Middle East studies in the News
Letters to the Editor [regarding Efraim Karsh's article on Columbia University]
To the Editor:
I am writing to correct an egregious error in Efraim Karsh's article about the controversy at Columbia University over allegations of classroom bias against pro-Israel students ["Columbia and the Academic Intifada," July-August]. Mr. Karsh writes that "in December , faced with growing public indignation, Columbia's president, Lee H. Bollinger, grudgingly announced the appointment of a committee to review student complaints. The committee's composition gave a clear signal of Bollinger's own disposition," with "three of the five members [being] known critics of Israel."
I was in contact with Bollinger on virtually a daily basis during the time the committee was formed, and I can testify that he was the opposite of "grudging" about creating an entity to investigate student complaints. The composition of the committee was determined through a very complex series of negotiations that had little to do with the subject of the Middle East and a great deal to do with the relationship between the Columbia faculty's self-governance bodies and the administration. Indeed, it was not simply a technicality that the committee was formed by the faculty of arts and sciences, and reported to the vice president for arts and sciences and the provost rather than to the president of the university.
Contrary to Mr. Karsh's implication, Bollinger is a true and devoted friend of the state of Israel. He has spoken out in defense of Israel on many occasions both in his former post at the University of Michigan and at Columbia. And he has been an avid and enthusiastic supporter of the expansion of Israel studies at Columbia, including through the creation of a new chair in the field, which was in the works before this year's crisis broke out. ( I chair the search committee.)
In general, the reporting on this whole matter has been dominated on all sides by ideological self-interest rather than a desire for accuracy. I hope that Mr. Karsh will correct his mischaracterization of Lee Bollinger's stance.
To the Editor:
We very much enjoyed Efraim Karsh's overview of the controversy we were a part of at Columbia, but he misses the point in two important respects. First, he fails to recognize the role played by students. As the founders of Columbians for Academic Freedom, the student organization that led the protests, we are disappointed that he never once mentions the activism that forced the university to take its problem seriously.
Mr. Karsh writes that "it will take more than a single student protest to undo the rot that has settled into the study of the Middle East." He is right—it will take many.
Mr. Karsh also argues that the real issue at Columbia is not whether professors respect their students but "whether they should be permitted, under the guise of academic freedom, to pass off personal and open political partisanship as scholarly fact." But the two issues are intertwined. The intimidation that Zionist students experienced did not occur in a vacuum. There was bullying because there is an environment of intellectual orthodoxy in Middle Eastern studies. When nearly an entire department holds that Zionism is racism, it becomes very easy to treat Zionist students as people who do not deserve a voice in the classroom.
Mr. Karsh and his sympathetic colleagues certainly do have an impact when they criticize their peers in the academy, but criticism from the pages of Commentary does not change— at least for the foreseeable future—the reality on Columbia's campus.
To the Editor:
Efraim Karsh, our fellow member of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, has written a refreshingly honest and scholarly appraisal of conditions in the field of Middle Eastern studies. He is undoubtedly correct that the teaching in Columbia's department of Middle Eastern and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) "is emblematic of the pervasive prejudice that has afflicted the field for quite some time." Would that only Middle Eastern studies were so afflicted! Unfortunately, the Israel-bashing that Mr. Karsh finds in such abundance in the published writings of the MEALAC faculty is widespread today throughout the humanities and social sciences, at Columbia as well as at many other universities.
Our late colleague Edward Said, the father of the academic intifada, was a professor of English and comparative literature. His claim that scholarship is merely an exercise of power has liberated his disciples and successors in many liberal-arts departments from the burdens of fact-checking and consideration of context. But without a commitment to bear those burdens, why have a university at all? Or at least, why pay university tuition?
In classes that have nothing to do with the Middle East, many professors bash Israel as an aside, as an example, or in tones of indignation and conviction; they do it to show their credentials as members of the academic club. Students who are knowledgeable (and foolhardy) enough to ask questions are routinely silenced, and in any case, the sheer volume of lies tends to overwhelm students' resources.
Many students, even Jewish students, come to college with little knowledge of Israel; many cannot even find Israel on a map, and have no reason to question the views of the Jewish state that they encounter in their classes. The Columbia students who brought the abuses in MEALAC to light in the film Columbia Unbecoming were well informed, but even they faced self-doubt as well as hostility and denial from faculty, the administration, and other students when they tried to get a hearing for their grievances.
Judith S. Jacobson
To the Editor:
I joined the faculty at Columbia as an assistant professor of surgery in September 2002. In an effort to reach objective conclusions about the MEALAC controversy, I attended meetings on campus of both the pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel sides, read as much as I could, and spoke with many students. I also assumed that at a university like Columbia I would have the opportunity to hear from scholars who would educate me and challenge my longheld beliefs about the Middle East. To date, and to my disappointment, my beliefs have not been challenged; or rather, the challenges have not been terribly interesting or educational.
Take for example the recent "conference" sponsored by Qanun, the Middle East law students' association at Columbia. At one presentation, Rashid Khalidi, director of the univerity's Middle East Institute, commented that Israel "systemically prevents the growth of the Palestinian population." It took less than three minutes on the Internet to learn from the websites of both the UN and the World Bank that the Palestinians have one of the highest fertility rates in the world—higher than that of Europe, the U.S., Iran, Iraq, and Egypt. Evidently, Israel is either not preventing population growth or is not doing a very good job of it. In his own remarks, Joseph Massad of MEALAC called Israel a "racist apartheid state" more than 35 times in less than twenty minutes. Ilan Pappe, the instigator of the failed British academic boycott of Israel, stated that Israel committed a "Holocaust against the Palestinians."
In the wake of the MEALAC controversy, and perhaps to try and appease the faculty, the trustees of Columbia have decided to establish a chair in Israel studies. The problem is that the president has appointed Khalidi to be on the selection committee. Also on the committee is Lila Abu- Lughod, a Palestinian- American professor who signed a petition calling for divestment from Israel.
The Columbia students who stood up for themselves and for their beliefs should be applauded. The sad truth is that they have shown far more courage than most of their professors. I can only feel sadness, shame, and deep remorse at how we have failed our students and what a poor example we are setting for the greater academic community.
Marc S. Arkovitz
To the Editor:
Efraim Karsh's excellent article neglects to mention that Columbia's department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, along with seventeen other Middle Eastern studies programs on our nation's campuses, is largely funded by the beneficence of the U.S. taxpayer. There was a specific legislative intent behind this gift of the American people to the American academy, but it has long been obscured in a vapor of political correctness.
The Middle Eastern studies programs (as well as their Asian, African, and Latin equivalents) are a result of Title VI of the 1965 Higher Education Act. During the cold war, Congress realized that our nation's young people were woefully ignorant of foreign languages and cultures. It therefore set aside a pot of money, now over $100 million a year, for international- studies centers at which they could acquire the skills that would make them better able to serve America's national-security interests.
What has resulted instead are departments around the country that view international studies through Ed-ward Said's paradigm of "orientalism," with the United States as a colonial, hegemonic monster. Needless to say, these programs present the history of Israel in the most egregious light imaginable. Legislation has been introduced in the House of Representatives by Patrick Tiberi (R-Ohio), aimed at setting up an expert advisory board to ensure that students are exposed to a diversity of perspectives and that the objectives of the original Title VI funding are met. The academy, predictably, has responded with hysteria.
Sarah N. Stern
To the Editor:
Efraim Karsh quotes the writings of Columbia professors Hamid Dabashi, George Saliba, and Joseph Massad in order to demonstrate their lack of academic objectivity. For instance, Dabashi's account of a visit he made to Israel in 2004, published in the English language edition of al- Ahram, descends into rank anti-Semitism—no fine sense of smell needed—that leaves one quite nauseated.
I have no doubt that Mr. Karsh is right about the trio, but surely the more important thing for a not undistinguished university is their paucity of scholarly publications, which leaves one to wonder how Columbia could have ended up with such a crew. It is not the least of the afflictions of Arab countries that they are often ill-served by academics who publish nothing but strident newspaper articles and Arab-nationalist polemics. The last thing needed in the United States is to import such standards of scholarship.
Mr. Karsh mentions a syllabus of Massad's that contained but one work on Israel, by Maxime Rodinson, and complains that its title, Israel, a Colonial-Settler State?, betrays a lack of objectivity. Yet by Rodinson's standards—though only his—that book is amazingly objective. Compare, say, his "Sionisme et Socialisme" in the February 1953 edition of La Nouvelle Critique, in which he describes the joyous freedoms of the Jews in the Soviet Union under Stalin's benevolent rule before denouncing Zionist "criminal doctors" and, of course, Israel itself.
Columbia's authorities missed the opportunity to toss out the offenders and replace them with more serious scholars, choosing instead to have them judged by their sympathizers and thus exonerated. Jews and Israelis, along with serious students of whatever origin or persuasion, including Arabs and Muslims, are well advised to take their studies elsewhere. There are better schools and better scholars. If the standards of Dabashi, Massad, and Saliba suffice, why not save hugely on tuition by studying in Cairo, a fascinating city full of warmly hospitable people and academics just like them?
Edward N. Luttwak
Efraim Karsh writes:
Michael Stanislawski tells us that Lee H. Bollinger, Columbia University's president, is "a true and devoted friend of the state of Israel [who] has spoken out in defense of Israel on many occasions." If this is indeed the case, then it is all the more regrettable that on the one occasion when speaking out would have made a real difference—not as a friend of the state of Israel but as a university head responsible for ensuring intellectual integrity in his own institution—Bollinger not only remained conspicuously mute but, in order to investigate the situation, permitted the formation of the most hostile committee conceivable. The committee's report, a predictable whitewash, was then applauded by Bollinger as "a very thoughtful and comprehensive review that . . . help[s] sustain our trust in the absolutely critical norm of peer review."
Mr. Stanislawski does not dispute the committee's blatant bias, but he claims that Bollinger had little to do with its formation, done exclusively by the faculty of arts and sciences "through a very complex series of negotiations." In his eagerness to exonerate his boss, however, he unwittingly exposes the pervasiveness of anti- Israel sentiment among the Columbia faculty. For if it took a "very complex series of negotiations" to produce so deeply prejudiced and dysfunctional a committee, hostility to the Jewish state must extend well beyond the department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC), whose professors were the subject of the committee's investigation.
This in turn may help explain Bollinger's reluctance to toss out the offenders and replace them with more serious scholars, a course suggested here by Edward N. Luttwak. It also raises a question about the real motives behind Columbia's much-publicized decision to create a chair in Israel studies. Let us assume that this initiative reflects a sincere interest in the expansion of the field rather than a cynical ploy to pacify indignant students, alumni, and donors and fend off the inquisitive media. Given his weak and ineffectual handling of the MEALAC scandal, what guarantee is there that Bollinger will not be upstaged yet again by his faculty? None whatsoever.
As my correspondent Marc S. Arkovitz notes, of the six-member selection committee for the new chair, only two have done any research on Israel, while another two are harsh critics of the Jewish state: Rashid Khalidi, who considers Israel an illegitimate "colonial entity" and openly advocates its destruction, and Lila Abu- Lughod, a Palestinian-American professor who has joined in calling for university divestment from Israel. Still another member chaired the shambolic MEALAC committee. It takes no great imagination to figure out the likely results of this committee's deliberations.
Moreover, even if the committee were to do the unthinkable and select a serious, bona-fide scholar, he or she would be operating virtually single-handedly in enemy territory. As evidenced by the MEALAC scandal, and as experienced first-hand by Columbia professors Judith S. Jacobson, Awi Federgruen, Ruth Raphaeli-Slivko, and Neil S. Shachter, Israel-bashing is endemic to the humanities and the social sciences at Columbia (as it is at numerous other universities throughout the United States and Europe), ensuring the greatest degree of conformity and suffocating dissent.
It is no mere accident that, as I noted in my Commentary article, the Columbia scandal was exposed by aggrieved students rather than by their professors. Indeed, much as Bari Weiss, Ariel Beery, Daniella Kahane, Aharon Horwitz, and their fellow Columbians for Academic Freedom are to be commended for standing up for their rights, their personal predicament is only the tip of the iceberg, the existence of which the Columbia authorities continue to deny.
The problem, to repeat, is not the professional misconduct of this or that individual; it goes without saying that professors should treat their students with due respect and that those who fail in this elementary duty should be disciplined. But even the most courteous and affable professor must not be permitted, under the guise of academic freedom, to pass off personal bias and open political partisanship as scholarly fact. Even if the offending MEALAC professors had forgone their derogatory asides and so averted exposure, Columbia students would still have been fed on a false diet of Middle Eastern and Arab- Israeli history.
This stark situation has not improved one iota as a result of the Columbia fiasco, and is unlikely to change by the creation of a chair in Israel studies. Only when the rot that has settled into the study of the Middle East in Western universities has been eradicated will Israel stand a chance of getting a fair hearing, and students real value for their money.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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