The Juan Cole affair

On a number of occasions I have quoted or pointed to Juan Cole’s blog, especially in relation to Middle East politics, and most recently in relation to the Israel lobby affair. A tenured professor, specialized in the modern Middle East, at the University of Michigan, Cole was tapped earlier this year by a Yale University search committee, and his appointment was approved by the History and the Sociology Departments in May. There remained one committee — the senior appointments committee — to go, or rather not to go: the tenure committee refused to ratify Cole’s hiring. Now, this could be considered a banal academic affair, except that such a refusal is rather unusual. What makes it really problematic, however, is the fact that it raises questions of academic freedom as it may very well have been caused by the pressure of a spate of recent media stories (or plants) skewering Juan Cole for his political stance regarding the Middle East, and the Palestinian situation more specifically. The current issue of The Jewish Week prints an article by Liel Leibovitz that analyses the issue in great detail. Here are a few excerpts:

But university insiders say that the uncharacteristic rebuff may have been influenced by several factors, central among them the political commentary Cole writes on his blog, “Informed Comment.” They also contend that Cole’s nomination was torpedoed mainly by senior professors in both departments who were concerned with Cole’s controversial persona.

Often favoring a pugilistic tone and consistently criticizing Israel’s policies in the West Bank, Cole has attracted a visibility that has made him a favorite target of several conservative commentators.

When Cole’s potential hiring became publicly known, several of his detractors, including the American Enterprise Institute’s Michael Rubin and Washington Times columnist Joel Mowbray, took various steps to protest the decision. They wrote op-ed pieces in various publications and Mowbray went as far as to send a letter to a dozen of Yale’s major donors, many of whom are Jewish, urging them to call the university and protest Cole’s hiring.

Cole, while refusing to comment on the tenure committee’s vote, told The Jewish Week he believes that “the concerted press campaign by neoconservatives against me, which was a form of lobbying the higher administration, was inappropriate and a threat to academic integrity.

“The articles published in the Yale Standard, the New York Sun, the Wall Street Journal, Slate, and the Washington Times, as part of what was clearly an orchestrated campaign, contained made-up quotes, inaccuracies, and false charges,” he said. “The idea that I am any sort of anti-Jewish racist because I think Israel would be better off without the occupied territories is bizarre, but I fear that a falsehood repeated often enough and in high enough places may begin to lose its air of absurdity.”

But even before he was approved by the two departments, i.e. when he was only one possibel candidate, the defamation machine had started to kick in, as the article notes:

But before Cole was even named as a candidate, some opponents took to the op-ed pages of various newspapers to press their case.

Writing in the Yale Daily News on April 18, Rubin, a neoconservative who often writes about the need for a strong U.S. policy against Iran, accused Cole of having “abandoned scholarship in favor of blog commentary.”

The same day, Eliana Johnson, a Yale undergraduate, and Mitchell Webber, a Yale graduate who is now a law student and a research assistant for Alan Dershowitz at Harvard Law School, published an op-ed in the conservative New York Sun. Echoing many of Rubin’s points, Johnson and Webber referred to Cole as the “professor best known for disparaging the participation of prominent American Jews in government.”

Those op-eds had little to say about Cole’s academic background, focusing most of their criticism on what the Michigan professor had written on his blog. Both pieces appeared to blur the distinction between American Jews and some Bush administration officials. On Aug. 29, 2004, for example, Cole wrote a blog entry calling several Bush neoconservatives “pro-Likud intellectuals” who wish “to use the Pentagon as Israel’s Gurkha regiment, fighting elective wars on behalf of Tel Aviv.”

Meanwhile, Juan Cole keeps writing his blog. It is excellent commentary on Middle East affairs. You can (& should) read it here.

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