Middle East studies in the News
Criticism and Propaganda
by Issa Mikel
Recent attacks upon Joseph Massad and Middle Eastern studies departments continually sound the mantra that the real problem in the field is not intimidation, but that anti-Israeli propaganda is masquerading as legitimate scholarship. From Jacobs to Beery to Bollinger, the mantra is incessant.
But it is unclear what such accusations mean. I have heard no standard for determining when a professor engages in propaganda as opposed to legitimate scholarship. Is it that the actual scholarship is shoddy? If so, then we must ask why such academics as Joseph Massad and Rashid Khalidi have received high praise from a wide spectrum of their peers for the caliber of their scholarship, including from those who disagree with them politically. We must also ask why such criticisms are not better left to the process of scholarly review, where vicious criticism is inescapable.
Or does propaganda denote the introduction of controversial or unpopular viewpoints into the classroom? If this is the case, then we must chide Charles Jacobs and Ariel Beery for reckless or cynical usage of loaded words to delegitimize those with whom they have substantive disagreements.
The charges of bias are similarly vacuous. What could a bias charge mean here? It could be a claim that Massad or his colleagues have some innate emotional aversion to the truth about Israel or that they are anti-Semitic. But these are underhanded jabs at someone's integrity, not serious refutations of scholarly production (setting aside for the moment the fact that they are just plain wrong). Alternatively, bias could just mean that they read the historical record from a particular perspective (as all academicians do). But again, if there are legitimate critiques about the substantive conclusions reached by professors like Massad, then the appropriate response is a counterargument, not an empty claim of bias.
If there are particular methodological or analytical errors in a professor's writing or lectures, then the critic must point to them. Instead we get the following fatuous argument: criticism of Israel is unjustified, thus disagreement with its policies must be wrong and therefore the result of poor scholarship and cynical motives. But Israel's vulnerability to criticism is precisely the question in point. Beery and Jacobs cannot just assume, as they have done, that the Israeli government is free from blemish and that all who disagree are anti-Semites and scoundrels.
Clearly, there is a politically-motivated double standard at work. Why is it that when a professor such as Massad criticizes the racist policies of the Israeli state (such as its failure to provide the three million Palestinians under occupation with full rights and freedoms or the laws that discriminate against its one million Palestinian citizens) that this is labeled as propaganda, but criticizing Arab regimes is considered sound scholarship? Both are valuable scholarly projects. And it is similarly unclear why, when scholars such as Rashid Khalidi or Joseph Massad criticize the same Arab regimes, their arguments are ignored and they are accused of being "obsessed" with Israel or unfairly singling her out for blame.
The propaganda argument is a poor one, fit only for those who are incapable of serious engagement with scholars like professor Massad, or those who realize that the only way to achieve their ends is by circumventing the intellectual process altogether.
It is all too facile to claim that a professor is politicizing the classroom when you simply disagree with his or her ideas. If you disagree, the proper response is to present alternative arguments. What we get instead is a somewhat immature rant that "everyone who criticizes Israel is a liar." Let us please expect more of ourselves than this.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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