[Marxism] Final Thoughts on the Kovel Affair

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Nov 9 10:36:25 MST 2009


Counterpunch, November 9, 2009
Bard and the Lobby
Final Thoughts on the Kovel Affair

By JOHN HALLE

In June of 2007, the left website CounterPunch published a short 
piece of mine addressing the decision of Depaul University to deny 
tenure to Prof. Norman Finkelstein. Among the forty-odd emails I 
received in response was one from Bard Professor Joel Kovel. 
Having served as a Green Party ward Alderman, I was familiar with 
Joel's Green Party activism and had read occasional articles by 
him over the years. Also, I had just accepted a position at the 
Bard Conservatory of Music and was looking forward to having at 
least one other co-worker to compare notes with as we entered the 
post-Bush era.

I would have been pleased to have had communications from others 
at Bard but none was forthcoming. Whether this was due to Joel 
being the only faculty member to read CounterPunch, simple 
reticence on the part of those who did, or lack of interest in, or 
lack of sympathy with Finkelstein's plight, I can't say. As I 
recall, I assumed the latter, as this was consistent with a 
longstanding belief on my part that the reputation of colleges as 
bastions of left wing thinking is grossly exaggerated, most 
notably when it comes to the Israel/Palestine question. Nothing in 
the subsequent years here has given me much cause to revise this 
presumption, not, to be sure, the Bard community's response to 
Joel's termination, as I will discuss shortly.

Some months after Joel's email, I had the opportunity to return 
the favor and to revisit the question of Bard's general political 
orientation. Joel's book "Overcoming Zionism" had been withdrawn 
by its publisher Pluto Press under pressure from the Israel lobby 
in what can reasonably be described as the contemporary equivalent 
of a book burning. Just as he had been the only Bard faculty 
member to respond to my piece in Counterpunch, so too was I the 
only member of the Bard community to respond to his request to 
join the thousands of others who had sent expressions of protest.

When Joel returned to Bard in the fall of 2008, we decided to get 
together for a weekly meeting which would develop into the 
eco-socialist lunches, billed in flyers we distributed around 
campus as an informal discussion of political events from a left 
perspective, open to all interested students, staff, faculty and 
community members. Most weeks the group numbered between 8 and 12. 
Aside from ourselves (and my wife, on occasion) all of the 
participants would be students. No faculty member attended or 
expressed any interest in attending or even (with one exception) 
asked about the group.

While much of the conversation tended to revolve around the Obama 
campaign and the prospects for an Obama administration, Israel and 
attitudes towards Israel on the Bard campus were an occasional 
topic. While no particular consensus was reached, it is fair to 
say that the administration's later description of "anti Zionism" 
as "uncontroversial" would have been greeted with some skepticism 
by most of those attending.

****

Following the Israeli attack on Gaza in December, our shared 
skepticism as to the willingness and capacity of the Bard 
community to view Zionism critically would be strongly vindicated. 
Insofar as anti-Zionism is interpreted, minimally, as criticism of 
military aggression by the Israeli government, there was nothing 
of the sort to be found at precisely the time when its presence 
ought to be most apparent. One searched in vain for joint letters, 
demonstrations, flyers, teach-ins, or other expressions of concern 
at the unfolding atrocity.

There was, it should be noted, one faculty member, the college 
chaplain, who conspicuously weighed in on the subject of the Gaza 
attacks-on the side of the Israeli Defense Force. While I had, as 
mentioned, long since parted with any illusions as to what to 
expect from academics in these sorts of circumstances, it was 
still a bit shocking to find a supposed voice of moral conscience 
in an appearance on the far right radio station WABC, championing 
the bombing of civilian targets and denouncing as anti-semitic 
those who raised questions as to its moral legitimacy.

This constituted the extent of the visible faculty response to 
Gaza. There may have been private expressions of concern or even 
grief-and perhaps public expressions, though if so, none of them 
found their way back to Bard in any visible form. Given that more 
than a few Bard faculty members are frequently granted high 
profile platforms for the expression of their views, any 
expression of protest would have registered, so it is a reasonable 
assumption that they didn't exist.

I would like to emphasize that I bring up these facts not out of 
any personal dissatisfaction with the Bard faculty as a group or 
animus towards the college chaplain as an individual. My years at 
Yale were notable for many cordial relationships with colleagues 
who were universally to the right of me politically and who were, 
in more than a few cases proud and even virulent reactionaries. 
Imposing a political litmus test for those with whom I work and 
socialize would be a recipe for professional suicide, not to 
mention, misanthropy.

Rather, this context is required to respond to repeated claims 
emanating from the Bard administration in response to the Kovel 
affair that Bard is a campus which not only tolerates and but 
celebrates dissident political views. This general proposition is 
not supported by any facts that have been apparent in my two years 
here. And on the specific claim in question, that anti-Zionism is 
uncontroversial, the silence with which the faculty greeted the 
Gaza attacks is a prima facie refutation of this proposition, one 
which is even more glaring when seen in the light of the numerous 
cris-de-coeur emanating from some of Israel's staunchest advocates 
in the months since the attacks.

I should also mention here that it does not follow from the above 
that Joel's charges of political interference in Bard's decision 
not to renew his contract have any de facto or de jure legitimacy. 
Nor does it follow that the faculty members who served on the 
committee evaluating Joel's contributions to Bard (one of whom was 
the Bard chaplain mentioned above) were unable to exercise 
independent judgement of Joel's work. However, with the particular 
issue in question, suspicion is surely called for given the 
numerous and well document instances of interference in academic 
affairs by what has become known as the Lobby.

****

By now, the Lobby's crackdown on criticism of Israeli human rights 
abuses on college campuses should be more than familiar, as every 
week seems to brings a new and disturbing attempt at academic 
suppression. The most recent is a charge of misconduct being 
brought against UC Santa Barbara Prof. William Robinson on direct 
orders from ADL chairman Abe Foxman. Not long before came news of 
Clark University having rescinded an invitation to Norman 
Finkelstein under pressure from Jewish student organizations. 
Prior to that was an effort at intimidation waged by Harvard Law 
School Professor Alan Dershowitz against Hampshire College 
students supporting sanctions directed at firms profiting from the 
West Bank occupation. These join targeted attacks on Columbia 
Professor Joseph Massad, University of Michigan Professor Juan 
Cole, and, of course, Finkelstein himself, to mention only a few 
cases.

That none of these have been mentioned by the administration in 
responding to Kovel's charges of political interference is 
disappointing and has fueled suspicion outside of Bard in 
capitulating to pressure in its decision to remove Kovel academic 
freedom has been, yet again, violated. There is also at least a 
whiff of arrogance in Bard's assumption that the illustrious 
legacy of Hannah Arendt and its description in the Princeton 
Review as "the most liberal of the liberal arts colleges" exempts 
it from answering questions about the troubling context of Kovel's 
termination.

But as the school's connection with its storied radical history 
recedes into the distant past, it will find that this defense is 
increasingly less available. Indeed, by now there are very few 
remaining indications of the radical dissent which it claims to be 
encoded in its institutional DNA. A strong indication along these 
lines can be obtained by a perusal of faculty lists in the 
relevant departments. It will be immediately noticed that the most 
recognizable names derive from their association not with, for 
example, the New Left Review, Z, the Left Forum, or even the 
Nation but with the establishment neo-liberalism of the New York 
Review, the New Yorker and New Republic (whose publisher, 
uber-Zionist Martin Peretz, serves on the Bard Board of Trustees). 
Few Bard faculty would be described, or, I would guess, would 
describe themselves as political radicals.

Another indication of the actually existing political orientation 
of Bard is provided by Kovel's replacement in the Alger Hiss chair 
by an historian whose work provides a defense of, and has been 
celebrated by those embracing, the most strident varieties of cold 
war anti-communism. Then there is the increasingly close 
relationship with its Hudson Valley neighbor West Point which has 
resulted in appearances on the Bard campus by military 
functionaries addressing such topics as counter-insurgency 
warfare. These augment other recently invited speakers discussing 
Islamic fundamentalist terror and violence, with few if any 
challenging establishment orthodoxy on these matters. All this, 
according to administration critics, signals a broader effort to 
legitimate Bard in establishment circles one which requires that 
it rid itself of left-wing gadflies such as Kovel.

****

These and other efforts at mainstreaming Bard have, it would 
appear, met with some success among their target demographic, 
namely those major donors who are lavishly financing campus 
initiatives including the much trumpeted Bard-Al Quds joint degree 
program, a multi-million dollar Frank Gehry designed performing 
arts center, and an elegant new science building. At the same 
time, there is some evidence that the strategy has begun to 
backfire with its primary constituency (or, more precisely, 
market), namely the students who are willing to dispense with the 
$40,000 yearly tuition which, it is said, accounts for the bulk of 
Bard's operating revenues. This base consists of more than a few 
who, despite their necessarily privileged backgrounds have more or 
less leftist sympathies and come to Bard based on its 
reputation-as opposed to its current reality. Some eventually come 
to recognize that while these views are not actively discouraged, 
nor are they encouraged or nurtured by the current composition of 
the faculty. The surprising level of activism precipitated by the 
Kovel case was likely indicative of a growing dissatisfaction 
among these sorts of students and the administration is correct to 
be concerned of the possible effect on Bard's traditional 
applicant pool and by extension, finances.

There is a chance, albeit a small one, that bottom line 
considerations will make it necessary for Bard for to reassert its 
identity as a bulwark of what used to be called the dissenting 
academy. If so, it has more that a little work to do. Rehiring 
Kovel is one step in this direction; however, Joel is now 70 and 
doing so would amount to no more than a reaffirmation of Bard's 
past. What is needed is a tangible demonstration that a commitment 
to dissent defines Bard's present and, one hopes, Bard's future.

An action which Bard could take along these lines would be to 
install Norman Finkelstein as the next occupant of the Alger Hiss 
chair. Finkelstein's presence at Bard would, of course, 
indisputably remove any question as to influence of the Lobby on 
Bard's hiring decisions. But, more importantly, Finkelstein's 
combination of an impressive scholarly resumé with a long standing 
record of challenging the most sacrosanct conventional wisdoms 
make him a scholarly model for the traditions which have defined 
Bard, and which continue to have resonance for more than a few 
Bard students.

This is what we should expect of the academy at its best-one which 
takes seriously its responsibility to tell the truth and expose lies.

It is more than likely that this suggestion will be passed off as 
frivolous by those who are in a position to act on it. If so, 
those doing so should consider that this itself is an indication 
of the gap between Bard's self-image and the objective reality of 
where it stands when it is called to do so.

Perhaps the best possible outcome of the Kovel affair is for the 
school to begin to recognize how far it needs to go to bridge this 
gap.

John Halle is Director of Studies in Music Theory and Practice at 
Bard College. He can be reached at: halle at bard.edu




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