Gus Kiley, general manager of Zone Books, expected criticism of one of the academic publisher's new releases, an in-depth critique of Israel's policies in the Palestinian territories that it occupies. But Kiley said he thought the criticism would come from supporters of Israel. Instead the backlash is from Lebanon, where one of the co-editors of the volume is facing intense criticism from students and some faculty colleagues at the American University of Beirut, where he teaches.
Sari Hanafi, an associate professor of sociology, isn't being criticized for the substance of the book, The Power of Inclusive Exclusion: Anatomy of Israeli Rule in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. But he has been the subject of online attacks and debate, and a heated campus meeting last week, because his name appears beside those of his two co-editors, who are Israeli academics.
And in publicity about the book, American University of Beirut's name has appeared with the names of Israeli institutions whose scholars contributed in various ways. Hanafi is being accused of violating Lebanese law and of assisting Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians by openly doing academic work with Israelis -- and it makes no difference that the Israelis in question are strong critics of their government's treatment of the Palestinians.
"The use of the name of the American University of Beirut [on a book with Israeli co-editors] lends institutional legitimacy and intellectual authority to these efforts in a manner that sets an alarming precedent," said a petition signed by several hundred professors, students and alumni.
"We expect that this association will be used abroad to signal that normal academic exchange between institutions in Lebanon and Israel is now an accepted practice, leaving a distinct impression that we have transcended the conflict and its root causes. It sends a message to our colleagues, our students, our public, and the world at large that there is no real issue between us and that we can enter into a normal relationship of academic collaboration. Therefore, we the undersigned ask the American University of Beirut, its president and Board of Trustees, its provost and deans of the faculties, to join with us in acknowledging that the University recognizes that normal academic exchange with Israeli academic institutions and their faculty is not an option open to AUB faculty and staff."
The university has not punished Hanafi, and its officials say that they have no plans to do so. But following an intense campus discussion of the issue, Provost Ahmad Dallal sent around an e-mail that -- while pledging support for academic freedom -- also did state, as urged by the petition, that faculty members couldn't work with Israelis.
The provost's e-mail noted that "in the past few days there has been a great deal of talk at AUB on the issues of academic freedom and collaboration between AUB and Israeli universities," and continued: "I take this opportunity to remind all members of our community that, as an institution of higher learning with an historic presence in Lebanon and the Middle East, AUB is deeply committed to upholding the essential values of academic freedom, and will do so within the bounds of Lebanese law, which strictly prohibits collaboration with Israeli institutions."
Indeed, Lebanese law does bar joint projects with Israelis. But does that mean that professors should endorse such a view -- even in activities that take place outside of Lebanon (as was the case with Hanafi)?
In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Hanafi defended the book and his actions, but at the same time noted that he respected some of the criticisms he has received.
Hanafi said he met his Israeli co-editors -- Adi Ophir and Michal Givoni, both of Tel Aviv University -- while doing research in the Palestinian territories, and that he admired them as scholars and as individuals committed to the Palestinian cause. He said that working with such people does not help Israel, but in fact helps "build an anti-colonial coalition" of the type needed to advocate for the Palestinians.
Scholars from American University of Beirut and universities in other countries that back the Palestinian cause in fact often interact with Israeli scholars, Hanafi said. He said it would be hard to attend many international conferences without ending up in the same sessions or on the same panels with Israelis. He said that there are Israeli scholars whose views he finds so objectionable that he would not appear on a panel with them, but that he believes these decisions should be made on a case-by-case basis.
While the petition calls for AUB professors to stay away from all Israeli scholars, Hanafi said that there was simply no reason not to work with academics who are critical of the Israeli government. Asked about other possible situations -- such as, for example, a literary scholar who wanted to write a textbook about poetry with a counterpart in Israel -- Hanafi said he would need to do a "content analysis" to see if this work advanced or detracted from the Palestinian cause. As to cases where the work in poetry or biology or economics did not relate to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Hanafi said that this was "a gray zone in which people must follow their consciences."
Hanafi said that while some on the campus have said he is a victim of a witch hunt, he does not believe academic freedom is "an absolute" or that his has been violated by those demanding that he defend his work with Israelis. He said that only a minority of faculty members signed the petition (although some have been outspoken defending it) and that most of the anger at the campus meeting came from students.
Indeed, he has received support from some students and faculty members, who created a Facebook page called "In Solidarity With Prof. Sari Hanafi - No to the Arabo/McCarthyism." And while he has been criticized in some of the Lebanese news media, he has been defended elsewhere.
One of the leading groups advocating a boycott of all Israeli academics -- the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel -- has released two somewhat contradictory statements about Hanafi and the book.
In the first statement, the organization suggested that the book was subject to the boycott, given that not only did it have Israeli co-editors, but also that the research was supported by the Van Leer Institute, a Jerusalem think tank that is known to have backed research on Palestinian issues, but that is seen as questionable by the boycott group because it expresses support for Israel as a Jewish state. The institute "is firmly planted in the prevailing Zionist consensus and is part and parcel of the structures of oppression and domination," making any project whose research it supports suspect, the boycott group said.
But the group followed up with a clarification in which it praised many of the co-editors and contributors as "principled" and said that while the research that led to the book violated the boycott (because of the support from Van Leer), the book itself was "absolutely not" subject to a boycott.
What about the future? Hanafi said that even though he doesn't think he did anything wrong, he is not sure he would work with an Israeli scholar in the future. "I will have to consider the sensitivities," he said.
While Hanafi and AUB officials said that the institution is showing respect for academic freedom, others are less certain.
Cary Nelson, national president of the American Association of University Professors, said that a university saying that it supports academic freedom isn't consistent with telling faculty members not to work with academic institutions from specified countries. "If the devil can quote scripture, apparently he can also claim common cause with the principle of academic freedom," Nelson said. "It is absurd at one and the same time to profess support for academic freedom and seek to prohibit collaboration and the free exchange of ideas with faculty members in Israel or anywhere else."
In a sign of how sensitive the situation has become, Zone Books has added a statement to its Web site as well as the book's page on the site of MIT Press (which distributes for Zone) to say that Zone Books received no support from and has no ties to the Van Leer Institute.
Kiley, Zone's general manager, said that the statement was added after Hanafi told him about the criticism of his role in the project and the view that it was somehow tainted by Israeli ties. Kiley not only added the statement to the Web site, but made a printed version and inserted it into 1,200 copies of the book in the warehouse.
Of the controversy, Kiley said: "I think it's sad and it's really discouraging, because we would hope that a book like this would serve to help ameliorate the situation or assist in some kind of dialogue, and I think everything has gotten so polarized. It's sad that there can't be some kind of middle space that would help."