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GOP Probes Academic Group After It Defends Professor Who Blamed Rushdie Attack on Israel

University of Denver professor Nader Hashemi / plsmw.law.harvard.edu
• September 15, 2022 4:20 pm

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Republican foreign policy leaders in Congress are accusing one of the country's most prominent Middle Eastern academic groups of promoting anti-Semitism after the organization defended a college professor who accused Israel's Mossad of organizing the recent attack on author Salman Rushdie.

Three Republican lawmakers penned a letter to the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) demanding that the organization explain why it is defending University of Denver professor Nader Hashemi. The professor claimed that Israel's secret service may have orchestrated the attack on Rushdie as part of a plot to derail ongoing negotiations with Iran over a new nuclear deal, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the Washington Free Beacon.

The letter appears to be the opening salvo in a bid by leaders in the Republican Study Committee (RSC)—the largest conservative caucus in Congress—to investigate instances of pro-Iran bias on U.S. college campuses. RSC chairman Jim Banks (R., Ind.) told the Free Beacon earlier this month that Hashemi's "anti-Semitic and anti-American conspiracy theories are now widespread in universities," highlighting the need for congressional intervention.

Banks, along with Reps. Claudia Tenney (R., N.Y.) and Doug Lamborn (R., Colo.), are demanding that MESA, which represents more than 2,800 college professors at 50 institutions across the country, explain why it is giving credence to the baseless theory that Israel was involved in the Rushdie attack. The investigation, they write, is being conducted as part of the RSC’s effort to provide "oversight of the anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism which have become rampant in higher education."

Rushdie was nearly killed last month after an attacker who was reportedly in contact with Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) bum-rushed the author at a public appearance. The corps, a paramilitary organization, has been trying for several decades to kill Rushdie. Hashemi during a podcast interview last month said the attacker could have talked "with someone online who claimed to be an IRGC supporter and lured him into attacking Salman Rushdie. And that so-called person online claiming to be affiliated with the Islamic Republic of Iran could have been a Mossad operative."

Jewish and pro-Israel advocacy groups said Hashemi's comments have no factual basis. The University of Denver in a statement issued to the Free Beacon at the time defended Hashemi's right to free speech but distanced itself from his remarks, saying that "his comments do not reflect the point of view of the university, nor are we aware of any facts that support this view."

Following that statement, MESA lashed out at the university, claiming "that this poorly formulated statement can plausibly be read as damaging to Professor Hashemi's personal and scholarly reputation, and as a violation of his academic freedom." Hashemi, the group added, "engaged in legitimate speculation about the politics surrounding the attempted assassination of Salman Rushdie."

The Republican lawmakers say MESA is mainstreaming conspiracy theories about Israel and Jews.

"Hashemi's baseless statement carries the hallmark of anti-Semitism, that is, the Jewish state, and therefore the Jews, are at the center of a great conspiracy to wreak havoc in the world, in this case, to sabotage the ongoing negotiations for reviving the Iran nuclear deal," the lawmakers write. "MESA's statement essentially asks the University of Denver to condone such an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory under the aegis of ‘academic freedom.' Yet, what is ‘academic' about spreading conspiracy theories that promote hatred and prejudice?"

"Is it a standard practice for MESA and its members," the lawmakers ask, "to condone and encourage conspiracy theories, and promote hatred and prejudice towards a particular country or people on American university campuses?"

MESA, in addition to its defense of Hashemi, has been facing separate accusations of anti-Semitism after it threw its support behind the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which wages economic warfare on the Jewish state. The academic group's endorsement of the BDS movement "caused nearly one-fifth of your previous university members to quit affiliating with your organization over fears of being associated with an anti-Semitic movement," the lawmakers note.

A.J. Caschetta, a lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a fellow for the Middle East Forum's Campus Watch group, said MESA is displaying its anti-Israel bias. "MESA and Hashemi share the instinct to blame Israel for all the problems in the Middle East," Caschetta said.

Liora Rez, executive director of StopAntisemitism.org, one of the groups pressuring the University of Denver to take disciplinary action against Hashemi, said campuses across the country are failing to properly address anti-Israel bias.

"We're fed up with empty words from school administrators," she said. "Condemnations are meaningless without tangible action, and we encourage students to pursue legal avenues if their colleges and universities are failing to protect them."

The Republican lawmakers are asking for answers for two central questions.

First, they ask, "How is Hashemi's spreading a baseless, anti-Semitic conspiracy about the Salman Rushdie attack as being ‘much more likely' than other possibilities a ‘legitimate speculation'?" Second, they ask, "As an organization purportedly dedicated to ‘public understanding' of the Middle East, what evidence can MESA or Hashemi provide in any way to corroborate his claim?"

Tenney, who is also a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told the Free Beacon that academic groups like MESA are promoting Jew-hatred under the cover of academic freedom.

"This blatant anti-Semitism is beneath good-faith academic dialogue and instead leads to the spread of hateful conspiracy theories on behalf of the Iranian regime," she said. "MESA should answer immediately with any information it might purport to have backing up Professor Hashemi's ridiculous and disturbing lies."