longtime suffering of Palestinians been acknowledged by its primary instigator, the state of Israel, which to this day officially refuses to admit having committed the Nakba (the ethnic cleansing of Palestine), and in fact has moved recently to criminalize any discussion of that event within Israeli society. 

Similarly the pro-Israel Lobby in the U.S. has tried repeatedly to introduce congressional legislation which, in the name of “combating anti-Semitism,” would criminalize speech critical of Israel, thereby travestying not only the First Amendment but the entire spirit of the Bill of Rights.

Q: The criticism of the policies and actions of Israeli regime, especially in the United States and Europe, is regularly blocked and branded as anti-Semitism, and Israel have always vilified those who dare to criticize its apartheid policies as anti-Semite. What do you think? Is the criticism of Israel really equivalent to anti-Semitism?

A: The vast majority of criticism of Israel has nothing whatsoever to do with anti-Semitism, and is in fact not anti-Semitic. “Anti-Semitism” is a term deriving from critiques of 19th-century European pseudo-scientific racialism, which classified human beings into social hierarchies based on perceived biological traits. Although associated with opposition to populations grouped under the “Semitic” linguistic category, “anti-Semitism” came eventually to refer exclusively to Jew-hatred, in turn serving as a rational means of justifying Europe’s racist practices at home and in the colonies. In fact, despite the hyphenated prefix, “Semitic” and “anti-Semitic” are not antonyms, insofar as there exists no actual “Semitism” to which one might be opposed. Modern scholars see “Semitic” as a mythological construction derived from biblical genealogies that are irrelevant to much Jewish and Arab experience and that erase the longtime existence of Jewish Arabs. Its usage has nonetheless been established as a standard in academic scholarship.

Hence the question is better put, is criticism of Israel a form of Jew-hatred? Once again, the answer is decidedly, No. In fact, Jew-hatred is the very justification early Zionists used to convince European benefactors, whether Jewish or Christian, to support the development and eventual establishment of a Jewish state in historic Palestine. For Israel Zangwill, Theodor Herzl, and other supporters of European Jewish emigration to Palestine, anti-Semitism was irreparably inherent to any country where Jews lived as an ethno-religious minority. No Jew was safe unless protected by his own, Jewish, state. Yet this raises a twofold problem. First, universal anti-Semitism is pure and simple fantasy, on account of which some modern Zionists have been known to exaggerate its existence or even to provoke incidents that might be characterized in such terms. (An Israeli documentary was made about this phenomenon in 2009.) Second, the insistence upon or construction of anti-Semitism is a double-edged sword. In the case of Israel, it has not only reignited Jew-hatred on the right-wing fringe but brought it to new territory—the Arab and Muslim world, where it was previously non-existent in its predominant, European Christian form.

What, after all, is a “Jew”? The state of Israel to this day has not been able to define this category, except to exclude from it Palestinians (Christians, Muslims, Druze), both conceptually and in actuality. The ensuing, ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestine, and its extenuating effects on the wider Arab and Muslim world, have led to understandable animosity toward Israelis, generalized incorrectly as “Jews,” throughout the region and beyond.

The only way for the problem of contemporary Jew-hatred, however real or invented, to be resolved is for Israel to comply with international law permitting Palestinians right-of-return and full self-determination in their historic homeland. What shape Palestine/Israel will take when those conditions are met should be determined by Palestinians in genuinely balanced dialogue with Israel—a situation which to date has never been allowed. Negotiations have always been manipulated by Western powers, mainly the U.S., which has come to believe, or at least to behave as though, unstinting support for Israel serves the so-called national interest. Whether this is the case has been questioned compellingly by scholars as diverse as Stephen Walt/John Mearsheimer, James Petras, and Cheryl Rubenberg. If the Palestinian voice continues to be marginalized and disregarded, I am afraid that the situation will deteriorate for all parties involved, especially Palestinians but also Israelis and their Western, including Jewish but also Christian Zionist, supporters.

Q: What's your viewpoint regarding the cultural and academic boycott of Israel? Will this campaign, which is supported by several advocacy organizations around the world, help isolate Israel and compel it to abandon its racist policies?

A: BDS is the most important and potentially most effective Palestine solidarity movement that has developed in the history of the Palestinian–Israeli conflict. Within less than a decade, BDS has taken the reigns of, and lent needed strategic focus to, a previously disparate movement comprised of smaller, variously oriented groups or committees across the globe. It has built meaningfully upon the experience of the campaign against South African apartheid, reminding us that the United Nations includes within its definition of “apartheid” the practice of ethnic cleansing, a crime against humanity to which Palestinians continue to be subjected.

Likewise BDS has focused intelligently upon the existing structures of international diplomacy, namely international law as promulgated and adjudicated by the UN. In turn BDS has drawn upon Palestinian, Muslim, and Gandhian tradition to embrace non-violent principles and practices, while also acknowledging the UN-mandated right of colonized peoples to armed resistance against their oppressors.

BDS is clear in its position against anti-Semitism, racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, and economic inequality, even as it remains open to differing conceptions of how to eliminate such problems. BDS has been criticized for such openness, but I would counter that it has only strengthened the movement. BDS campaigns have garnered the support and endorsement of numerous religious and civil society groups internationally, whose numbers and commitment continue to grow.

On October 15, 2012, less than two weeks ago, faith groups across the U.S. voted to endorse a letter to Congress calling for an end to U.S. military aid to Israel until it complies with applicable U.S. laws and policies. This marks a great victory for BDS, since U.S. aid to Israel represents the bulk of funds used to enforce Zionist expansion in both Israel and the Occupied Territories. Without such aid, Israel will not be able to administer the occupation as previously, and the terms and conditions of negotiations will necessarily change.

BDS has in the meantime facilitated the implementation of several important strands of boycott—against products made for export in Israeli settlements, often by super-exploited Palestinian labor; against Israeli companies implicated by what they produce in war crimes against Palestinians; against U.S. and European companies likewise implicated through collaboration with Israeli state and military industry; against Israeli products, including cultural occasions, which exemplify Israel’s hasbara (propaganda) effort to present Israel in a favorable light and whitewash its social and political criminality; and against Israeli academic institutions, where structural discrimination against Palestinians is endemic, and where state- and privately funded research and development for military industrial purposes is a major feature. BDS supporters may participate in one or all of the above, depending upon their socially determined positioning within the movement at large.

Israel has reacted insidiously to BDS, not least by increasing its hasbara efforts and by waging a culture war against the Palestine solidarity movement, especially on U.S. campuses. With Zionist funding, anti-Palestinian campus initiatives have been launched, and lawsuits have been filed, across the state of California, where BDS is perceived as a tangible threat to Israeli interests, including for example agricultural, military, and communications research and development. BDS has been accused, for instance, of violating academic freedom and for intimidating Jewish students. Neither accusation is valid.

A boycott is a kind of buyers strike. An academic boycott is a buyers strike against the production of the material and ideological means of military occupation. A boycott does not prevent individuals from speaking their mind or presenting their views. It does not advocate firing or blacklisting people for criticizing the status quo. It is not about denying or eliminating freedoms. A boycott means refusal to participate in economic collaboration with, or in cultural occasions sponsored by, businesses, institutions, and other formations which do in fact promote such unethical practices, whether they admit so or not. That is because a boycott is about emphasizing the fact that many so-called freedoms are contingent upon the exploitation and oppression of others. A boycott, such as promoted by BDS, understands that genuine freedom is not attainable under such conditions. By its concerted refusal to collaborate and participate with perpetrators of injustice, a boycott enables a peaceful yet forceful, potentially far-reaching avenue for changing those conditions.

In this spirit, BDS has taken the Israeli reaction as an opportunity to educate the American public about the history of Zionism and Israel, and of Palestinians and Muslims. The U.S. citizenry is in dire need of public occasions in which these issues can be discussed openly and honestly, without interference from Zionists, who oppose any such dialogue except when it can be redirected, through their facilitation, toward Zionist aims. BDS’s savvy engagement within the public sphere, including but not limited to film and social media, has enabled it enable many such occasions and to inspire and encourage countless more.

Q: You specialize in Middle East and Palestine film studies. How much have the realities of occupation and the plight of Palestinian people been manifested in the movies which the Middle Eastern filmmakers have produced?

A: Palestinian cinema has existed since the late 1960s and presents a variety of approaches and modalities, yet it has had relatively minimal international distribution and exhibition, especially in the U.S., where its political aesthetics have perhaps the most potential for intervention into the status quo. Palestinian film festivals exist in only 5-6 U.S. cities – Chicago, Boston, Ann Arbor, Houston and Washington DC – but not in Los Angeles or New York City, major centers of U.S. media and commerce.

Palestinian films almost always reference the occupation, dispossession and displacement of Palestine by Zionists and Israel. Such references are seldom only manifest in a film’s formal structures; usually they are explicit, even in the context of personal narratives focusing on matters other than politics strictly speaking. Academic scholarship has over the past decade begun to recognize and theorize a Palestinian cinematic aesthetic that involves particular articulations of movement, spatio-temporality, iconography, characterology, aurality, humor, and subjectivity, among other cinematic aspects. It is not that Palestinian filmmakers are adhering to an official directive to address the conflict, or that they fetishize violence and gore in the manner of much Western media representation of the Middle East generally. Most of them find it impossible – and undesirable – not to engage at some register of their work what is at base Palestinian reality and history. Only as material conditions in Palestine change for the better will we see Palestinian national cinema begin taking a different tack.

Unfortunately the U.S. academy and public sphere tend to confine the expression and open discussion of such matters to cinematic occasions perceived as the least confrontational toward Western sensibilities. This includes the polite nod given Palestinian cinema in recent years by the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. For this reason, a pervasive lack of knowledge and understanding persists regarding Palestinian culture that has only been challenged by the proliferation of digital, often online media opportunities for Palestinian directors. These, however, are also limited—by technical exigencies that tend to conventionalize aesthetics, and in terms of viewership defined by specialized market niches. The masses of Americans have no idea even where to look online for examples of Palestinian cinema, nor do many even know it is an entity for which one might search.

The solution to this problem is less a “mainstreaming” of Palestinian cinema than bringing about fundamental structural change in the communications industry within Western societies. The commercial nature of U.S. news media is a major obstacle that must be overcome, as is the privatization of much European state media in the wake of Soviet bloc dismantlement. As long as mainstream media lacks a genuinely popular base, which is not the same thing at all as a popular reader/viewership, it will continue to restrict Palestinian representation to designs that favor the corporate expansionism of which Israeli exceptionalism is such a prime—and profligate—example.

Q: What aspects of Palestinian culture have been largely unknown and undiscovered to the Western public? Of course Palestine has an ancient civilization and rich culture which are mostly overshadowed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What's your perspective on that?

A: Palestinian culture is deep and longstanding, but it has been co-opted by Israel to such an extent that it appears almost non-existent to the uninformed. Everything from Palestinian food to clothing to handicrafts to music to dance to painting  to ceramics (to name just a few) have been adapted by Zionists as features of “Israeli,” and sometimes “Jewish,” culture. In fact there is little about or within Israeli culture that can be designated exclusively “Israeli.” Israeli culture is almost entirely ersatz, but it has been responsible for reducing the broader image of Palestinian culture to a set of demeaning and often pernicious stereotypes.

As a result, we see a proliferation of “Israeli” cultural instances on an international scale, part of the mentioned hasbara effort. By contrast, for a number of reasons not unassociated with the proven volatility of the Zionist mindset, a similar proliferation of international Palestinian culture is disproportionately smaller—but slowly growing nonetheless.

Indeed despite Zionist attempts at cooptation and intimidation, and notwithstanding the palpable limitations of military occupation and collective exile, Palestinian sumud – steadfastness – has enabled Palestinians to revive, reconstruct and expand their national culture on an ongoing, global scale. Palestinian cinema, both indigenous and diasporic, is just one facet of this effort. One must also recognize Palestinian literature, poetry, theater, embroidery, glasswork, calligraphy, agricultural products and more, all of which persist and continue to disseminate. These practices serve the important effect of strengthening the Palestinian cultural imaginary, reminding both Palestinians and the world of Palestinian existence – denied by all too many Zionists – perseverance, and profundity.

Q: What do you think about the growth of Islamophobia in the West and the role the Zionists have played in the fomentation of anti-Islamic sentiments? It seems that it's not only Islam that Zionists are trying to demonize, but they are also opposed to Christianity as a divine religion. What's your take on that?

A: Zionist antagonism toward Muslims and Islam is longstanding. It increased exponentially since the events of 9/11. Surveillance of US citizens of Arab, South Asian, and Muslim background is now the norm, for example, in New York City, whose police force is receiving paramilitary training and instruction in population surveillance from the Israel Defense Forces. This goes on despite a good deal of mainstream news coverage and citizen protest, because post-9/11 panic in NYC still runs deep and can easily be exploited to nefarious ends. (The NYPD-IDF collaboration will probably be bolstered by the prospective opening of an applied sciences university campus on NYC’s Roosevelt Island headed by The Technion–Israel Institute of Technology in partnership with Cornell University. Plans for the NYC Cornell Tech curriculum include applied communications research and robotics manufacture.)

While there is nothing inherently Islamophobic about Judaism, European societies have historically deployed militant interpretations of Christianity to justify imperial pursuits and conquests of lands ruled by Muslims. During the medieval era, some wealthy Jews who found favor with European aristocracies profited handsomely from such ventures, while the masses of their co-religionists remained impoverished, frequently ghettoized and subject to murderous pogroms.

During the McCarthy period in the U.S., persons accused of being communists were compared unfavorably to “whirling dervishes,” “fanatics,” “martyrs,” and other negative attributes connoting an “irrational” Islam. At that time, a majority Christian population, especially right-wing isolationists and nativists among them, prejudicially associated both Muslims and Jews with “foreign” subversion.

We see eerie similarities between those periods and the present. Today, 50 million U.S. Christian Zionists, far outnumbering—and far more evangelical—than their Jewish counterparts, are not only leading the Islamophobic bandwagon but driving it home. To these new crusaders, Islam represents a civilizational difference that amounts to nothing less than evil incarnate that must either be converted or destroyed, not least under military pressure. By the same token, but representing a shift in ideological tendency, orthodox Jewish sects have found justification within Judaism for designating Islam “unclean” and therefore “other,” in turn making strange bedfellows with their erstwhile nemesis, Israeli atheists, who have traditionally eschewed religion on self-proclaimed “socialist” grounds.

Indeed Western secular as well as religious followings have historically converged on the question of Islam—and of the hegemonic expansionism which modern Islamophobia symptomatizes. Islamophobes see Islam as an essentially hostile and morally indifferent worldview, when in fact not only is the opposite true, but so therefore have been the hostility and moral indifference of Christian and Jewish formations, and some Left formations, especially since the advent of Zionism, to the intersection and overlap of Islam, its long and complex history and its civilizational impulse, with ideological-political traditions deemed exclusively “Western.” It is in fact fair to say that the political implementation of Zionism has led to a wholesale distortion, if not complete jettisoning, of the spiritual, world-reparative core of both Christianity and Judaism, which is shared despite theological distinctions with that of Islam and other religions as well as with non-religious, utopian formations. Contemporary Zionist propaganda aimed at encouraging and swelling the ranks of Christian Zionism serves to reposition mainline Christianity away from its post-WWII-era reevaluations (e.g., Vatican II) toward a decidedly reactionary stance characterized by apocalyptic militarism, jingoism, racism, patriarchy, and class complacency—a perfect recipe for 21st-century imperialism—and disaster.

Q: Is the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement working effectively? The Arab nations in the Persian Gulf seem too precarious and uncertain on whether to join the movement or not. The Europeans also extremely fear being targeted with the libel of anti-Semitism. So, how can one expect that the movement may succeed in its goals?

A: Here we should be encouraged by the Arab uprisings and by concomitant religious and civil society resistance to autocratic rule in the region. It is only by dismantling such rule, propped up by Western powers and the economic and ideological interests they represent, that the genuine pan-Arab/Muslim solidarity so necessary to regional unity against such destructive interference is even feasible. As the West continues to experience economic crisis and stagnation, furthermore, its popular base may be less likely to tolerate the wasteful expenditures—like U.S. military aid to Israel—which enable dictatorial regimes and provoke extremist reaction. A recent report indicates that only a very small percentage of the U.S. population actually supports such aid, but that politicians pander to Israel’s persistent requests for it because doing so ensures lucrative campaign contributions from major collaborative industries. This, too, is part of the structural change that must occur before the goal of genuine peace may be reached.

Key Words: Palestinian People, Israeli Regime, Islamophobia, Anti-Semitism, Free Speech, Ginsberg  

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