Thursday, November 29, 2007

What Can Be Learned from the Hannah Diskin Affair at GWU

The Washington Jewish Week, a center-right community newspaper that I receive gratis, for some reason, published an article this week about a George Washington University Instructor who quit teaching her class on the Israel-Arab confict after students complained to the chair of the Political Science department that the class was one-sided and biased in favor of Israel. The students were left in the lurch, and the university had to find a substitute. This, according to the WJW, admittedly not the most reliable of newspapers.

The instructor, Hannah Diskin, was described by the WJU as "visiting from Hebrew University". and a "postdoctoral fellow" funded by Mitchell Bard's American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. And indeed, Dr. Diskin is listed as a postdoctoral fellow for the current year on the AICE website.

Cecelie Surasky has a convenient summary of the matter on her wonderful Muzzlewatch blog. But I looked a little more closely at the matter and didn't like what I saw.

Let's start with some facts that escaped the notice of the WJW reporter, Eric Fingerhut regarding Dr. Diskin. (Mr. Fingerhut deserves considerable credit for pursuing the story.) These facts are culled from Dr. Diskin's cv which appears not on the Hebrew University website, but -- surprise!-- on the website of the West Bank Ariel College of Judea and Samaria. (Yes, that's the one that calls itself a "university center", despite that it is not recognized as such by the Israel Council of Higher Education)

First, Dr. Diskin, who is listed by AICE as an "AICE supported postdoctoral fellow" at GWU this year, received her doctorate from Tel-Aviv university over twenty-five years ago. Generally, the limit for eligibility of postdoctoral fellows is seven, maybe, nine years. Why would AICE award somebody like Dr. Diskin a posdoctoral fellowship?

Second, Dr. Diskin is not on the faculty of Hebrew University, so she cannot be described as "visiting from Hebrew university." Her cv lists her as having a "teaching position" at Hebrew University from 1992-2005 in the Political Science department. That is usually code for being an adjunct instructor. Her husband, Avraham Diskin, is a professor in that department and a former chair. He is a visiting professor at GW this year. (Oddly, this was not mentioned in the WJW article.) In fact, if I understand her employment history correctly, she has never been more than an adjunct at Hebrew University or any other university inside or outside of Israel. From 2001 she is listed as the Director General of a publishing company.

Third, Dr. Diskin's area of scholarly expertise -- according to her publication history -- is Polish-Christian relations. The only book that she has authored by herself is entitled, The Seeds of Triumph: Church and State in Gomulka's Poland -- a book that was published twenty years after she received her doctorate. She has coauthored with her husband several articles in one of his main areas of scholarly expertise, the Israeli electoral system. She has not authored a single article on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, as far as I know.

I want to be very careful about what I say here. The fact that Dr. Diskin has never had, apparently, a permanent university position, does not in itself exclude her from being an effective teacher, or for that matter, a competent scholar. There are many fine scholars in Israel who, for various reasons, are without a permanent tenure home. (I cannot refrain from saying that the plight of women academics in Israel is particularly pronounced, but I have no idea whether that is relevant in this case.) I also don't think that her political views, which I obviously don't share, are particularly relevant to the question -- provided that she keeps them to herself.

My problem is not with Dr. Diskin, but with GW, which allowed an advocacy operation like AICE sponsor an adjunct instructor who is an expert in Polish-Christian relations to teach a class on the Arab-Israel conflict!

I won't even begin to comment on the appropriateness of her assigning as one of the two books in the class, Mitchell Bard's Myths and Facts, a highly biased and one-sided polemic that has no academic value whatsoever. Bard's organization sponsors her, and then she turns around and assigns Bard's book?

Nor will I speculate that the position was arranged for her by AICE as part of a package deal that brought her husband and her to GW on her husband's sabbatical. That is not the issue. Had she been teaching in her field of expertise, or even in her area of teaching competence, without such tendentious sources, then who would have cared?

When are universities going to learn that they cannot be cavalier with accepting money from outside organizations that fund teachers who, based on the news report, do not meet the minimum standards of objectivity? Assigning the Bard book in a college classroom, if true, is a big smoking gun.

Most amusing, though predictable, is the reaction of Daniel Pipes. Pipes has lead a crusade against what he calls biased Middle East professors. One would have thought that he would have been the first to criticize Dr. Diskin's use of Bard's one-sided work -- after all, the assumption is that as a scholar, he would oppose tendentiousness on both sides, right?

But no -- apparently, alleged advocacy and biased teaching is ok when you are on the side of Israel. Pipes was quoted as saying,
So far as I know, it [Bard's Myths and Facts] is a reliable source, perfectly reputable," he said.

Puleeze....

12 comments:

Richard said...

You've done some very important research here into Diskin's background. Why can't reporters for Jewish newspapers do as well?

As for Pipes, the operative statement is "as far as I know." Pipes apparently doesn't know much & it shows w. such a ludicrous statement as this one.

On a related matter, I'd like someone to do some research on AICE's IRS 990 report to try to find out who some of its major funders might be. I wonder if they might perchance be some AIPAC megadonors? If true, then you've got AIPAC indirectly mucking up the academic world with its pro-Israel propaganda.

Joachim Martillo said...

Kudos, kudos, kudos to Jerry Haber for this article with the qualification that it is not unusual for university's to look for ways to add to the paycheck of visiting scholars.

In this case, the senior administrators probably were not watching carefully enough with the result that lower level facilitors and gatekeepers just slipped Diskin under the radar so to speak.

Usually, this phenomenon is most obvious in the news media, but further investigation might show this case to serve as an academic example.

kevin said...

Thanks Jerry - once again, I find myself finding out the true facts about a case (as with the Oxford Union debate) here and not in the various media. I'm an anti-Zionist, but I had been a bit disturbed by the idea of this woman being somehow compelled to stop teaching her class, no matter what her politics. But the details make all the difference - GWU basically took an unqualified teacher on who was using the equivalent of political pamphlets and tourist brochures for Israel as secondary texts for an introductory class. This is wrong on so many levels and I can only say that GWU really needs to take a good look at the circumstances that allowed her to enter a classroom at all. And how many more of the AICE fellows are doing the same, but elsewhere?

Jerry Haber said...

Whoooaa, Kevin, according to the report in the Washington Jewish Week, Diskin wasn't forced to quit -- she quit. Now, I don't know why she quit, she did not return calls from the newspaper.

Joachim, I don't mind universities accepting outside money -- provided that there are no strings attached, and that the scholars or teachers are competent. I agree with you that this probably just fell through the cracks...but that is why university department chairs, who generally hire adjuncts, have to be careful.
The real heroes are the two GW students who blew the whistle on Diskin.

Eric said...

"You've done some very important research here into Diskin's background. Why can't reporters for Jewish newspapers do as well?"

Richard, as the reporter who wrote the original WJW story, discovered that Diskin's position was funded by AICE and that Myths and Facts was being used in class, I think I kind of did do some research--enough so that the story was actually publicized outside of the GW campus, so that you actually know about it and can discuss it (and do additional research).

Jerry's research is interesting, and I've still been trying to find out more on the story.

kevin said...

Yeah, I see now that she wasn't pushed but jumped... however in the early reports I saw there was some ambivalence about whether or not she was the 'victim' of some sort of concerted effort. I know that some who may share my political disposition concerning Israel can be as intolerant and tendentious (to use your better term) as the Dershowitz-Pipes axis, so had reserved judgment. I myself first studied the Israeli-Palestinian issue with an avowed Zionist, but we had a rigorous reading list, lectures were critical and raised questions rather than offering simple answers, and I received a good grade on my final project which was an non/anti-Zionist study of Palestinian nationalism before 1948 (in fact I was given very good letters of recommendation from this instructor as well).

But your excellent reporting removes any doubts in my mind... Diskin was an ideological plant, and went running as soon as a bit of light was shone upon her. Again, I do wonder if this is a systemic issue or a one-off? I tend to think there are more cases like this - GWU is supposed to be a pretty academically-solid place. What about struggling mid- and lower-level universities, community colleges, etc.? They would no doubt ask no questions when presented with a free teacher a "post-doctoral fellow" to teach a class in a popular area... I'm certain this is more common than we now know.

Jerry Haber said...

This one is for Eric --

Even before you left a comment here, I felt bad that I had not give you more credit for pursuing the story -- and the WJW for running it. I may have been doing WJW a mild injustice by knocking it in my blog, but, frankly, I have not been happy by the partisanship of its reporting, and the knee-jerk ethnic consensus it represents. Its handling of Carter, Walt and Mearsheimer, etc. -- well, you can read what I think in my post on moving behind the Lobby and getting stuck in the middle. I realize that it is a community paper, and all that, and I am doomed to be a heretic and a marrano in my community.

Still, I was pleasantly surprised that you had a long quote from M J Rosenberg, and since I get the WJW for free anyway (I have no idea why -- maybe because I teach Jewish Studies?) I will look for your byline more often. And I am going to amend the post.

Best
Jerry

richards1052 said...

Also to Eric who I hope sees this. I'm sorry too for the snippiness of my comment. To be more specific, I wish you'd been able to follow up more on Diskin's academic background & test whether her credentials were as she or GWU were claiming.

I tried to send you an e mail last night via WJW but they don't make yr address available, but I hope you'll look at the post I wrote as a follow up to Jerry's in which I tied AICE much more closely both to the Schusterman Fdn. & what may be an attempt by AIPAC to subtly impact the academic discourse about Israel on campus. The ties of Schusterman & Bard to AIPAC are very strong & its only a small hop, skip & jump fr. there to infer that this is a calculating attempt to intervene in academic discourse in a very partisan fashion.

Here's the link:
http://www.richardsilverstein.com/tikun_olam/2007/11/30/is-schusterman-foundation-funding-zionist-propaganda-on-campus/

Just in case Eric's not reading this--Jerry would you be willing to provide his e mail to me so I can contact him directly (if Blogger tracks that for you through his comment)?

Greg said...

I'm a student in the class and one of the kids who spoke out. This is very interesting. GW definitely should look into it's hiring practices.

Good job investigating.

Eric Fingerhut said...

Thanks, Jerry. Appreciate the amendment, even if you still kept the criticism of WJW in there. I'm sure you're aware that there are plenty of people in the D.C. area who consider us a left-wing rag. I would be curious to hear some of your specific complaints about the paper. (efingerhut@washingtonjewishweek.com)

Jerry Haber said...

Thanks Greg,

Can you contact me offblog at jeremiah.haberatgmail.com? I have a few questions for you.

Best
Jerry

Eric --

A left-wing rag!! Ay carumba!

I have never seen anything in the paper to the left of the political Zionist consensus; the farthest left I saw was Peace Now. When a few years ago, some Israeli and Palestinian peace activists spoke at Sidwell Friends, I believe, the piece was about Jewish complaints to the school and not about what they said (Marc Plotkin, my college classmate, was quoted as saying that the evening wasn't balanced) I am not an avid reader, but I haven't seen much criticism of Israeli government positions, or coverage of activists who come to the DC area, like Jeff Halper last spring. I know that the readership is, by and large, rightwing, but if the furthest "left" it gets is Douglas M Bloomfield, then what can I say?

Steve said...

Wow! Maybe I can get a gig at GW! I am a FedEX courier and therefore could probably teach a course on Economics there!!!!