Middle East studies in the News
by Charles Jacobs
The Dirks Committee, created by Columbia's administration to investigate student complaints of harassment by anti-Israel faculty, was supposed to spread sand on the MEALAC fire. Instead it threw gasoline. On Friday, The New York Times explained that Columbia "botched" the job by stacking the committee with colleagues of the accused and anti-Israel partisans. No one should have been surprised that a biased committee produced a biased report that ignored the facts and protected its own.
The report is deeply flawed. It considered only three incidents of professors' harassing students, yet we know of many, many more. It invokes a sort of "professors' omerta" to intimidate dissenting professors, upbraiding whistleblowers who helped students report abuse. The committee turns the tables on the complaining students, giving weight—without any proof—to claims by MEALAC professors that pro-Israel "outsiders" invade classrooms to hector them. Professor Joseph Massad's colleagues judged him guilty of inappropriate conduct, but chide him so gently—"his rhetorical response to her query exceeded commonly accepted bounds"—that his wrist may not register the slap. At the same time, the committee carefully avoided mentioning the racist screed of Professor Hamid Dabashi, who writes in Al-Ahram that Israelis suffer from "a vulgarity of character that is bone-deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture."
Yes, the report admits the administration was insensitive, even antagonistic to students who complained that anti-Israel professors harassed them. And yes, it found that students have no effective way to register complaints. But the committee reduced what is a major academic scandal—the use of podium as pulpit for an exclusive viewpoint—to only these narrow bureaucratic foul-ups.
The Dirks Committee simply evades the main issue: how to deal with the teaching of lies and propaganda by Arabist professors who so demonize Israel that defenders of the Jewish state find themselves in a hostile environment in their classes. It achieves this evasion by referring to incidents of biased, dishonest teaching in exclusively pedagogical and psychological terms. It classes them as "rhetorically combative" methods or as expressions of "uncongenial views" that—and the issue is reduced to this—make some students "uncomfortable."
This straw man, constructed in MEALAC and echoed by the committee—all for the purpose of dressing political acts in psychological clothes—is now endlessly rehearsed by all those who, fooled by this deception, needlessly feel compelled to make the obvious point: that at least some ideas one encounters in a college education should make people unsettled.
What the committee refused to consider is the possibility that these "teachings" are lies and propaganda. When Professor Massad teaches that the word "Zion" means "penis," and therefore Zionism is a macho movement, this is not an uncongenial view, but a lie—or at best an egregious error for a Middle East studies professor. When at Columbia it is taught that the Israelis are Nazis and the Palestinians are the new Jews, and that the Jews slaughtered Arabs in Jenin, these are not "rhetorically combative" modes of teaching—they are blood libels, anti-Semitic provocations, deceptions, and Arabist propaganda. Will only brave Jewish students stand up and say so? Does academic freedom"give professors license to teach incendiary, hateful lies?
To be honest, we should all note that something else is going on beneath this debate about us "outside agitators." While the university community understandably wishes to be self-governing, it flees from the very issues that stand in the way of ensuring legitimate academic regulation.
The modern university is severely challenged by radical relativism. Can anyone distinguish between propaganda, lies, and teaching? Does anyone even want to try? Former Provost Jonathan Cole says the university "does not decide what is good or bad, or what ideas are right or wrong." How then would a university president stop a professor from teaching lies and hate?
The conventional theory, expressed by the New York ACLU in this debate, is that universities are inherently protected from such things because they are "open marketplaces of ideas" in which truth will out. But everyone knows that Middle East studies departments are more like captured regions in a war of ideas, which have become fortresses of entrenched power, almost entirely closed off to scholars who do not subscribe to the Palestinianist viewpoint. The university has no easy way to correct this problem; to even speak of it is to embarrass the academy. The fiction of "marketplace of ideas" serves to soothe and to prevent real solutions.
It is easier to avoid these tough issues and instead throw stones at those who wish to safeguard some standard of truth and decency of discourse. The newest stone thrown at us, ironically by those who wish to silence our opinions, is "McCarthyism!" Yet we have never said anyone should be fired or prevented from getting a job in Middle East studies because of his or her views—or silenced so that his or her words could not be spoken in Columbia's halls. It is they who have done this.
It was Professor Massad, we are informed, who told a student to leave his class if she expressed an opinion that made him uncomfortable. It was Massad who, we are told—in order to shut down discussion—called a student a killer. And it is the domination of Middle Eastern studies by radical and Palestinianist orthodoxies that prevents people not of these faiths from getting jobs, regardless of the quality of their scholarship. Blackballing. Closed shops. Threats. Intimidation. Rigid orthodoxies. That's their action. Not ours. And that is McCarthyism.
So now just what are the orthodoxies spreading throughout the University? Palestinianism and Said-ism. Palestinianism is the myopic obsession with the problems of Palestinian Arabs to the exclusion of almost anything else going on in the Middle East. It blames Palestinian suffering exclusively on the Israelis and not at all on Arab rejection of a non-Muslim state in the region; it ignores Arab dictators' use of the Palestinians as pawns.
Palestinianism obscures—and is meant to obscure—any academically credible understanding of the region by discounting the plight of ethnic, religious and racial minorities in the Arab world. Professors hostile to Israel obstruct the study of and Americans' natural instinct to help the Arab region's victims and second-class peoples: the black Muslim slaves of Mauritania and the African Christian slaves of Sudan, the two million blacks slaughtered by the jihad in South Sudan, African Muslims now slaughtered and enslaved in Darfur, the Christian minority populations in Iraq, Sudan, Egypt and Lebanon, and the region's oppressed women, gays, apostates, and dissidents. Palestinianism is a highly cultivated weapon of mass distraction.
If Palestinianism is the distractor, the teachings of the late Edward Said function as a gag order. According to Said, since Western scholarship was employed in the service of colonialism, Westerners have neither the right nor the ability to criticize anything in the Arab or Islamic realm. Said-ism enforces silence about the victims of jihad, dhimmi-tude, and Arab tyranny with threats to label people "Orientalists"—a curse akin to our culture's most powerful insult, "racist." Professors and students influenced by Said are under pressure to speak no criticism of anything done by Arabs or Muslims.
Said neutered the left. So powerful is this force that what seems an actual majority of Western progressives have been struck nearly dumb in the face of the mass murder, enslavement, oppression, and ethnic cleansing of precisely those groups they otherwise champion and defend: women, gays, apostates, dissidents, blacks, and ethnic, religious, and racial minorities. The victims of Said-ism are not only the Jews of Israel but all of these peoples whose narratives cannot be easily found in many Middle East studies departments. A reformed MEALAC would teach American students about these victims whose plights are now smothered by Palestinianism and blocked by Said-ism.
Professors at Columbia and elsewhere have powerful and unique privileges: they are insulated from most public criticism; their classrooms become almost hermetically sealed, quasi-holy places, in which they can—and should—influence student minds. If these precious privileges cannot be protected by the academics themselves—standing up for the very notion of truth, guarding against abuse by colleagues—then the public should intervene.
Columbia's radicals and propagandists, who abuse "academic freedom," protect themselves by sowing fear among teachers, warning that their special protections are under politicized attack. Educators should rather heed a more honest call: to defend the idea of the search for truth, to fight for free inquiry, to give no quarter to propagandists. Only then can Lee Bollinger, along with his Columbia professoriate, restore academic integrity.
The author is president of The David Project.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
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