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January 15, 2014 6:01 pm

Forbes Investigative Journalist Rips NYU President Over ‘Vanilla’ Response to ASA Boycott

avatar by Joshua Levitt

NYU Professor and ASA President-Elect Lisa Duggan. Photo: NYU.

NYU Professor and ASA President-Elect Lisa Duggan. Photo: NYU.

In a 15,000 word tour-de-force, Forbes Contributing Editor Richard Behar on Tuesday slammed the president of New York University, where he graduated from, in 1982, saying he was ashamed of his alma mater for its tepid response to the American Studies Association boycott of Israeli universities.

While 190 university presidents have condemned the boycott as flying in the face of the goals of academia, Behar accused NYU President John Sexton of not going far enough, with a “short, terse and quite vanilla” response, suggesting that he was trying “to have his cake and eat it too,” because of the three NYU academics and one PhD student serving on the ASA’s 18-member executive committee, led by NYU Professor Lisa Duggan, its newly-elected president.

Behar also revealed Duggan’s support for charges to be dropped against a terrorist named Rasmea Yousef Odeh, who is accused of lying about her past in order to gain U.S. citizenship in 1994.

According to the federal indictment in Detroit, Odeh played a role in planting a bomb in a crowded supermarket in Jerusalem in 1969 that killed two Israelis and injured many more. Odeh is also alleged to have played a role in a second bombing that damaged the British Consulate. The terror acts were carried out in the name the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization.

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Behar wrote that Odeh was given a life sentence by an Israeli military court, but served only ten years before being released in a prisoner exchange for an Israeli soldier kidnapped in Lebanon in 1978. When Odeh applied for U.S. citizenship in 1994, she lied three times on her application, Behar said, “falsely stating that she lived in Jordan continuously since 1948, that she was never charged with a crime, and that she was never imprisoned for one.”

Duggan asked her Twitter followers to sign a statement demanding Odeh’s release: “Read the story and sign the petition!,” she tweeted.

“Drop the Charges against Rasmea Yousef Odeh.” Duggan is signer #427.

Behar wrote:

Why is Duggan so anxious to get out of prison a woman who killed Israeli civilians? Are their lives worth less to her than Arab civilians or European civilians or white American civilians? Why would Duggan want this odious criminal on the streets of the Chicago suburb where she has long lived? How many other terrorists are living comfortably on our soil after falsifying their immigration applications? Would Duggan ask for freedom for all of them if they were arrested and indicted? Perhaps she has no faith in American law enforcement. Nor faith in a judge or jury to adjudicate it. She has decided the case on her own, even prior to a trial.

As part of his takedown of the ASA leadership, Behar found that none of its board members were experts in Middle East studies.

Duggan’s academic specialties are modern U.S. cultural, social and political history; history of gender and sexuality; and lesbian and gay studies. One course of hers at NYU is called ‘Queer Historiographies and Constructions of Whiteness in the United States.’ Her claim to fame: Inventing the word ‘homonormativity’ to explain how many gays now want to mimic straight people, in terms of ‘domesticity and consumption.’

Is Duggan aware that Israel, who she considers one of the greatest oppressors of human rights in the world, is quite possibly the gayest-friendly country in the world, let alone the tyrannical Middle East? Yes, but she and many of her cronies call it ‘pinkwashing’ – in essence a conspiracy by Israelis to support gays in order to detract attention from their treatment of Palestinians. In other words, Israel just can’t do anything worthwhile.

NYU’s second board member is Associate Professor Nikhil Pal Singh, whose specialties are “race, empire, and culture in 20th century America; black radicalism; U.S. foreign policy,” who, in lectures watched by Behar, tried to equate Israel to colonialism, even as he couched his mistake-laden speech by saying he was no expert on Israel.

The third NYU member of ASA’s national council is María Josefina (“Josie”) Saldaña-Portillo, an associate professor of Social and Cultural Analysis. Her specialties: “Latina/o studies, development and globalization studies; comparative race in the Americas; 20th century revolutionary thought and literature of the Americas.”

Forbes Contributing Editor Richard Behar.

Forbes Contributing Editor Richard Behar.

Behar said, “She has expertise on subjects such as Malcolm X and Mexico, but none on the Mideast conflict that I could find. But that didn’t stop her from adding her name to a letter to President Obama in 2009 stating that the rockets fired from Gaza into Israel ‘are mere pinpricks in comparison to the horrific consequences of Israeli bombardment.'”

The fourth NYU member is Marisol LeBron, a Ph.D. student whose specialty is Puerto Rican culture, hip hop, and “how the queer Bronx challenges neoliberal ideas about contemporary gay urban spaces.”

Behar writes: “On her Twitter page, she refers to herself as ‘The post pomo nuyorican homo….I write about the growth of the carceral state in contemporary Puerto Rico.’ Her expertise on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Nada.”

In his criticism of NYU’s Sexton, Behar asked if the school, which reportedly houses the largest total number of Jewish students of any college in the country – 11,000, about 25% of its student body – ever thought to pause for the support Jews provide?

Numerous buildings and programs have Jewish names, such as Tisch and Shimkin halls, Steinhardt Education Building, Stern School of Business (linked with the BER program [where Behar was a guest speaker]), Bronfman and Kaufman Management centers, the old Rubin dormitory, Ehrenkranz School of Social Work, Schwartz Plaza, Shimkin Hall, Silver Towers.

He also questioned why if NYU and its faculty are so impassioned by human rights abuse did the school, and Sexton, in particular, rush to open its first free-standing university affiliate in Abu Dhabi, where Israelis are not even allowed to enter?

Several years ago, you excitedly (and single-handedly with no advanced notice, according to many disgruntled faculty members) went to Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates to open a clone NYU campus there – paid for by that country’s oil-rich monarchy. It made NYU the first school in America to replicate itself anywhere on the globe. That was a strange place to insert a college campus—a barren fiefdom with little intellectual ferment, in a country noted for its unfair treatment of South Asian workers, where gays are oppressed, where women do not have equal rights, run by oppressive monarchs whose sole exports are oil and money. I can think of 50 more suitable places for my alma mater to spread its wings, with Israel among them.

Why did you pick Abu Dhabi, President Sexton? Was it the glorious academic traditions of the Persian Gulf fiefdoms or was it the petrodollars?… I find it noteworthy that you believe that the ASA boycott resolution is irreconcilable with academic freedom, and yet it’s an avouchment of academic freedom for NYU to partner with Dubai? One only need read the latest U.S. State Department country report on the UAE to see whom NYU is lying in bed with. Even supporters of the boycott have pointed out this hypocrisy.

Behar’s essay included references to his recent Forbes articles that profiled the many joint-venture businesses being created to bridge the gap and create new alliances among Jews and Arabs. He mentioned Chemi Peres, son of Israeli President Shimon Peres, who chairs a $50 million venture capital fund called Al Bawader (Arabic for “early signs”), that invests in Arab start-ups. The Israeli government has put money into the fund, as have individual Israeli Jews, Israeli-Arabs and Palestinian Arabs.

Behar also highlighted the many Arab graduates, including valedictorians, from the very same Israeli universities that the ASA is now boycotting.

Such boycotts only threaten to keep the Palestinian economy struggling, which is precisely what the Arab world has done for decades against Palestinians as a political tool against Israel. The first of many boycotts was initiated by the Arab League against Jewish products in Palestine in 1945, three years before Israel even became a state. In 1950, the blacklist was expanded to include ships that carried Jewish immigrants to Israel. In terms of Western academia, in 2007, a teachers union representing 120,000 British college professors got a jump on the ASA when it voted to boycott Israel’s academic institutions. Academic leaders in America condemned it — ‘It is chilling that such a proposal is even being considered,’ wrote Tulane University president Scott Cowen at the time – but today’s ASA initiative is the first major academic boycott effort to sprout from the soil on our side of the Atlantic.

Another professor who questioned the ASA vote was Michael Rockland, founder of the American Studies department at Rutgers University (in 1969), and an ASA member for more than 40 years. “Unlike the national counsel members, he has foreign policy credentials, having served in the diplomatic corps during the 1960s,” Behar added.

He said Rockland attended the ASA “open house” in San Diego, in November. “I have never attended a meeting like this in my life,” Rockland said he told the audience there. “This was advertised as a town meeting, a round table. Well, as far as I can see, it’s a one-sided table and you made no effort whatsoever to garner different opinions… You’re supposed to be cultural historians, and all you did was find six people who would denounce Israel. And you outdid each other- each one trying to come up with more and more ugly things. This reminds me of what it must be like at a North Korean Politburo meeting where the leader speaks and everybody applauds.”

Rockland told Behar: “It was disgraceful. It was so misguided. Stupid, really. We sometimes make the mistake in thinking that all fascists come from the right. These were fascists from the left. I just couldn’t quite believe it.”

Behar also interviewed Gil Troy, professor of history at McGill University, and author of eight books, including ‘Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Racism as Zionism,’ as the former New York Senator and U.S. Ambassador to the UN had warned of the slippery sloped being created by the international body famously condemning Zionism, a nationalist movement, like all the others, as racism.

Troy also created a rival movement to the ASA called ‘Troycott’ on Facebook, where he wrote: “Let’s stop being defensive. Let’s seize this moment to take back the night from the campus ideologues and totalitarians. Let’s restore a thoughtful, respectful dialogue about what Zionism – and Israel — was, is, and can be.”

Troy told Behar: “Moynihan long ago taught us to blame the totalitarian accusers, not the democratic accused. Alas, Moynihan’s prophecy from the 1970s risks coming true. As lies charging racism, apartheid and colonialism accumulated, he said, ‘Whether Israel was responsible, Israel surely would be blamed…. Israel would be regretted.'”

When he asked Troy what Moynihan would have thought about the ASA boycott, Troy responded: “He would be outraged by his fellow academics. He saw doctrinaire thinkers invading his precious domains, and also understood that picking on Israel was anti-Semitic and symptomatic of a larger surrender to totalitarianism. But being the epigrammatic phrase maker that he was, he would probably put it more elegantly, saying something like, ‘I should be disappointed but that would require higher expectations than I now have of these fanatics.'”

Behar’s conclusion:

Perhaps, Mr. Sexton, you could take a stronger stand against the ASA before the bill is debated, and – as I said earlier – have NYU’s good name removed from their list as institutional member? This could be your ‘Moynihan Moment.’

You issued a halfhearted statement, but by your words and actions-and inaction-you don’t seem especially upset by the ASA’s boycott of Israel. You need to speak out. You need to act. You need to put daylight between NYU and the ASA and any other group that endorses the academic boycott of Israel and Israelis. Until you do, I will be very deeply ashamed of my alma mater, and very deeply ashamed of you.


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