Poisoned Ivy

Jul 26, 2006 at 12:00 am

It's no secret that News Hits is a fan of Juan Cole, the University of Michigan history professor whose Informed Comment (www.juancole.com) blog about the Middle East is must reading — especially now, with events in Lebanon adding even more bloodshed and instability to a region where the United States is already locked in two difficult wars.

So it was with some interest that we watched the scuffle that ensued earlier this year when Yale University approached the good professor with a potential job offer, causing neo-conservative wing nuts to launch a ferocious attack against him. Unfortunately for Cole, this assault — unlike the one against Iraq that like-minded wing nuts helped spawn — achieved success.

Cole didn't get the job, even though three separate committees that were part of the hiring process initially gave him the nod. But before he cleared the final hurdle of being OK'd by the university's tenure committee, the opposition's effort hit full slime.

What Cole described to one reporter as a "concerted press campaign by neoconservatives" began in April and continued to build, with columns and op-ed pieces appearing in the Wall Street Journal, the conservative New York Sun and the Yale Daily News.

Then, as the final vote approached, letters seeking influential opponents to Cole's hiring were sent to a dozen of Yale's prominent donors, most of whom were Jewish, according to an article last month in New York City's The Jewish Week newspaper.

And here we get to the nub of the issue. Or at least a big part of it. Cole, in various ways, has been tarred as both anti-Semitic and pro-Islamic terrorists. The charges aren't new, and he's defended himself vigorously against such attacks in the past.

Although it's obviously difficult for some people to grasp, it is indeed possible to condemn Israeli foreign policies and not harbor some ingrained hatred of Jews.

As for the accusation that he's an apologist for Arab suicide bombers. Cole countered that hit earlier this year in an interview with MT ("Juan's world," Feb. 22), saying, "I do lot of consulting in D.C. with counterterrorism people about how to get rid of al-Qaida, so I don't think it's plausible that I'm an apologist for Muslim extremism. I spend a good deal of my career trying to understand it and trying to defeat it. So, I think it's a sleazeball kind of rhetorical tactic, and I don't think it actually has any purchase."

Cole wouldn't talk to News Hits about the issue (and we thought we were buds after that interview with him), but he did provide some insight to Philip Weiss of The Nation for an article that appeared in the July 3 issue.

"I knew when I began to speak out that I wasn't going to be hired. I knew my academic career was over," he told Weiss. "I knew that I can be in this place, be a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Michigan for the rest of my life. But I would never be a dean. I would never be a provost. I would never be in the Ivy League. I'm not surprised. I'm not upset. Actually, the bizarre thing is that Juan Cole was considered by Yale in the first place."

But this is more than simply about Juan Cole and a prestigious Ivy League job that he didn't get. As Zachary Lockman, a Middle Eastern scholar at New York University, told Weiss, "Since September 11 there has been a concerted effort by a small but well-funded group of people outside academia to monitor very carefully what all of us are saying, ready to jump on any sign of deviation from what they see as acceptable opinion. It's an attack on academic freedom, and it's not very healthy for our society."

What is healthy is having people like Cole who are willing to speak out, no matter what the consequences.

Blog on, Juan, blog on.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact the column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]