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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.

As for Kovel’s record at Bard, I have learned from sources that among other things, he used only his own books in the courses he taught. And as for his scholarly record, his publications include books like Red Hunting in the Promised Land:Anticommunism and the Making of America, which was published by Basic Books in 1994.  I have read that book by Kovel, and on the basis of his analysis and argument, I would have hesitated in appointing anyone who wrote such drivel to teach in the humanities, when his own field is that of psychology, and who had previously been a Professor of Psychiatry at Albert Einstein College. In this volume, he uses his psychological credentials to essentially argue that those who oppose communism in the United States- the anti-Communists- were essentially mentally ill.

Kovel treats Senator Hubert Humprey, one of the most ardent of the old Cold War liberals and Vice-President during Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, and the Democratic Party’s candidate for President in 1968, as one whose anti-communism was “a ritual of male bonding within which the signifier ‘father’ links Hubert Humphrey…Lyndon Johnson and the whole ethos of America as a land where ‘real men stand tall’ and stand together.”  Worse even was J. Edgar Hoover, whom Kovel argues was a sexual pervert whose anticommunism “might be interchangeably a womb or anus.”

Going back to our country’s very origins, Kovel wrote that the colonial era Puritans were also anticommunists, who opposed the American Indians who, of course, “were the first communists in America,” and who then became an “object of the first ‘red scare.’” Any good historian knows that the first thing one should never do in writing history is to transpose events of the present into the  years of the past, which the profession terms “presentism.”  Americans, Kovel continued, are all red-hunters since “the hunt retains a near-sacred character for Americans, as the politics of the National Rifle Association attest.”

Kovel’s book, in fact, make me wonder how someone whose scholarship is so shoddy ever got appointed in the first place. Perhaps the funders of the Hiss Chair wanted someone like Kovel, who believed that the United States was subject to a paranoid anti-Communism, and who would carry out in his teaching the ideas held dear by Alger Hiss. But anyone who explains America’s anticommunism as “an exploitation of the deep structures of racism for the purpose of managing threats to capitalist rule” and who holds anticommunism as a “pathology” which was America’s “civil religion” clearly is no scholar who is worth much of any serious regard.

Now that communism is all but dead, Kovel’s deep concern has moved on to his fierce opposition to Israel, and to our nation’s support of the only democracy in the Middle East. Kovel wants to make his politics the issue. But as evaluations made at Bard have shown, there were “an increasing number of student complaints about Kovel’s lack of organization,” which Kovel explained was due to his desire to have his courses focus on current issues. In other words, Kovel wants to teach a highly politicized course, based on his own anti-Israel book, Overcoming Zionism, which he evidently assigned as the course reading.  Kovel himself admits in his letter to the faculty that after he taught his course on Zionism in 2008, a faculty review of his work was conducted, and was as he puts it, “unenthusiastic.” Kovel, of course, attributes this finding to the fact that one of the three professors conducting the negative evaluation, Bruce Chilton, was a supporter of Israel. Kovel calls Chilton a man “active in Zionist circles” who is also “active…in supporting Israeli aggression in Gaza.”  He does not explain why Chilton obviously convinced his two other colleagues to agree with a negative assessment.

As for Bard, its president, Leon Botstein, notes that the current economy has forced the college to terminate part-time faculty, and that Kovel has sought to turn his dismissal – more accurately the decision to not renew his contract- “into a trumped-up case of prejudice and political victimization,” which he adds insults both Kovel’s own intelligence that that of his readers. Moreover, he digs in the scalpel by noting that Bard had instituted its own program to help improve Palestinian education in conjunction with Al Quds University, a program that Kovel himself  never bothered to inquire about.

The dismissal of Joel Kovel, therefore, is a victory for sanity in academia. It has been a long time coming. At last Bard’s students will not have to suffer the shibboleths Kovel offered as part of a supposedly solid academic curriculum.

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