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Israeli scholars face growing discrimination due to boycott movement

Israeli anthropologist Dan Rabinowitz is a leader in his field, heading a prestigious school of environmental studies at Tel Aviv University, authoring dozens of publications and holding visiting teaching positions over the years at leading North American universities.

But the British-educated Rabinowitz fears that his younger counterparts may not enjoy the same professional opportunities for a very personal reason: They are Israeli.

As a global boycott movement against Israeli universities gains steam, Israeli professors say they are feeling the pressure from their colleagues overseas. Although the movement ostensibly targets universities, not individuals, Israeli academics say they are often shunned at the personal level. They experience snubs at academic conferences, struggle to get recommendations and can experience difficulty publishing their work in professional journals.

“This is highly personal and personalized,” said Rabinowitz.

And yet Israeli universities are widely seen as liberal bastions, and their professors are some of the most vocal government critics. The situation is equivalent to foreign universities marginalizing American academics over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, even though those academics also oppose the wars.

Peretz Lavie, president of the Technion, Israel’s premier science and technology university, said the effect of such decisions has so far been minimal. Lavie is leading a battle against the boycott.

While acknowledging that Israeli government policies are open to criticism, he said that holding universities responsible for them is unfair and asked why countries with abysmal human rights records, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, have been spared.

“We have the feeling that these movements treat Israel differently than any other country in the world,” he said.

Many American Jews believe that anti-Semitism is at the heart of the discrimination leveled at Israeli academics, although many also allow that the hatred is unconscious rather than intentional. For millennia, suspicion and resentment of Jews has been so engrained into Western culture that it’s become part of the culture’s DNA.

The academic boycott is part of the broader pro-Palestinian “BDS” campaign, which advocates boycotts, divestment and sanctions against Israel. Inspired by the anti-apartheid movement, BDS organizers say they are using nonviolent means to promote the Palestinian struggle for independence.

Israel says the campaign goes beyond fighting its occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and often masks a more far-reaching aim to “delegitimize” or destroy the Jewish state. But the BDS movement’s decentralized organization and language calling for universal human rights have proven difficult to counter.

The BDS website says “the vast majority of Israeli intellectuals and academics have either contributed directly to the Israeli occupation and apartheid or at the very least have been complicit through their silence.”

Already enjoying significant support in the U.K., the academic boycott has chalked up a series of accomplishments in the United States.

In recent years, the Association for Asian American Studies, the American Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association and the National Women’s Studies Association have approved boycott measures.

In November, a meeting of the American Anthropological Association overwhelmingly endorsed a motion supporting a boycott of Israeli universities..

Lavie said relations between Israeli and American universities remain strong at the institutional and leadership levels, and praised this month’s decision by the Association of American Universities reaffirming its opposition to the boycott. The group, which represents 62 leading U.S. universities, said the boycott “violates academic freedom.”

Nonetheless, Lavie said the boycott movement has become a top concern for Israeli university leaders, particularly as it gains support at the “ground level” from U.S. student unions and academic associations.

“There may be a domino effect,” he said. “If we do not deal with it, it will be a major problem.”

Rabinowitz counts the November vote by the anthropological association as one of the most painful chapters of his career. He said he personally tried to alter the boycott resolution twice — only to be rejected with little or no debate. He said the rejection by his colleagues was a “defining moment” for him. In a statement, the association confirmed Rabinowitz’s account, noting that the meeting was “highly charged.”

Ed Liebow, the association’s executive director, said the organization felt “a strong commitment” to take some sort of action. “The one thing we can’t do is nothing,” he said. The measure goes to the association’s more than 10,000 members for a vote this spring.

Although the American anthropologists have never before proposed a boycott of academic institutions, the association said it commonly takes public stands against governments accused of restricting academic freedom. It recently sent a letter to leaders of Turkey, criticizing them for allegedly curbing scholars there.

Ilana Feldman, a professor of anthropology at George Washington University and a boycott supporter, said the proposal, if passed, would not impede professors “in any way” from working with Israeli scholars.

Rabinowitz, however, said it is impossible to distinguish between a person and his institution, which becomes part of one’s professional identity.

Israeli academics say such feelings are increasingly common.

Rachelle Alterman, a professor emeritus of urban planning at the Technion, said she still has strong working relationships with colleagues around the world, but the pro-boycott camp is a “rising minority” in academia. She said it is less of an issue in the hard sciences like medicine and physics, and much more palpable in more subjective social sciences. Younger academics trying to establish a reputation are especially vulnerable.

Alterman said she has begun to feel a “coldness” from some colleagues at conferences that was not there in the past. She said some colleagues refuse to attend conferences in Israel, and editors at professional journals tell her it is difficult to find people willing to review papers by Israeli academics.

“I call it the dark matter. It’s there all the time, but elusive, hard to spot,” she said.

In one recent case, a British colleague coolly rejected a request to assist one of her graduate students.

“I am afraid that as part of the institutional boycott being observed by some academics in relation to Israeli organisations I am unable to help with your request,” the British professor wrote in an email.

Rabinowitz said the boycott efforts will backfire by undermining Israeli moderates and playing into the hands of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line government.

“It is the best present they can give Netanyahu and the radical right in Israel,” he said.

Louis Weisberg contributed to this article.

Political football | Koch Industries makes play on college campuses

University of Wisconsin students cheered as the Badgers rolled over Rutgers on Oct. 31 at Camp Randall Stadium. But there also was a smattering of boos and catcalls off the field because, on one of the most liberal college campuses in America, the very un-liberal Koch Industries bought sponsorship of the game.

Koch Industries, owned and operated by the conservative billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, has sponsored UW football throughout this season.

“Really? There isn’t a university in Texas or Arizona that’s a better fit with Koch Industries than UW?” said Kyle Dunn, a Madison resident and UW alumnus, during halftime. He sounded like a fan outraged over a fumble. “If they are recruiting, they’re making waves in the wrong pool.”

A chorus of students and alumni have posted letters to the school, the athletic department and to Wisconsin newspaper editors noting the irony of the university benefiting financially from a conglomerate owned and operated by the billionaires behind political efforts to cut funding to public education, co-opt academic programs, influence scientific research and bust teacher’s unions.

Koch Industries first bought into college sports during the 2014–15 basketball season, with sponsorships at 15 universities. The sponsorship drive will continue into the 2015–16 basketball season, with fans seeing Koch signs and videos and hearing radio ads in college arenas.

Koch also has handed out such giveaways as sunglasses, according to the Center for Media and Democracy, a Madison-based watchdog and advocacy group that monitors right-wing activity, corruption and corporate influence.

Koch’s sponsorship at UW-Madison is through a multi-year contract between the UW Board of Regents and Badger Sports Properties, a subsidiary of Learfield Communications, Inc., according to The Capital Times, which obtained the contract through an open records request.

The Cap Times Oct. 22 report said the contract, worth more than $111 million to UW, gives Badger Sports Properties the right to sell game sponsorships and ads through 2026. The agreement gives UW officials the right to refuse sponsorships that adversely affect the school’s reputation or are contrary to university policy.

The policy, according to The Cap Times, prohibits sponsorship by tobacco companies and requires reviews of sponsorships involving alcohol and gambling.

However, the school apparently has no problem with Koch sponsorship — recruitment ads have been appearing on the Camp Randall scoreboard throughout the season.

A statement from UW-Madison’s media relations department said the school “doesn’t screen companies that sponsor our athletics program based on the political views of their owners. As a public institution, we don’t think that would be appropriate. UW Athletics draws support from a wide variety of firms.”

Rebranding and recruiting

Koch Industries is seeking to “bolster recruitment” on campuses, reshape its image and connect with “dedicated sports fans and university communities,” according to a news release from Learfield.

“Like student athletes, our 60,000 U.S. employees understand that hard work and team spirit are fundamental to winning and success,” stated Koch communications officer Steve Lombardo, who previously worked to rebrand the Philip Morris USA cigarette company. 

Learfield executive vice president Roy Seinfeld said, “There is a special passion and loyalty among the college sector that is like no other and we’re fortunate to bring this to life for Koch Industries and their many brands.”

Koch Industries is one of the largest private multinational conglomerates in the United States, with about $115 billion in annual revenues. Koch’s holdings are in asphalt, chemicals, energy, fibers, fertilizer, natural gas, plastics, petroleum, plastics, pulp and ranching — a stew of subsidiaries that environmentalists characterize as toxic.

The conglomerate is led by CEO Charles Koch and executive vice president David Koch, major funders of right-wing and libertarian politics. Their money, through a vast network of foundations, think tanks and PACs, goes to lobbying against expanded government health care, denying climate change, operating anti-government groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council and backing tea party politicians like Scott Walker. 

The Kochs, for example, have ties to the Virginia-based nonprofit Generation Opportunity, described on its website as “a free-thinking, liberty-loving, national organization of young people promoting the best of Being American: opportunity, creativity and freedom.”

A review by the watchdog group OpenSecrets found that 86 percent of funding for Generation Opportunity over a three-year period came from two Koch-connected nonprofits — Freedom Partners and TC4 Trust.

GO pursues a right-wing agenda and aims to persuade young Americans to vote against Democratic candidates and oppose Democratic initiatives, most prominently the Affordable Care Act.

SourceWatch.org, a publication of the Center for Media and Democracy, tracked GO’s campaign to convince young people to “opt out” of insurance under the ACA. In September 2013, GO announced it would spend about $750,000 on the campaign against so-called “Obamacare.” There was a tour of 20 college towns and lots of free beer offered.

Today, nearly 2.5 million people “like” GO’s Facebook page, which on Oct. 30 contained new posts about job scarcity, Affordable Care Act fraud, secret cellphone monitoring by police and Mike Huckabee’s most recent debate performance.

The Koch network also buys influence over curriculum, personnel, policy and research by funneling grants with strings attached to schools. For example, a Koch foundation grant to Florida State University required veto power over candidates for professorships the grant funded. 

Unkoching education

But a counter-movement is gaining strength among college students through campaigns such as UnKoch My Campus, which called for a national day of action against the corporatization of education on Nov. 5.

In a day of action last November, demonstrations took place on about 30 campuses. This year, students on 50 campuses planned to publish op-ed pieces for campus papers, lobby administrators and faculty to take a pledge to refuse income from special interests, planned sit-ins and teach-ins and filed open records requests demanding disclosure of Koch interests in their schools.

UnKochMyCampus.org maintains a “Koch heat map” designating schools that have received Koch funding. In Wisconsin, in addition to UW-Madison, Koch-related funding has gone to UW-Eau Claire, UW-Green Bay, UW-La Crosse, Lakeland, Wisconsin Lutheran, Carthage College and Beloit College.

Across the country, about 400 post-secondary schools need to be “unkoched,” according to UnKoch My Campus and Greenpeace, an environmental group that monitors Koch efforts encouraging academics to deny climate change.

Greenpeace says the number of universities receiving Koch funds has skyrocketed from just seven in 2005. A report from the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news organization, released in late October and based partly on an analysis of IRS filings, found Koch-led charitable foundations contributed $19.3 million donated to 210 colleges in 46 states in 2013.

Koch and college football:

Koch Industries kicked off the football season on Sept. 12 with a sponsorship of the Southern Methodist University game against North Texas. On Sept. 19, Koch sponsorships included Oklahoma State against University of Texas-San Antonio, University of Arkansas against Texas Tech, University of Oklahoma against Tulsa and Texas A&M against Nevada.

Koch put its brand on games between the University of Nebraska and Southern Mississippi on Sept. 26, Iowa State and the University of Kansas on Oct. 3, University of Kansas and Baylor on Oct. 10, and University of Houston and Vanderbilt and University of Wisconsin and Rutgers on Oct. 31.

Exorcism of 1949 continues to fascinate St. Louis

Saint Louis University junior Zach Grummer-Strawn has never seen “The Exorcist,” the 1973 horror film considered one of the finest examples of unadulterated cinematic terror. He’s only vaguely familiar with the monthlong 1949 demon-purging ritual at his school on which the film and William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel were based.

But just in time for Halloween, Jesuit scholars have joined a whole new generation of horror buffs in St. Louis to recount the supernatural incident. The university hosted a panel discussion this week on the exorcism, which involved the treatment of an unidentified suburban Washington, D.C., boy. About 500 people crammed into Pius XII Library, with some spilling into the library aisles, leaning against pillars or sitting on desks.

“I’d like to believe it’s the real thing,” said Grummer-Strawn, a theology and sociology student from Atlanta. “But you just can’t know. That’s part of why we’re here. It’s the pursuit of truth. And it’s such a great story.”

The university scholars and guest speaker Thomas Allen, author of a 1993 account of the events at the school’s former Alexian Brothers Hospital, emphasized that definitive proof that the boy known only as “Robbie” was possessed by malevolent spirits is unattainable. Maybe he instead suffered from mental illness or sexual abuse – or fabricated the entire experience.

Like most of religion’s basic tenets, it ultimately comes down to faith.

“If the devil can convince us he does not exist, then half the battle is won,” said the Rev. Paul Stark, vice president for mission and ministry at the 195-year-old Catholic school. He opened the discussion with a prayer from the church’s exorcism handbook, imploring God to “fill your servants with courage to fight that reprobate dragon.”

Some of the non-students in the audience spoke of personal connections to an episode that has enthralled generations of St. Louis residents.

One man described living near the suburban St. Louis home where the 13-year-old boy arrived in the winter of 1949 (his Lutheran mother was a St. Louis native who married a Catholic). Another said she was a distant cousin of Father William Bowdern, who led the exorcism ritual after consulting with the archbishop of St. Louis but remained publicly silent about his experiences – though he did tell Allen it was “the real thing.”

Bowdern died in 1983.

Bowdern was assisted by the Rev. Walter Halloran, who unlike his colleague spoke openly with Allen and expressed his skepticism about potential paranormal events before his death a decade ago.

“He talked more about the boy, and how much he suffered, and less about the rite,” Allen said. “Here was a scared, confused boy caught up in something he didn’t understand.

“He told me, ‘I simply don’t know,’ and that is where I leave it,” the author added. “I just don’t know.”

Allen zealously protects the anonymity of “Robbie,” despite others’ efforts to track him down to this day.

Gary Mackey, a 59-year-old accountant who left work early to attend the campus event, said he also is unsure whether “The Exorcist” was a work of fiction or instead a riveting real-life account of barely comprehensible forces.

He does know this: He cannot forget the movie that he saw with a buddy four decades ago. They drove 100 miles (160 kilometers) from their home in Louisville, Kentucky, to the nearest theater showing it across the state line in Cincinnati.

“I saw the movie when I was 19 years old and it scared me to death,” Mackey said. “I think it’s the scariest movie ever made.”