Monitored, Defamed, and Terminated: Teaching And The Perils of Internet Activist Writing

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At 9:10 AM Friday morning, February 23, 2001, I met with both the Dean and President of the Jewish day school where I have taught high school social studies for the past five years. I received notice of the meeting the day before. When told it involved a meeting with the Dean, I immediately assumed this was related to my letter critical of Israel that was published in the Miami Herald’s Readers’ Forum Saturday, January 6, 2001.1 Forty-seven days had passed since its publication, and although a few faculty members were perturbed, no serious complaints were lodged. What was said in the initial moments of that Friday morning meeting completely caught me off-guard. Both the school’s Dean and President each affirmed their strong support for my First Amendment right of free speech, political expression, and academic freedom. However, the next comment by the school’s President had a chilling effect: “We know that you have written in the past about the Palestinian cause. It has come to our attention that you have since become more deeply involved with the Palestinian cause and have made statements supporting the use of violence against Israeli soldiers.” Nowhere in my published articles had I made such an argument. So how had they come across this information? An anonymous person or organization had monitored a particular, subscriber-only e-mail service that I communicated through, learned that I taught at a Jewish day school because I mentioned this in passing in an e-mail on February 19, 2001,2 and then contacted my employers.

The Orthodox Meet Big Brother

Only in the subscriber e-mail service of Dr. Ahmed Bouzid’s Palestine Media Watch3 could my statements be found supporting Palestinian’s right to resist with violence against the unrelenting Israeli military assault. I knew the website’s e-mail messages were public, but one had to subscribe to the service in order to receive and exchange messages. The format for these e-mail messages tends to be extemporaneous, occasionally heated, and less formal than say academic writings or written works intended to reach a general audience as opposed to a specific readership. This holds true for the overwhelming majority of Internet chat-rooms, message boards, and postings. Using this subscriber-only e-mail service, I wrote a few e-mails that were out of character, i.e., lacking cautionary discretion. In the heat of the moment, I offered a passionate, at times poetic, but ultimately unprofessional number of comments defending Palestinian bus driver Khalil Abu Elba’s decision to plow his bus into a crowd of Israeli soldiers.4 On February 14, I wrote:

To all:

Well, what did they expect? After yet another assassination, another round of tank and rocket fire into a refugee camp in Gaza, and after two unarmed Palestinian workers were shot dead at IDF checkpoints, it should come as no surprise that a father of five children, all of them the same age as those whom the IDF has murdered these past several months, decided to deliver bitter medicine to a group of IDF soldiers waiting for their morning bus ride. We regret the death of the civilian, but the soldiers are fair game as long as the murderous, racist (re: Apartheid) occupation continues. You reap what you sow. Bury your dead warriors today, Israel, for many such funerals wait.

Ten minutes later, after scouring through the Ha’aretz website for the latest developments in Israel, I came across a disturbing AFP report of a shooting, and simply “lost it”:

To all:

Lest you think I’m cold-blooded, here is what I found off the AFP wire:

“A 14-year-old Palestinian boy was also shot dead in disputed circumstances as he walked home from school near a Jewish settlement in Gaza, raising the death toll in the past four and a half months of violence to 402.” — February 13, 2001

And the Palestinians are supposed to react to this like some kind of insensate creatures? Roll buses roll!

A number of Palestine Media Watch subscribers took me to task over the tone of these unfortunate remarks. Growing defensive, I offered a series of politically and philosophically-grounded arguments:

My Big Brother friends, who blackmailed me out of my teaching job, took the final comment about “spontaneous violence” out of context. Since the opening volley of this convert operation, word of my comments and political expressions have spread in the Jewish community. The “monitors,” who as of today, March 2, 2001, remain anonymous, contacted a number of parents, faculty and parental board members, the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, the Dean and school President, and in a new low, my students. These censors threatened a demonstration in front of the school until I was removed. They intimated that I posed a “security threat” to the students in my care. And these Internet-era Myrmidons initiated a defamation campaign where a few faculty members called me an anti-Semite. On Friday morning, March 2, 2001, I was terminated.

Professor or One Who Professes?

About seventeen years ago, my Political Theory professor at Florida State University, Dr. Gilbert Abcarian, challenged us with the following question about objectivity and the responsibility of activist scholars: “Will you become a professor or one who professes?” A junior at the time, I had a little trouble discerning exactly what he meant, and dismissed it as another of his quirky Socratic questions é this professor after all had an office library stashed with books with such titles as Friendly Fascism and American Power and The New Mandarins. However, as my ventures into professional tutoring and then classroom teaching proceeded, I began to understand his question. I have been an activist writer since 1985, though from 1989-1992, I hit a lull. Since then, I have been reenergized into writing and social activism, the essential twin pillars of my teaching career. Throughout the past seven years teaching in a few schools, I combined professional discretion with critical thinking lessons that sought a balance between what I knew was a pretentious “objectivity” and a passion for the truth.

Nowhere was this tenuous balance between externally imposed classroom “political” neutrality and social criticism more difficult to maintain than at the Jewish day school. But, I managed for four years. Four years whereby I could not exercise “quality control” over highly explosive comments made by students who in turn were parroting remarks uttered by adults, often and regrettably, by faculty. A drizzle of racist anti-Arab remarks, near-genocidal statements regarding the “Palestinian Question,” and a peculiar hostility to the United States that in a few cases bordered on the absurd,6 turned into a deluge last fall. A maudlin self-pitying rhetoric belied a tough-minded militaristic response that apparently troubled few as one by one, Palestinian bodies piled up. Rationales and excuses fluttered around the teachers’ lounge. No one seemed bothered or took the time to reflect critically about the direction of Israeli policies. Instead, arguments of victimization floated in the same swamp with calls for “transfer,” “expulsion,” and segregation (called “separation” by so-called Israeli Liberals7). The backbreaker came October 2, 2000, when I witnessed what I had feared that morning: a small group of Judaic faculty gathered about a computer monitor, mocking the media’s coverage of that past Saturday’s infamous IDF murder of 12-year-old Mohammed Al-Durrah, even going so far as to blame the child in derisively insensitive tones. I knew then my silence could not hold; my relationship to the school would never be the same.

Into The Breech

I made my foray into the maelstrom of the Arab-Israeli conflict with my aforementioned letter to the Miami Herald. About January 8, 2001, I joined Palestine Media Watch’s email subscriber discussion group. Never in my wildest nightmare did I expect this immoral process whereby I was “exposed.” All those who believe in the First Amendment, and who have ventured into the Brave New World of cyberspace activist writing should reflect on my experience. Who knows how many Americans have been “downsized,” “let go,” or “released” by an employer for posting critical remarks about the State of Israel or worse, advocating justice for the Palestinians.

Notes:

1 The letter was in response to a December 19, 2000 letter by Morton A. Klein, President of the Zionist Organization of America. A copy of my letter can be read and or obtained at Media Monitors Network web-site: http://167.160.86.106 (my article is archived at: http://167.160.86.106/calderon3.html) and the Miami Herald. The Herald’s version is heavily edited.

2 Readers can find this statement at http://www.groups.yahoo.com/group/pmwatch/message/1048. This e-mail is posted in the Palestine Media Watch’s message archive.

3 Dr. Ahmed Bouzid of Wayne, Pennsylvania created Palestine Media Watch in October 2000 to counter pro-Israeli media bias. His website I found professional, rational, and though committed to the Palestinian Cause, balanced. See Palestine Media Watch at http://www.pmwatch.org

4 See Barbara Demick and Nomi Morris, “Palestinian driver kills 8 Israelis with bus,” Miami Herald, February 15, 2001, 1A.

5 A clarification as well as retraction for these comments was later offered and posted on Friday, February 23, 2001. See PM Watch archives at: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/pmwatch/message/1100. Message 1100 posted is titled “Upon Reflection.”

6 Frequent calls for the “liberation” of American sailor traitor-cum-Israeli spy, Jonathan Pollard, almost always are backed by denunciations of the United States. Another favorite, of course, is the charge that the US did “nothing to stop the Holocaust.” One student last fall advocated “nuking” the United States. And in recent years, the US has been excoriated for “pro-Arab” policies.

7 See Yosse Klein Halevi, “Separate Jews and Palestinians,” Miami Herald, October 20, 2000, 9B and Uri Dromi, “It’s time to become two separate states,” Miami Herald, February 23, 2001, 9B.

Mr. Michael Lopez-Calderon taught High School Social Studies in Miami, Florida for seven years until March 2, 2001, when he was asked to leave the Jewish Day school where he had taught for the past five years. Michael was asked to leave for having posted pro-Palestinian comments on Palestine Media Watch’s subscriber-only e-mail. He remains an activist in the Miami area.

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