Academics smeared as antisemites, extremists over Israel criticism
Concerns have been raised for academic freedom and community relations after scholars engaging in public discourse on Gaza and Israel's colonial-settler state violence come under fire.
New Zealand’s Human Rights Commission has expressed concern following accusations of antisemitism and extremism against a number of academics over their views on Israel and its current military campaign against Gaza.
In Context is aware of public attacks over the past month on at least four scholars by the Zionist lobby, including approaches to their universities.
The accusations come as the lobby across the world attacks critics by willfully conflating their criticism of Zionist ideology and Israel’s current genocidal onslaught against Gazans, with a bigoted hatred of Judaism as a religion and Jews as a people.
The conflation has long been used as a way to shut down criticism of Israel by undermining the personal integrity of the apartheid state’s opponents.
However, its overuse since Israel launched an indiscriminate bombing campaign against Gazans following a Hamas attack on Israel military and settlements on October 7 has made the tactic more vulnerable to criticism.
Scholars in particular have been subject to false accusations of anti-Jewish bigotry as they play their role as the critic and conscience of society, examining the Gazan crisis and wider regional tensions it is creating.
When In Context put it to Chief Human Rights Commissioner Paul Hunt that New Zealand-based academics were being smeared by accusations of antisemitism and asked whether he was concerned the conflation could be damaging community relations and creating fear among the Jewish community in New Zealand, a spokesperson for the Commission said:
“We are concerned at this issue, and we also urge everyone to take extra care with their words and actions as we navigate the Middle East conflict in our communities here in Aotearoa New Zealand.”
In October, a complaint was made against senior lecturer Phillip Borell at the University of Canterbury after a student approached Zionist lobby group Israeli Institute of NZ (IINZ) over the content of his lectures.
Borell (Ngāti Ranginui/Ngāti Tūwharetoa) had drawn historical parallels between the experience of Māori and indigenous Palestinians subject to colonial domination and theft of land.
It was claimed Borell characterised Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel army bases and settlements as actions of people who had “been marginalised and oppressed for approximately 80 years fighting back”.
The attack left approximately 1200 dead, according to Israel officials, including nearly 400 soldiers and police. The circumstances of that day are still being investigated and details on civilian deaths revealed.
It is understood the IINZ complained to Borell’s university and that the scholar’s lecture recordings were requested for further scrutiny under an Official Information Act (OIA) request.
The incident was first reported by The New Zealand Herald on October 19. In the article IINZ co-director Dr David Cumin expresses his opinion Borell’s comments justified the deaths, as opposed to offering commentary on the dynamics of colonial violence and counter-violence.
Borell was not the only academic to come under scrutiny in recent weeks.
Canterbury University’s Associate Professor of Political Science & International Relations, Jeremy Moses, has been repeatedly attacked online since attending a Christchurch Palestinian solidarity rally four weeks ago.
“I’ve always been wary about teaching or researching on Israel/Palestine politics because I’d seen how divisive it was back when I was studying in Australia 25 years ago,” he told In Context.
“But sometimes you have to be prepared to wade into the murk, particularly when your own government is hypocritically silent.”
However, Moses said he was taken aback by the reaction he received after posting a photo of the event. This included the IINZ tagging his employer into several of its X (Twitter) posts, one accusing him of fuelling hate speech for using the word “genocide”.
‘In another post, the IINZ asked: “Do you give your students the truth at all? Do you fail them if they disagree with your amoral and reckless rhetoric?”
The organisation said it would be seeking to inspect recordings of his lectures.
Moses said he could see why many colleagues preferred to remain silent on Palestine, as the type of attention speaking on the subject drew had a chilling effect on public discourse.
“That the Israel Institute thought it could intimidate me by tagging in my employer and demanding information about my lecture content was certainly eye-opening and I can understand why many colleagues would not want to draw this kind of attention to themselves,” he said.
“It becomes easier and less stressful to just stay silent, regardless of how angry you may feel about the atrocities we’re all witnessing. But as someone who has researched and published extensively on pacifist and anti-war politics, I found it offensive and just plain wrong to be typecast as a ‘reckless, false, grotesque, inflammatory, and amoral’ supporter of terrorism. This brand of anti-terrorist rhetoric has been deployed to justify war and silence criticism of war for several decades now. We’ve seen academic critics of Israel subjected to these kind of malicious public attacks for many years in other parts of the world, but it’s sad to see that happening now in New Zealand, when public action for peace is more needed than ever.”
At the beginning of November, Canterbury University Human Services lecturer, Dr Josephine Varghese, was smeared with an antisemitism charge by Zionist commentators online after she wrote an article for The Democracy Project on October 23, which urged the New Zealand government to call for a Gaza ceasefire and peace process.
Varghese told In Context the “purposeful mischaracterisations” of her work aimed to distract the public from the horrors Palestinians were currently facing in the occupied West Bank and in Gaza.
She said the persistent slanders aimed at academics, activists, and students supporting the rights of Palestinians was also an attack on academic freedom, an important cornerstone of education and scholarship.
“As an academic I welcome and support robust debate. However, debate should be in good faith and should not aim to silence people by threatening their livelihoods and creating an environment where we are in fear of speaking publicly. Personal attacks that simply seek to denigrate character do not foster a free-thinking academic environment.”
Varghese stood by her work and said academics had a responsibility to engage in public discourse, especially around key geopolitical events like the situation in Gaza and the role of Western governments, led by the United States. She said:
“A state backed by the biggest military power in the history of humankind is not above criticism. As social scientists and scholars studying imperialism, it is our job to observe carefully and analyse US foreign policy, which has been a source of so many avoidable conflicts, wars, coups and interventions globally.”
When approached by In Context, a University of Canterbury spokesperson said it backed academic freedom of staff and reinforced it through its Critic and Conscience of Society and Academic Freedom Principles and Policy. She said:
“It requires UC academic staff to exercise academic freedom in good faith and ‘with the obligation to respect the academic freedom of other members of the academic community’, and that ‘academic freedom is not a right to act unethically, suspend or disregard employment obligations, defame others, intimidate or discriminate against those who hold dissenting or non-conforming views or opinions’.”
In Context asked University of Auckland – which employs Israel institute co-director Cumin as a lecturer – if it enforced a similar policy and if so, if it was concerned fellow academics may believe Cumin was intimidating them through his work. The university failed to reply.
In Context contacted Cumin for comment but he declined to respond.
The IINZ has a history of confronting academics and in many cases accusing them of extremism.
In May 2022 a Newsroom article by IINZ co-director Dr Sheree Trotter challenged University of Otago’s Professor Richard Jackson and John Hobbs for a piece they co-wrote on New Zealand’s inconsistent position on human rights when it came to apartheid Israel.
Trotter is also co-director of Christian Zionist group Indigenous Coalition for Israel.
In March 2019, Cumin wrote a piece on the IINZ website accusing Auckland University Professor Nicholas Rowe of affiliating with a terrorist group. He also pointed to a Israel Academia Monitor report that ‘outed’ Professor Jackson as “a self-identified terror sympathiser” and had “identified a number of concerning PhD topics”.
Massey lecturer - Part of global far right attack
In the same piece, Cumin also attacked University of Massey’s Dean’s Chair in Communication, Professor Mohan J Dutta, for supporting a supposed antisemitic tweet by US congresswoman, Ilan Omar.
Indian-born Dutta has faced renewed attacks over the past five weeks for his own “decolonisation” critiques on Israel, with racist comments under his Twitter (X) threads calling him an antisemite and an extremist.
He took to X on November 5 to state his opinion that the IINZ and other Zionists were targeting his writings as “part of a global far-right attack on academic freedom of those of us speaking out against Zionist settler colonialism”.
In an earlier blog post on October 23 Dutta documented the personal abuse he said he was receiving. Describing one incident, which he said had followed an apology by Zionist author Dane Giraud published on the Free Speech Union’s website after Giraud had attempted to have the academic ‘cancelled’ by his university, Dutta wrote: “At 3:32pm, my office phone rang. I was occupied and the call went to the voicemail.
“Dutta, you are a murderous, f***ing, racist c***. Go back to where you belong... I will see to your termination in New Zealand.”
Dutta told In Context Zionists had been strategically mis-framing his writings on decolonisation as support for terrorism.
“This strategy is a mixture of Zionist attacks on academic freedom globally through right wing infrastructures such as Canary Mission and a broader far-right attack on decolonisation scholarship,” he said.
Although debunking Zionist propaganda was straightforward, repetition of false statements had serious consequences, he added.
“The lies have led to targeted racist attacks that mis-identify me as Muslim, threaten to deport me back to “where I came from,” and mobilisations to get me fired from my job at Massey.”
Dutta pointed out academic freedom was enshrined in law and said academics were pushing back.
“The right of academics to research and write about decolonisation and settler colonialism is protected by the Education Act and is particularly salient in Aotearoa, safeguarded by the values and principles of Te Tiriti.
“The genocidal atrocities being perpetrated by apartheid Israel are being challenged by academics and the labelling of criticisms of Israeli atrocities as antisemitism is being debunked on a global scale.
“The voices of Palestinian accounts on digital infrastructures witnessing the large-scale violence perpetrated by Israel are disrupting and dismantling the propaganda infrastructure that has been assembled by Israel.”
A Massey media spokesperson said no official complaints had been made against Dutta.
The IINZ website itself features several recent articles that carry mischaracterisations, fear mongering and inflammatory language.
One recent example is a piece by guest writer Melanie Phillips entitled ‘The west’s mass psychopathic moment’. Referring to rallies in support of Palestinian rights and a ceasefire over recent weeks, Phillips said:
“The massive demonstrations of support for Hamas on the streets of European and American cities, with baying mobs calling for the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews everywhere while the liberal, educated classes are either silent or are actually supporting barbarism against civilisation, signifies a profound crisis for the free world.”
In another paragraph, the author states:
“The division between “good” and “bad” Palestinians is a liberal fantasy with murderous consequences. In Gaza, despite the fact that the election there which brought Hamas to power was hardly free and fair, polling persistently reveals that a majority of Gazans support Hamas and that around three quarters of them support the killing of Israelis.”
IINZ ‘not a Jewish entity’
Co-founder of Alternative Jewish Voice, Marilyn Garson, has expressed concerns about the IINZ on her own organisation’s website.
Garson, a practicing Jew who lived in Gaza for four years, said the IINZ had been “sowing fear and separation” for some time and that it had a majority-Christian composition dedicated to a secular political project.
“People should understand that the IINZ is not a Jewish entity,” she told In Context.
“Two-thirds of its directors are Christian, and they all overlap with right-wing, secular lobbying in New Zealand. They have a local project underway and they have harnessed Zionism to that project. They have been eagerly importing the racialised language of Israel's war and attaching that to racial fear here.
“Those actions have implications for the individuals they target, of course, and also for any sense of social cohesion in our communities.”
Garson said many people at first glance assumed the group spoke for the Jewish community. She said the consequences were grave for community relations.
“I cannot understand why our Jewish institutions are silent,” she said.
“They are allowing the community to be - apparently - spoken for this way without objection and thus to be drawn into race-baiting of the worst kind. Jewish institutional silence permits the most radical purveyors of outright hate to claim the name of my community.
“For years, Zionism has been trying to wrap Jews up in Israel, to make it difficult or impossible for open-minded people to understand that Jewishness is not Zionism. Well, now Israel's government are making clear statements of genocidal intent and they are carpet-bombing and starving civilians.
“One local side effect of that long Zionist project is that Jewishness is being blamed. Even as we fight like hell to save lives in Gaza, we've also got to ceaselessly undo that religious and ethnic damage: Judaism is an ancient and beautiful religion. Zionism is a modern nationalism and an increasingly Christian political lobby.
“Jews in Aotearoa are not responsible for the actions of Israel's government, although I and others are deeply disappointed by the utter silence of our institutions when statements of our basic, shared humanity would be of such benefit.”
In a further statement to In Context released on October 14, the Human Rights Commission offered ‘pointers’ to ensure people were not “unnecessarily conflating issues”.
It said: “Do not correspond the beliefs and actions of Hamas to the views of all Palestinians or all Muslims. Likewise, do not correspond the views and actions of the Israeli government with that of Israelis or all Jews.”
As of October 14, over 11,000 Gazans have been killed since October 7.
Hundreds of thousands have been pushed towards the Strip’s southern border with Egypt, while UNICEF says more than 700,000 children in Gaza have been “forced to leave everything behind”.
Leaked Government documents have pointed to a plan to ethnically cleanse the population, pushing Gazans into Egypt’s Sinai desert.