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        Gabriel Piterberg

            While it’s technically impossible to crown one UCLA professor as the most active on campus, it’s a safe bet to say that history professor Gabriel Piterberg will always rank in the top three.  While Piterberg’s dour radicalism would prevent him from earning the title of Miss Congeniality, he has never shown any shyness about promoting his political views, no matter how toxic.  Whether it’s condemning the U.S. in print, or damning Israel in speeches, Piterberg is always locked and loaded.

            Perhaps the only thing more oddball than Piterberg’s political views is his background.  While born in Argentina, Piterberg was raised Jewish in Israel.  As he told the Daily Bruin in 2002, his state-mandated military service found him fighting in southern Lebanon as part of Israel’s 1982-1985 battle again Palestinian Liberation Organization infiltration in the region.  In the Bruin’s paraphrase, Piterberg did not feel the war was “necessary for national defense.”  It’s a safe guess that this view isn’t exactly kosher with the families of the hundreds of Israelis killed and wounded by PLO terrorist attacks launched from across the Lebanese border. 

Already jittery from opposition to the war, Piterberg claims that the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin showed him that Israel was irredeemable.  Feeling that Israel was “increasingly impossible to live in,” Piterberg decamped the country.

            After leaving Israel, Piterberg became an Israel-hating (and some would also say self-hating) Jew, thrashing about in the fever swamps of Oxford University.  And since being hired by UCLA, Piterberg has slowly established himself as an anti-Israel speaker and activist of local renown.  In discussing the founding of Israel, Piterberg claims, “there’s no question that there was substantial expulsion [of Palestinians living inside of what would become the borders of Israel] in 1948.  I call it ethnic cleansing.”  And in addition to this kind of tireless activism on the UCLA campus, Piterberg and other small-timers also comprise a crucial base of support for the better-known national “critics” who work the anti-Israel circuit.  In one typical example from 2004, Piterberg invited and secured honoraria and travel expenses for his good friend and fellow Israeli (and Israel-hating) academic, Ilan Pappe.

 Piterberg has alleged that during the 1948 war for Israeli independence, “People were removed from their homes, massacred, raped and lost their property on the basis of ethnic belonging…because they were Palestinian-Arabs.”  Lest anyone attempt to debate him on these inflammatory assertions, Piterberg archly declares, “Denying it will not make the atrocities go away and will not absolve the crimes of the perpetrators.”  So don’t even try to debate this issue.  Gabriel Piterberg is not going to put up with your jibber-jabber.

              As harsh as Piterberg’s academic and political views may be, he retains a remarkably thin skin when it comes to perceived slights against him on campus.  While admitting that he couldn't prove the charge, Piterberg complained in the January 30, 2003 Daily Bruin that his history seminar, “Myths, Politics, and Scholarship in Israel” was left off of a list of Israel-related courses compiled by the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies.  While Piterberg admitted that he’d “like to believe it was an innocent mistake,” he had his own suspicions, big ones at that.  Essentially, Piterberg explained, “There is an atmosphere since September 11, there’s an attempt to silence views that are not palatable to certain other views” [sic].  Given Piterberg’s own relentless beatboxing against the state of Israel, he could only be referring to the silencing of views in a theoretical sense; anyone can see that his political output certainly didn’t suffer. 

            To the contrary, Piterberg has been successful in airing nearly every standard anti-Israel complaint currently making the rounds.  Complaining to the Bruin that the United States supports Israel to the tune of $10 million a day, Piterberg concluded that this aid “has kept the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories going.”  And, sensing a possible ZOG conspiracy within our own California government, Piterberg detected a clear “stench of politics” wafting from then-Governor Gray Davis’ 2002 letter to UC campus administrators expressing concern about a growing problem of anti-Semitism at state schools.  Davis’ letter, whatever its overall merits, was sparked by actual incidents of violence and harassment.  What actual incidents of violence or harassment has Piterberg faced? 

            In 2003, Piterberg added his signature to a petition calling for UC divestment from Israel.  The open letter, perhaps the most politically divisive in recent memory, was signed by 165 University of California faculty, including no less than twelve UCLA faculty.  The petition called on the Regents to remove from the UC investment portfolio any companies doing business with or in Israel.  The issue, unsurprisingly, boiled down to Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians.  “The main culprit in this situation, and the side that can deliver the goods,” Piterberg claimed, “is Israel.”  One question must be asked: in a world filled with despots, tyrants and state-sponsored repression, how is it that Israel, among all possible targets, receives so much attention?  Where are the UC faculty demanding divestiture from Iran, from North Korea, or from the dozen miserable kleptocracies of the former Soviet Union or sub-Saharan Africa?  This preoccupation with one country, the only Jewish state in the world, strongly suggests that being pro-Palestinian is just an excuse for being anti-Jewish. 

            In any campaign of demonization, there are useful idiots; in this regard, Piterberg has been invaluable to the enemies of Israel.  Piterberg presents a multi-pronged attack: a Jewish Israeli who nonetheless despises Israel, and, even better, one who is eloquent and unrelenting in his criticism.  The question then, is what motivates Piterberg to turn his back on Judaism and the country in which he was raised.  Given that Piterberg is a Jew himself, we can hopefully assume that it was not anti-Semitism that attracted him to the anti-Israel cause.  Rather, by all indications, Piterberg’s motivation is political.  As indirectly revealed in a long profile carried in the Daily Bruin, Piterberg has jettisoned his ethnic and religious loyalties and has come to identify, first and foremost, as a political radical.  Such reorientation of personal identity was what Marxist theorists had always hoped would happen on a mass, international level.  Though that revolution never came to pass, there are a few like Piterberg who cast off old affiliations and became men of the world. 

On top of assuming a new identity, Piterberg has made the worse mistake of falling in love with his ideas.  Thus for Piterberg, criticism is not an occasion for self-doubt, only more evidence of his all-seeing genius.  Piterberg has even taken to retailing the worst stereotypes of Jewish conspiracy.  In the Bruin’s paraphrase, Piterberg claimed that unnamed fellow Jews “even ask him to discuss his critical views only within Jewish circles, not wanting him to “tell the Gentiles.””  Who are these faceless conspirators of whom Piterberg speaks?  The Elders of Zion? 

Piterberg, being the brave sort that he is, refuses to be silenced by these dark forces.  And as a means of declaring his defiance, Piterberg has helpfully mounted on his office door a poster depicting “four or five Israeli officials dragging a young Palestinian through the streets with the caption “End the Occupation.””  The message is clear to any student with any kind of pro-Israel sympathies: here there be radicals.  Such ideological warning signs are a complete derogation of professional ethics.  Students come to their professor’s office for essay help or studying advice.  How is a Jewish or pro-Israel student going to feel welcome or free to express himself politically?  Such students, and many others, would simply choose to turn around and walk away.  Which, as it happens, probably wouldn't bother Gabriel Piterberg at all.

            Much of the campus derision for Piterberg, such as the student who called him a “traitor,” stemmed from his appearance at a 2002 campus rally put on by the so-called Committee for Peace and Justice (essentially, a front-group for the usual collection of radicals and Muslim Student Association hard-liners).  At the rally, Piterberg introduced himself as an Israeli citizen, an IDF veteran, and someone who is “ashamed and embarrassed to call [himself] an Israeli citizen.”  Claimed Piterberg, “If a suicide bomber is a terrorist, then so is the Israeli pilot who flies an F-16…even if he looks like Tom Cruise or a young Paul Newman.”  To a radical UCLA professor, there’s apparently something absolutely infuriating about fighter pilots, whether Israeli or American; along with Piterberg, both Saree Makdisi and Robert Watson have railed about the subject. 

Closing out his speech during the so-called “speak-out,” Piterberg spoke of a Palestinian graduate student with whom he was working.  The corpse of this student’s best friend had recently been found in Palestinian-controlled territories, Piterberg said, with “27 bullet holes stuck in it, un-buried, lying there.”  Piterberg’s ham-fisted implication: Israel somehow killed this unnamed friend of a friend.  How?  By sticking bullet holes into that person, that’s how. 

            Piterberg also appeared at a 2000 “speak-out” convened by the Muslim Student Association.  UCLA’s speak-out was part the so-called “National Day of Outrage,” held at 20 different campus across the country.  Scorning the possibility of an immediate or even eventual two-state solution in Israel, Piterberg scoffed, “You can’t have a Palestinian state with its own rights, when you have 150,000 Jewish extremists sitting in the middle.”  Those damn Israelis!  All they want is more terrorist attacks so that then they can…Hm.  That didn’t make a lot of sense.  Neither did, for that matter, Piterberg’s portrait of the situation.  If 150,000 Israelis are “extremists” merely for living in areas contested by the Palestinians, then what do we call the Palestinian population that dispatches young men on a metronomic basis to attack Israel civilians?  The facts, which Piterberg was evidently uninterested in, show that if anything currently prevents a two-state solution, it is Palestinian fanaticism and irredentism.  But like the compass hand that always returns to magnetic north, Piterberg’s blaming finger never deviates from the direction of Israel.  No peace agreement will ever be signed, Piterberg assures his audience; if one is signed, it will never be good enough for him.  And no matter what happens, Piterberg declared in 2000, “The killing of Palestinians will continue.” 

We already know that Piterberg hates Israel.  But in a delicious twist, it also turns out that he hates America as well, or at least every single part of its foreign policy.  As was true of so many other UCLA academics, the build-up, war, and occupation of Iraq weighed heavily on Piterberg’s mind.  In the period immediately before the war, with the country heroically aflame with the passion of MoveOn protests and Maoist Not In Our Name petitions, radical UCLA students organized a March 5, 2003 walkout from scheduled classes.  On the day before the protest, the Daily Bruin reported Piterberg’s assurance, “There is no way I can actively endorse it, or not teach if there are students who choose to stay in class.  That would be abuse of my position.”  Piterberg sounds so reasonable, and you really wanted to believe him. 

Then the Bruin’s March 6th protest wrap-up appeared, and popped that bubble with its report:

“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.” 

It was a bravura performance, even for Piterberg.  In less than 72 hours, he had made public statements that together constituted an unambiguous public lie.  The facts are simple: Piterberg stated that if anyone attended the scheduled session, he would teach.  Two students stayed, and he did not.  Now, most professors are too sly, or at least so sparsely quoted, to be caught so easily.  Not Gabi Piterberg, though.  In a later effort to excuse his actions, Piterberg explained to the Bruin“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.”  It would be a typical, albeit risible explanation, if only Piterberg hadn’t already been caught in a lie.

            Lies and half-truths are something of a recurring theme in Piterberg’s anti-war, anti-American activities.  At an April 10, 2003 teach-in against the Iraq war, Piterberg alleged that the media’s coverage of Iraqi joy at the toppling of Saddam Hussein (and the statue representing him) was not truly representative of national opinion.  Lest anyone think that people exulting in the street indicates approval of a change, Piterberg waggled his finger, warning, “Things are not as simple as they seem.” 

            At another teach-in held just eight days later on April 18, 2003, the Bruin reported Piterberg’s assertion that “the Iraqi people might actually have preferred a dictatorial regime to a democratic government.”  Piterberg then retreated, just slightly, to add that under Hussein, Iraqis enjoyed stability and predictability, and “actually prefer the authoritative regimes that are easier to strike a deal with.” 

 What a pretty little euphemism: “strike a deal.”  Saddam Hussein’s entire government, the pre-war Iraqi mode of life, was about making a deal.  Give a Hussein henchman money, and maybe he’ll let your imprisoned uncle live.  Give a UN henchman money, and he’ll let you flout the oil-for-food regime.  Why, so long as you kept your nose clean, pre-war Iraq was a veritable ‘round the clock episode of “Let’s Make a Deal.”

            Frustrated in his hopes of seeing Hussein continue to lead Iraq, Piterberg had grim predictions for Iraq’s future.  Piterberg wondered “how much more damage the Americans will do there…whether they will invade Syria or anyone else in the Middle East.”  Along with regional political concerns, Piterberg also had dire predictions for the success of America’s democratizing efforts.  Confidently predicting, “It’s only a matter of time before there will be a major massacre,” Piterberg also gleefully anticipated that the “brutality and ruthlessness of the American response [would intensify] as well.” 

 Condemning the entire enterprise as a “political and moral disaster” in a 2004 Daily Bruin interview, Piterberg also denounced the new constitution as a sham “just for public relations,” and declared that “the health, social life, economic life of Iraqis are no better.  I don’t think they have more democracy than they had under Hussein.”  Well, if your starting point is the idea that constitutional democracy (hint – it’s typically the linch-pin of a democracy) is nothing but a public relations ploy, then the rest of those wild claims sound relatively reasonable. 

Reflecting on the declining fervor of the UCLA anti-war movement in a November 14, 2003 Daily Bruin article, Piterberg blamed this softening on the fact that the military forces prosecuting the Iraq war had, unlike Vietnam, not been assembled through a draft that would have pulled in “middle-class white boys.”  It’s a typical comment for Piterberg.  Even for a radical almost wholly consumed with the specific anti-Israel and anti-war issues, the racialization of issues (Israeli fighter pilots who look like Tom Cruise, or the non-involvement of “middle class white boys”) is reflexive. 

Student reviews pick up on both Piterberg’s radicalism and his intellectual condescension.  One reviewer writes that Piterberg is “Very biased, has a pro-Arab agenda and tries to force it on others,” while another states that “He’s pretty liberal…[and] I thought his views were completely wrong.”  A third student comments that Piterberg (as we have already seen) “became quite popular with anti-Israel circles at UCLA for his pro-Arab sympathies and political inclinations.”

As a political activist who preaches vociferously to a rabidly partisan choir, Piterberg has naturally attracted a pack of ditto-heads.  One acolyte notes archly, “For his course on Edward Said, he engaged the class in thought provoking discussions, and challenged students to think outside of the prescribed box we’ve become accustomed to.”  The phrase thinking “outside the box,” while a tired bit of corporate jargon, wouldn’t normally be a code word for radical indoctrination.  But a review of profiles for known conservative professors make no references to encouraging students to “think outside...the box,” in those words or others.  Truth be told, Piterberg’s not doing any teaching, inside or outside the box.  This is basic brainwashing, and it’s about as hard as shooting fish in a barrel. 

Consider the typical college class.  It’s filled with students who are in the first (few) years of living on their own.  Most are still fluid in their political opinions and basic ideological outlook, while the balance of the class is simply disengaged.  You, Mr. Professor, march in wearing a Che Guevara t-shirt, and confidently declare that everything your students learned in K-12 was wrong.  In fact, spectral forces you only refer to as “they,” wanted to keep your students ignorant of the truth.  To back this up, you hit the students with a few dubiously authentic or historically irrelevant anecdotes.  They didn’t know about those things, did they?  Of course not!  They didn’t think you could handle the truth.  Sadly, a good many of your students will eat this up.  You’re challenging conceptions!  You’re blowing their minds!  And suddenly, you’re the greatest professor ever, because you helped students “think outside...the box.”  Never mind the merits of these new ideas.  It’s the showmanship that matters.

            Or, as one star-struck student put it: Piterberg “tells it like it is, especially in regards to his fresh outlook on the injustices perpetuated by the Israeli regime.”  Now that’s more like it.