Posts Tagged Gabriel Piterberg

"It's noon. Do you know where your UCLA professor is?"

Exactly a week ago, university students around the country walked out on strike at midday, to protest a possible war against Saddam. When students strike, it denies no one a service. The point is self-denial: they’re prepared to sacrifice class time, for which they’ve paid good money, in order to demonstrate a point.

When faculty strike, that’s something else altogether. It really is denial of a service, to students who’ve paid good money for it. On a few campuses, some professors announced they were cancelling classes in solidarity with the student walkout. Universities have different policies on this sort of conduct, and one presumes they’ll uphold them.

The most ironic instance of class cancellation involved the UCLA historian Gabriel Piterberg. For a couple of years now, Piterberg has been striking the pose of an angry avant-garde radical. He harangues campus demonstrations, signs petitions, and teaches a course in post- and anti-Zionism. He even fabricated his own listing at Campus Watch, as though he were being persecuted for his ideas—a bald play for sympathy.

Now what is a poseur to do when an anti-war student strike looms? The Daily Bruin, UCLA’s student newspaper, popped the question to Piterberg the day before the walkout. And the question was pertinent: Piterberg teaches a midday seminar from 11 to 1 on Wednesdays. Piterberg gave this answer: “There is no way I can actively endorse it [the walkout], or not teach if there are students who choose to stay in class. That would be abuse of my position.” Ah, you say, professional ethics trump political commitment—as they should.

But that’s not the end of the story. Thursday’s Daily Bruin carried the news that Piterberg had “cancelled class and attended the rally.”

Piterberg, who teaches a 17-student history seminar at 11 a.m. on Wednesdays, said the vast majority of his class left to be a part of the demonstration.

“Only two students stayed,” Piterberg said.

After almost the entire class left, Piterberg decided to reconvene at 1 p.m. so students who wished to be a part of the walkout would not be punished.

“Politics are part of our lives, missing one class for an hour or two is not going to determine education. An important issue like war is going to affect education,” Piterberg said.

Need I say more? Piterberg said it himself—just a day earlier. He ended up abusing his position. And his student demonstrators got the best of both worlds: they got to pretend they had denied themselves a class session, when in fact Piterberg made it all up to them. A poseur gives a lesson in the art.

    Life Imitates Art at UCLA

    Back in October, I put together a little parody: a letter from an indignant professor to Campus Watch. In it, the prof rails against the “McCarthyite” website, but winds up begging to be listed on it, so as to boost his tenure prospects.

    Now there’s a real-life case of this, with only minor deviations. It takes the form of a memo from Gabriel Piterberg, a professor of Middle Eastern history, to his colleagues in the UCLA history department. After a perfunctionary opening, Piterberg warns of the “intensifying activity of Campus Watch at UCLA and other major campuses.”

    Campus Watch is a web site directed by Daniel Pipes and Martin Kramer, Middle East scholars and activists for the cause of the pro-Israeli lobby in America….The web site itself is a black list of professors whose views are unpalatable to the pro-Israeli lobby and to the current administration. The academic community is advised to be wary of these professors, and students are encouraged to spy and report on what they—and other potential suspects—do in class and publish. As a major academic center with an illustrious tradition in Middle East studies, UCLA is one of the main targets of Campus Watch. [UCLA history professor] Jim Gelvin and I are on its black list.

    End of memo. (Incidentally, Piterberg is an Argentine-born Israeli who left the country some years back.)

    Now I am not a director of Campus Watch (ten points off right there), and it’s not my place to defend it. I happen not to think the website is a blacklist. Nor do I think the classroom is a clandestine cell or a security agency, whose members are bound by an oath of secrecy. (Professors who treat the classroom as a place of indoctrination and initiation might think differently.) And the notion that there is something wrong when students report what their professors publish—well, it’s been rumored that if you publish something, anyone can read it. Perhaps it’s to keep those “spies” from “reporting” his ideas that Professor Piterberg has been careful to keep his own list of publications short.

    But the really comic part comes at the end. Piterberg claims to be on the “blacklist” of Campus Watch. Now for the life of me, I haven’t been able to find his name anywhere on the site. He wasn’t the subject of one of the “dossiers” of the original “egregious eight.” He doesn’t appear on the list of persons who sent in their own names, in “solidarity” with the eight. In fact, Campus Watch hasn’t put out anything about him at all. Same thing with James Gelvin. (I myself have written about Gelvin—not a “listing” but 1,000 reasoned words— and I wrote them not for Campus Watch, but for the journal I edit.)

    Finally, as far as UCLA being one of the “major targets” of Campus Watch: until the website posted Piterberg’s memo, it didn’t even have an entry for UCLA under its “Survey of Institutions.”

    So what’s going on here? Life is imitating art. Piterberg desperately wants to be “blacklisted” by Campus Watch, because being “blacklisted” by Daniel Pipes is a credential. He wants all his colleagues on the hallway to slap him on the back, to tell him “We’re with you!” He wants the sympathy regularly accorded to a victim. And so he’s completely fabricated his own “blacklisting.” It’s a self-serving fiction, which marvelously brings my little parody to life.

    Poor fellow, he really is too small a fry to warrant his own mention at Campus Watch. Yes, he did appear on a plenary panel honoring Edward Said back in 1998. (His bio reports that he looks back on his participation as “one of the proudest and most emotional moments of his career.”) Yes, this winter he teaches a course entitled “Myths, Politics, and Scholarship in Israel,” which promises to reveal the “construction of Israel’s Zionist foundational myths, their impact on politics, and attendant scholarship, collusive as well as critical.” (In case you miss the coding here, “critical” is anti-Zionist and good; “collusive,” defined by the Oxford Concise as based on “a secret understanding, especially for a fraudulent purpose,” is pro-Zionist and bad.) Yes, he parrots Palestinian “foundational myths” made popular by better-known propagandists and “new historians.” Yes, he’s signed the University of California divestment petition. Even the door of his office is reportedly festooned with an “End the Occupation” poster showing Israelis hauling away a Palestinian. (In academe, you don’t wear your politics on your sleeve, you post them on your office door.)

    Yes, yes, yes. Still, I don’t think he deserves the full Campus Watch treatment, because he’s not good enough to be bad enough. He doesn’t write much, his students give him a mediocre rating, and he has no presence in the media. Sorry, Gabi, Campus Watch isn’t looking for profs with bad taste, it’s looking for profs who taste bad—real bad.

    I’m not Campus Watch, and it’s not really my business, but if they want my opinion, here it is: ignore the guy. It’ll kill him.

    ADDENDUM: Piterberg now insists to The Daily Bruin that he was listed at Campus Watch. Gabi, get over it: you never were. Search the Campus Watch site for your name. There ain’t nothin’ here but your own memo and your name at the bottom of a couple of petitions that you signed yourself.

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