Joel Kovel -- one of the more outspoken professorial critics of Israel on American college campuses -- is out of his job at Bard College. This week Kovel sent a letter to all Bard faculty members denouncing the way he has been treated and charging that his politics cost him the position.
Others suggest, however, that Kovel was treated the way many non-tenured professors are being treated these days as colleges retrench -- and that mixed student reviews of his organizational skills in the classroom may have hurt him more than his politics.
And while the college is generally avoiding comment, some at Bard are angry at Kovel's accusations that appear to link Israel's treatment of Gaza with the college's treatment of him.
His faculty letter concluded this way: "If the world stands outraged at Israeli aggression in Gaza, it should also be outraged at institutions in the United States that grant Israel impunity. In my view, Bard College is one such institution. It has suppressed critical engagement with Israel and Zionism, and therefore has enabled abuses such as have occurred and are occurring in Gaza. This notion is of course, not just descriptive of a place like Bard. It is also the context within which the critic of such a place and the Zionist ideology it enables becomes marginalized, and then removed."
Kovel stands out among academic critics of Israel in that he does not just criticize actions of the government there, or advocate for a Palestinian state, but argues for the replacement of Israel with a secular state for Israelis and Palestinians. In interviews, he has called Israel an "abomination" and said that he understands "the desire to smash Zionism." His book Overcoming Zionism set off a controversy last year when its American distributor -- the University of Michigan Press -- temporarily halted sales, and then ended its relationship with Pluto Press, the publisher.
In his letter, Kovel argues that his position at Bard deteriorated as his opposition to Zionism grew and became more public. He cites his various public statements as well as the links of Bard's president, Leon Botstein, to Israel. Botstein is musical director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, and Kovel's letter cites as problematic a visit by the orchestra to Bard's campus in which the national anthems of the United States and Israel were played. (While Bard does have ties to Israel, it notably has ties to Palestinian higher ed that may be deeper than those of most institutions, just this week announcing a series of joint programs with Al Quds University.)
A Bard spokesman declined to comment on the situation, citing the confidentiality of personnel actions. But an evaluation of Kovel, which he released, suggests that his "long and productive career" at Bard has been problematic of late. The evaluation notes an increasing number of student complaints about Kovel's lack of organization, which he has previously explained by saying that he likes his courses to focus on current material.
The concerns expressed in the evaluation focus on these issues, although the review also notes that Kovel has been teaching a course about his book Overcoming Zionism, despite some qualms from faculty colleagues. "It is possible that the pitch of controversy in regard to Zionism has impeded dialogue in this case. ..." the evaluation says. (Kovel says that the evaluation was biased because one of the three professors involved is a supporter of Israel.)
Kovel has taught at Bard since 1988, first holding the Alger Hiss Chair of Social Studies, and later moving to a part-time professorship. He never had tenure, only renewable contracts, the last one of which will not be renewed. (He will receive emeritus status, however.)
While Bard officials did not respond to inquiries, President Botstein did send Kovel a letter that included in it permission to release it, which Kovel did at this reporter's request. In the letter Botstein notes that Bard is eliminating a number of part-time positions to try to preserve full-time professorships, and that -- had finances remained "flush" -- Kovel's contract probably would have been renewed.
"To take what is self-evidently a result of economic constraint and turn it into a trumped-up case of prejudice and political victimization insults not only your intelligence but the intelligence of your readers," Botstein writes. He goes on to thank Kovel for teaching at Bard and to say that he was never offended by having someone with his views on the faculty. "I am delighted that you hold views that many consider wrong or dangerous. You are not as controversial as you would like to believe."
And Botstein notes that he is proud that Bard is working with help improve Palestinian education through the Al Quds University effort, writing: "I’m sure that over the years ahead Bard will do much good on behalf of education and justice in the Middle East. Parenthetically, may I express my disappointment that you never inquired about this new program, which was announced to the faculty last spring."