A leading American legal rights group argued the case of a Swiss professor of Islam to a federal appeals court in New York on Tuesday and accused Barack Obama’s administration of barring foreign scholars, like Tariq Ramadan, from entry into the United States due to their political views.
The American Civil Liberties Union argued that the government’s exclusion of Ramadan was illegal and was motivated not by anything he did but by his vocal criticism of U.S. foreign policy as scholars across the United States continued to deplore the power of the Zionist lobby on academia and its detrimental effects on academic freedom.
Human rights organizations said they were hoping to reverse some of the policies enforced by the former U.S. administration and called on President Obama to change his predecessor's policies of refusing visas to foreigners based solely on their political ideas.
A coalition of 76 human rights organizations refered to the case of Ramadan being unable to take up his position as chair at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana after being refused a visa under the Patriot Act.
The group argued in a letter to Obama's administration that "as a result of this practice, dozens of prominent intellectuals were barred from assuming teaching posts at U.S. universities, fulfilling speaking engagements with U.S. audiences and attending academic conferences."
"Many of those barred from the U.S. were vocal critics of U.S. foreign policy," the letter said.
Ramdan's case was likely to again shine a spotlight on the erosion of academic freedom across the United States and the climate of fear and intimidation that scholars say is silencing dissident.
The power of Zionism
Last month seasoned American professor Joel Kovel became the most recent anti-Zionist academic to fall victim to ambiguous dismissal after he was discharged from Bard College following a 21-year career.
Kovel, author of Overcoming Zionism among other titles, argued that his termination stemmed from "differences between myself and the Bard administration on the issue of Zionism."
"It was clear they had not much use for me because I surpassed the boundaries of what is called responsible criticism of Israel in the United States," Kovel told AlArabiya.net.
Several scholars have argued that the power of the Zionist lobby is creating a climate of fear that is used to come down hard as the world takes notice of Israeli atrocities.
“You have more freedom to express support for Israeli war crimes than to speak about the Palestinian civilian victims in the war on Gaza,” As'ad Abu Khalil, professor of political science at California State University, told AlArabiya.net.
"There is a general climate that is very sympathetic and solidly dogmatic in favor of Zionism than it is to Palestinians and its supporters," he said, adding that as people start pay attention to Israeli crimes Zionists are clamping down on any dissent by exerting "horrendous forms of pressure on school administrations."
"Academic freedom is not equally distributed here in the U.S.," he said. "There is a tremendous illogical moral and ethical asymmetry on college campuses."
Nubar Hovsepian, associate professor of political science and international studies at Chapman University, said although Israeli lobby and pro-Zionists have power they are increasingly being cornered.
"The Israeli lobby and the Zionists are losing the intellectual battle," Hovsepian told AlArabiya.net, adding that is the reason "they are trying to strike at the weak links like Joel Kovel or Norman Finkelstein" because "all they have is manipulation and dirty politics."
Finkelstein resigned from his post at DePaul university after he was denied tenure and placed on administrative leave after concerted efforts by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz to oppose his bid for tenure.
After being denied tenure, Finkelstein argued that he "met the standards of tenure DePaul required, but it wasn't enough to overcome the political opposition to my speaking out on the Israel-Palestine conflict."
For Hovsepian the battle is not only about academic freedom but about breaking the narrow confines of having a security agenda placed on writers and academics who deal with the Middle East.
Tenure and freedom of speech
Both AbuKhalil and Hovsepian said that for junior faculty members it was more diffcult to speak out and said many of them were waiting to become tenured in order to express overtly critical views.
Abu Khalil said the tactics of smearing anyone who critcizes Zionism or Israel was not only to target specific professors but to "send a message of intimidation and fear throughout the country," which he believed was working and silencing many voices.
But Hamid Dabashi, a tenured professor at Colombia University, argued that "even senior professors, those who have tenure, their position is in danger because they are systematically targeted with character assassination."
Dabashi said that academic freedom was a delusion and said those who cared about what happened in the world nevertheless would continue to exercise our academic and intellectual freedom "until either academic freedom is true and we are using it or it is false and the world will know that there is no such thing."
For most of the professors who were admonished for their pro-Palestinian vews, such as Finkelstein or Joseph Massad, a Columbia University associate professor who was at the center of a controversy over accusations of anti-Semitism in 2004, seeking justice is difficult as it is often left up to the academic to prove that they were targetted due to their views, an almost impossible task.
But for Kovel "it is important to protest these things, even though it is an uphill battle, because it is important to let the world know there is a problem with Zionism and American academic institutions and that needs to change."
Dabashi said there were no means to fight such injustice and said the only thing that professors could do was speak out as loudly as possible.
"We are all vulnerable, anyone who speaks against Zionism or speaks against atrocities of U.S. foreign policy" he said. " But feeling vulnerable does not mean that we are silent infact we are ever more outspoken."
For Hovsepian the fact that professors have managed to find their voice is in itself an accomplishment.
"Yes we all get attacked, but, if you want to defend rights you cannot be fearful of attack, you have to fight back," he said, adding in the past "none of us knew how to fight back" but now we do.