James Holstun is a professor of English at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Buffalo, New York, but it is his extremist views on Israel that have propelled Holstun into the midst of a rising campus controversy. At issue is Professor Holstun’s preference for spreading anti-Israeli bias through both academic and advisory positions he currently holds at Buffalo.
Beginning in 2002, Holstun has taught at least one course each year on Palestinian literature. The framework of the class revolves around the writings of the Palestinian people since the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948. According to Holstun, a faculty adviser to the Graduate Group of Marxist Studies, (GGMS) the ensuing years have proven an unrelieved disaster for the proletarian Palestinians, who have been “occupied and exiled” by the powerful capitalist Jewish nation.
Holstun is forthright about the frankly polemical content of his course. “We will focus on Palestinian culture and society since Al-Nakbah ("The Catastrophe") of 1948, during which Zionists drove 700,000 Palestinians from their homes," Holstun’s course syllabus states. "We’ll be looking not just at Palestine’s struggles with Zionism, but...Joan Peters’ influential attempt to erase Palestinians, and Norman Finkelstein’s response...the country and the city (uprooted olive trees, visions of Jerusalem, Zionist primitive accumulation, Palestinian pastoral elegies, the documentary 500 Dunams on the Moon, and Walid Khalidi’s influential archaeological elegy, All that Remains: The Palestinian Villages and Depopulated by Israel in 1948)."
The reference to Norman Finkelstein is by no means accidental: To date, Holstun has made no attempt to hide his alignment with the anti-Semitic professor’s views. Indeed, in April of 2004, the GGMS, at Holstun’s instigation, invited Finkelstein to Buffalo to deliver a lecture. In his own article on that lecture, Chuck Richardson agrees with New York Times reviewer Omer Bartov's classification of Finkelstein as “reckless, and ruthless in his attacks,” capable of stirring up “anti-Semitism whose significance he otherwise discounts.” Perhaps for precisely that reason, Holstun, in an email that was reprinted on Finkelstein’s personal website, enthused that it was a “particularly welcome event,” gushing that “Finkelstein was superb.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that Holstun attempts to emulate Finkelstein’s anti-Israel propaganda in his classes. His class on Palestinian literature includes such books as A History of Modern Palestine: One Land, Two Peoples by Ilan Pappe, the virulently anti-Zionist professor at Haifa University who recently backed an academic boycott against his employer. Holstun said he welcomes the author's fragrantly conspiratorial narrative, which calls the "expulsion of Palestinians in 1948 an act of 'ethnic cleansing,' proceeding under the aegis of the Zionist ‘Plan D,’ which systematically drove 700,000 Palestinian Arabs from their villages.”
In his class, Holstun also screens two films, as irrelevant to any purported study of literature as they are controversial. One is Jenin, Jenin, a documentary by Mohammed Bakri, which was described by movie critic Tamar Sternthal, writing for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, as "rife with false, propagandistic charges about Israeli actions during the army’s April 2002 incursion into the Jenin refugee camp." In conclusion, Sternthal wrote: “Jenin, Jenin amounts to incitement fueling vicious propaganda that claims Jews 'are not even human.'" The other film is Divine Intervention, by Elia Suleiman. In the judgment of critic Jordan Hiller, Divine Intervention is a film that could be taken at face value by those "uninvolved" in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and maliciously used to breed fury against Israel, according to an “aesthetically pleasing exterior [that] merely distracts viewers from, or altogether hides, the pure hatred with which Mr. Suleiman made his film," Hiller explained,” adding that the “film is drawn from an ugliness and intellectual dishonesty that besmirches any lesson that could possibly be extracted from the content."
When not pushing anti-Israel propaganda in his classes, Holstun has also professed his opinions on Israel to the world via the Internet. He has signed more than a handful of petitions and boycotts, including the "UB Faculty and Staff for Peace," "Faculty For Israeli-Palestinian Peace," "Palestinian Academics Call for Boycott of Israeli Academic and Research Institutions and "American Academics Join Israeli Colleagues In Warning Against Ethnic Cleansing." The latter expresses concern that the "fog of war" in Iraq could "could be exploited by the Israeli government to commit further crimes against the Palestinian people, up to full-fledged ethnic cleansing." It further states: "With an average of more than $10 million dollars per day of American tax dollars going to Israel, we believe Americans cannot remain silent while crimes as abhorrent as ethnic cleansing are being openly advocated."
Holstun has taken his negative opinions about Israel to the airwaves. In a February 2005 commentary on WBFO, Buffalo's National Public Radio, located on the SUNY-Buffalo campus, the professor vocalized his viewpoints to the community, when he openly accused the Jewish nation of committing a "land grab" against the Palestinian people. While on the airwaves, Holstun called the Israeli security fence an "apartheid wall," built to keep out the Palestinian people caged in and treated as "criminals" and livestock." "Our media have seen to it that Americans know more about Palestinian suicide attacks than about Israeli attacks by sniper, tank, helicopter gunship, and F-16. But even Israel's Institute for Counter-Terrorism admits that, since 2000, three Palestinians have been killed for every Jew, and thirteen Palestinian noncombatants for every ten Jewish noncombatants."
Ironically, Holstun’s biggest critic is Dan Lenard, another commentator at WBFO. Lenard says Holstun twists the truth about events happening in the Middle East, and is the “most smug, nasty, anti-religious bigot” Lenard has encountered in his lifetime. Lenard believes the professor's lie-filled teachings are meant to confuse impressionable students. "I've read lots of anti-religious and anti-Semitic trash, and your thinly veiled anti-Jewishness is amongst the most disgusting," Lenard wrote in an open letter to Holstun. "Think about this. Your hatred of faith based philosophy has put you on the side of Islamofascism. (Al Qaeda, Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, The Al Aksa Martyrs). These folks will not welcome you into their fold upon Israel's and America's demise. Your head (or something else) will be on a spike like everyone else's. They make no distinction as to who you are except an American. Your Euro-Socialist ideals blind you to this fact and that makes you look like a fool.”
Never at a loss for anti-Israel invective, Holstun chafes at criticism when its directed at him. When Ellen Goldstein, the community relations director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Buffalo, raised concerns about Holstun bringing Finkelstein to Buffalo, the professor bristled. The professor e-mailed another faculty member huffing that Goldstein was a "sneak" who committed a "craven" act after she made an inquiry into Finkelstein's visit. Goldstein, for her part, deftly rebutted Holstun's remarks: "We 'craven' community 'sneaks' have no intention of letting you browbeat or intimidate Jewish students," she said, "or subject them to harassment in the disguise of academic freedom."
Whether Holstun’s students can similarly speak up in his class, however, is far from clear. In letters dating back to 1997, the Revolutionary Marxist Collective at SUNY/Buffalo described the strong-arm techniques Holstun has used as both a teacher and mentor: "Here is a 'teacher' who presents himself as the essence of the pedagogy of support and yet his own text is nothing but naked violence," the collective wrote. "Holstun is relying on this violence, supported by his institutional power, to silence oppositional students."
Perhaps the best response to Holstun's reign of anti-Israel bullying was provided by the radio commentator Dan Lenard: "It makes me vomit that my tax dollars help pay for your salary while you poison the minds of UB students with your unbridled hate."