Academics and ideological blinders
by Jonathan Rosenblum
March 4, 2005
Columbia Unbecoming, a documentary detailing the systematic anti-Israel indoctrination by professors in the New York University’s Department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC), has ignited a roiling controversy over the limits of academic freedom on the Columbia campus.
The issues raised by Columbia Unbecoming, however, are not limited to Columbia. If anything, the existence of a relatively large group of intensely identified Jewish students at Columbia provides them with resources to resist professorial abuse that Jewish students on most elite campuses lack.
The picture of MEALAC that emerges from Columbia Unbecoming could hardly be further removed from the ideal of dispassionate scholarship. At least as far as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is concerned, too many professors in MEALAC have adopted the model of advocacy education. The chance of truth emerging from the conflict of a wide-range of views within MEALAC is nil.
Prof. Joseph Massad, for instance, declared in a 2002 speech at Oxford University, "The Jews are not a nation. The Jewish state is a racist state that does not have a right to exist." And he uses his classroom to advance that view in every possible way. When one student attempted to contest his portrayal of Israeli atrocities in Jenin, Massad told her, "I will not have anyone sit through this class and deny Israeli atrocities."
Such attempts to intimidate students who offer an alternative view characterize Massad’s approach. After a public lecture by Massad, an Israeli student attempted to ask Massad a question. Massad asked him whether he had served in the IDF. When the student replied that he had, Massad demanded to know, "How many Palestinians have you killed?" At that point, the discussion was over.
On the day of a Palestinian sit-in on campus, a number of MEALAC professors used their classes to encourage students to attend the Palestinian sit-in. Professor Anijar began with a 50-minute speech explaining that the sit-in constituted an important text and then announced the cancellation of the class so that students could attend. Prof. George Saliba began his class, in the description of one student, with half an hour of red-faced shouting before canceling the class and inviting the students to follow him to the sit-in.
When one female student challenged Saliba’s assertion that the Arabs have a prior claim to Eretz Yisrael, Saliba invited her to join him outside the classroom. At the conclusion of their discussion, he told her that she had no voice in this debate because she had green eyes and was therefore not a Semite.
Martin Kramer, author of Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, describes MEALAC as a rogue department, a friend-brings-a-friend department. Professor Hamid Debashi, MEALAC’s chairman and the person with the largest say in faculty appointments, wrote recently in the Egyptian daily Al-Ahram, "Half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left . . . its deep marks on the faces of the Israeli Jews, the way they talk, walk, the way they greet each other. … There is a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture."
Not surprisingly, the Columbia department manifests a high degree of ideological conformity. Four out of five department members signed a petition calling upon Columbia to divest itself of all holdings in companies that do business in Israel. That type of uniformity typifies Middle East Studies departments, in which professors of Middle Eastern origin constitute half the faculty.
Many of America’s leading universities have basically rented out space, often paid for in part by Arab governments, for highly ideological professors to propagandize to captive students. Harvard Divinity School accepted a $2.5 million gift from the leader of the United Arab Emirates, with a long record of anti-Semitic statements. Only when student Rachel Fish organized a drive to bring alumni pressure on Harvard was the money returned.
Similarly, Columbia created a multimillion-dollar Edward Said chair in MEALAC, partly funded by the Gulf Emirates. Said, who grew up and was educated in the West, argued that Western scholars are incapable of understanding Arabs and Islam, and his 1978 book, Orientalism, in which he first advanced this argument, retains canonical status in the field of Middle East studies.
Princeton University’s Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, which was originally funded by the royal family of Morocco, offers a fellowship exploring the Palestinian expulsion from their homeland and the continuing social control of Palestinians in Judea and Samaria through a system of by-pass roads, checkpoints and a security wall.
Past fellows include Yoav Peled of Tel Aviv University, who once invited a PLO spokesman to the funeral of a niece killed in a suicide bombing, which he blamed on then Prime Minister Netanyahu. Another former fellow was Princeton Prof. Richard Falk, who argues that Israel and America should not respond to terrorist attacks, lest they foster the "cycle of violence."
Anders Strindberg, another fellowship winner, accuses Israel of being responsible for the shrinkage of the Christian Arab population, though it is under Palestinian rule that the rapid flight of Christian Arabs from former Christian cities, like Beit Lechem, has taken place. The Palestinian constitution explicitly makes Islam the official religion of the Palestinian Authority and the basis of all law. The theme of Princeton’s Middle East studies department for 2005-2006 is Palestinian dispossession as a result of Israel’s creation, and the continued and unprovoked subjugation of the Palestinian people by Israel.
Professors of Middle Eastern Studies wear such heavy anti-American and anti-Israel ideological blinders that they have consistently proven incapable of offering insights on the Middle East of any predictive value. Part of the problem is their relentless focus on the Arab-Israeli conflict as key to understanding everything else in the Middle East. Nearly three-quarters of course offerings in Middle East studies have a heavy emphasis on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Not a single prominent Middle Eastern scholar predicted Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution in Iran. On the eve of the 1991 Gulf War, Middle East experts predicted that the Gulf coalition would disintegrate as soon as the first Iraqi soldier was killed in combat, and that anti-American riots would break out around the world. Nothing of the kind occurred. And prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom, 1,000 leading academics in Middle Eastern studies signed a letter warning that Israel would use the cover of the war in Iraq to engage in ethnic cleansing in Judea and Samaria. Nothing of that kind occurred either.
The failure of Middle Eastern academics to get anything right flows naturally from the premises of Said’s Orientalism. Said taught that terms like terrorism and fundamentalism are inherently racist and reactionary terms, and Western academics accordingly stayed away from studying the sources of Islamic terrorism or else became apologists for Islamic fundamentalism.
For instance, most leading Middle Eastern scholars have argued that the term jihad is not primarily military in nature, but rather refers to a faithful Moslem’s own self-struggle to overcome his baser nature. Yet, as commentator Daniel Pipes points out, in the classic collection of the hadith or sayings of Mohammed, every one of the 199 mentions of jihad is in the context of war against non-Moslems to expand the territory under Moslem control. Without acknowledging the term’s martial implications, it is impossible to understand, for instance, the meaning of Osama bin Laden’s frequently declared jihad against America prior to 9/11.
Of the 144 panels at the annual convention of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) being organized at the time of 9/11, not one dealt with Islamic terrorism or the threat posed by bin-Laden. Even after a panel was hastily organized on "September 11: Responses and Future Implications," the thrust of all the panelists was how to stop President Bush’s declared war on terrorism, not the terrorism itself. Several speakers referred to "so-called terrorism." "We have not shown that our actions differentiate us from those who attacked us," said Michael Hudson of Georgetown University. He was followed by Ann Lesch of Villanova University, who urged the audience to focus on how to oppose the United States "hegemonic role in the Middle East."
It is some small consolation that the same scholars who have abused their positions of authority to propagandize against Israel and to cow students who attempt to differ with their interpretations have proven themselves so incompetent when it comes to making any forecasts about events in the area of their alleged expertise. Both the abuse of their positions and the incompetence result from the same ideological blinders.
Related Topics: Peace Process
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