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Ron Radosh

The dismissal of Joel Kovel: Sanity in Academia

February 19th, 2009 - 1:54 pm

Readers of this Web site know full well about the anti-Israeli animus afflicting so many of our campuses.  There are scores of Web sites and bloggers reporting daily about its effect, and the constant attempts to single out Israel as the only perpetrator of human rights violations deserving condemnation in today’s world.

Thus, when Bard College announced that it was firing Professor Joel Kovel,  his followers and supporters immediately tried to mount a campaign claiming that Kovel had been dismissed from his position because of his open and impassioned attack on Israel and his argument that Israel should be replaced by a unitary secular state made up of both former Israelis and Palestinians. Kovel himself wrote a statement about his termination in which he writes that, “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.”

Kovel goes on to actually accuse Bard of firing him because he believes that it is the role of an educator to criticize the injustices in the world, and that Bard’s failure to not oppose Israel’s occupation and aggression makes it an accomplice in the perpetuation of Israel’s “state violence.” Since he implies that Bard defends both Zionism and Israel ( he points out that its President Leon Botstein is musical director of the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra, and that when it played at Bard the group performed both the Israeli and American national anthems) he argues that the worse Israel’s behavior, “the more strenuous must be the suppression of criticism.” His major point: Bard College “has suppressed critical engagement with Israel and Zionism, and therefore has enabled abuses such as have occurred and are occurring in Gaza.”

Already Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, (AAUP) has joined the chorus attacking Bard, and noted that he is “concerned” because Kovel’s yearly contracts “would appear to grant him an expectation of continued employment.”  But by Kovel’s own admission, he had held a Presidential appointment “outside the tenure system,” which means that it is the college’s prerogative to not renew a yearly appointment whenever it so chooses. Nelson acknowledges that “further investigation may be necessary,” but he argues that “there is also reason to be concerned that politics – namely his outspoken positions and publications about the Arab-Israeli conflict – may have played a role in this decision.” Thus Nelson takes at face value Kovel’s assertion that his firing is a “violation of academic freedom.”

Kovel was most well known for holding the first Alger Hiss Chair of Social Studies in1988. His own letter  at first makes it appear that he still holds this position now under a “half-time (one semester on, one off, with half salary and full benefits year-round.)”  Later in the letter he mentions that the Chair was taken from him in 2002. Yet Kovel has succeeded in confusing many commentators, who assume he still held that chair. The reality is that a few years ago, Yale University Press editor in chief Jonathan Brent, creator of “the Annals of Communism” series, was appointed to that chair and has been teaching under its rubric to the present. Many have commented on the irony that Brent, who as much as anyone else knows full well that Hiss was a Soviet spy, holds the chair named after the Soviet agent.  When he was appointed, I suggested that the chair be renamed “the Whittaker Chambers Chair,” which given Brent’s well known anti-Communism, would in fact be more appropriate.

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