Middle East studies in the News
Battle of the Chairs [on Israel Studies positions]
by Liel Leibovitz
The photograph tells all. It is July 2000, shortly after the Israel Defense Forces have withdrawn from southern Lebanon. Edward Said, the Palestinian-born Columbia University professor, stands on Lebanon's border with Israel and stretches his right arm back like a shot-putter. He is about to hurl a stone at Israeli soldiers on the other side of the fence.
?While stone-throwing was unusual for the distinguished literature professor with a penchant for French cuffs and Latin words, some grumbled that it was merely an extension of his academic writings. Said's theories equated Zionism with colonialism and questioned the legitimacy of the Jewish state.
So when Columbia announced that an endowed chair would be named in honor of Said—who died of leukemia in 2003—there was outrage in some quarters of the Jewish community. That outrage intensified in March 2004 when, after a long delay, the university revealed that the Edward Said Chair of Modern Arab Studies and Literature had been funded in part by the United Arab Emirates. A few influential Jews demanded that the university return the gift, suspend the establishment of the chair, or both.
Columbia did neither. Instead, at a black-tie dinner a year later, Columbia trustee Mark Kingdon announced that he and his fellow trustees had raised $3 million to endow an Israel studies chair in order to expand the breadth of coverage in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department.
It was hard not to see the endowment of the new Israel chair as tit-for-tat for the creation of the Said chair and perceived pro-Palestinian sensibilities on campus. Professor Michael Stanislawski, head of the search committee entrusted with appointing a professor to the Israel studies chair, insisted that the trustees' decision predated the controversy, although he added, "It would be naïve to think that there's a ‘Chinese wall' between the two."
At universities across North America, endowed chairs have become another weapon in the campus battle between supporters of the Palestinian cause on one side and Israel on the other. And while the struggle involves a tiny fraction of American academics, the battle of the chairs could well change the face of American scholarship and upset the delicate balance between knowledge and money.
As history would have it, the Roman who vanquished ancient Israel was also the first person to endow an academic chair. Vespasian, along with his son Titus, was dispatched to suppress the great Jewish revolt in Judea, and in 70 C.E., he oversaw the destruction of the Jewish Temple. Returning to Rome, Vespasian became emperor and sought to model himself after wealthy Athenians who supported scholars. He endowed two chairs, one for Latin rhetoric and the other for Greek rhetoric. Unlike the Athenians, who could withdraw their contributions at any moment, Vespasian pledged to fund the chairs in perpetuity.
The idea behind funded chairs has changed little since. A university invests a financial gift and the returns on that investment pay the chaired professor's salary. For obvious reasons, universities are delighted to receive donations of this sort. "An endowed chair essentially takes the salary from something that has to be in each year's budget and makes it available to the university forever, as it were," explains Michael Berenbaum, a renowned Holocaust scholar who has held endowed chairs at two universities. "It essentially cuts ongoing payroll costs. And it adds enormous prestige."
Chaired professors are similar to other professors in every respect—they are hired by the same search committees, subject to the same guidelines and must submit their curricula to the same supervisory boards. But unlike their non-endowed colleagues, chaired professors generally come in with tenure and need never worry about a depletion of funds, falling out of favor or taking on overwhelming course loads or dull departmental chores. Instead, chaired professors are at liberty to concentrate on research, in some cases putting forth their views into the public arena.
While Israel studies chairs are a recent development, American Jews have been endowing chairs since the early 20th century, in part as a response to quotas that then limited Jewish enrollment. "Jews who had wealth and resources found that all of a sudden the university was open to them," Berenbaum explains. "At this point of entry, they naturally gave endowed chairs in Jewish studies."
Meanwhile, scholarship on the Islamic world was undergoing a transformation of its own. Before the Cold War, the Muslim nations were most often studied under the broad mantle of Oriental studies, which grew out of the European experience of the Crusades, the Renaissance and the Enlightenment. Orientalists were generally of European descent and tended to focus on deciphering ancient languages and translating texts. Most famed among them was Bernard Lewis, a British-born Jew who began teaching between the two World Wars.
All of this changed after World War II, when the United States found itself embroiled in a global game of Cold War brinksmanship, giving new importance to studying the nations of the Middle East. As the region began to undergo vast changes, understanding that part of the world and countering Soviet influence there became urgent. The federal government began pouring resources into the emerging field of Middle East studies, and in 1958, as part of the National Defense Education Act, introduced what are known as Title VI fellowships to support graduate students in "area studies." These fellowships injected the newly minted area studies with long-term vigor. Today, Middle East scholars rely heavily on the $86.2 million that are spent on Title VI programs each year: They support 70 percent of area studies graduate students and upwards of 100 academic programs and centers.
In the post-war years, Middle East studies departments largely presented Israel as a small, innocuous nation—less aggressive, if anything, than neighboring states such as Iran or Jordan. The 1967 Arab-Israeli war, however, changed all that, placing Israel in the peculiar role of a regional superpower, in control of territory and a large, disgruntled civilian Arab population. "In Middle East studies, there were more and more chairs devoted to the Arab-Israel problem," says Howard Sachar, professor emeritus of history and international affairs at George Washington University. "The Six Day War was the dramatic impetus for this."
It was in this climate that Edward Said published Orientalism in 1978. The book—a pointed attack on Lewis and other Arabists he considered anathema—became an instruction manual for a new breed of scholars, some from the Middle East, others Americans who had been shaped by the 60s. Viewing themselves as multidisciplinary scholars, social scientists and country experts, they rebelled against the monochrome portrayal of Arabs as the downtrodden descendents of a once-glorious civilization.
Concerned that these new chairs would cause an irreversible shift towards pro-Palestinian sensibilities, large swaths of the Jewish community leapt into action. One obvious solution: Endow academic chairs that would offset the balance.
By way of example, the board member mentions that the three currently filled Israel chairs in the United States were endowed respectively by Seagram heir Charles Bronfman, plastic surgeon William Schatten and outsourcing entrepreneur Henry Taub. Of the two Israel chairs in Canada, one, at the University of Toronto, was also endowed by the Bronfman family, while the other, the Kahanoff Chair at the University of Calgary, was funded by the estate of Sydney Kahanoff, a Canadian Jewish oilman. Middle East studies chairs, the board member added, are endowed by "countries, principalities, kingdoms. That makes the whole thing more political, more susceptible to claims of trying to buy influence."
Ilan Troen's wavy, white hair and soft, round face convey a comforting quietude. In 2003, he left Ben-Gurion University in Be'er Sheva, Israel to accept the newly established Karl, Harry and Helen Stoll Chair in Israel Studies at Brandeis University.
Born in the United States, Troen is a proud Zionist who has written 10 books on modern Israeli history. "I can also be critical of my society," Troen told suburban Boston's Daily News Tribune when the paper announced his appointment to the Stoll Chair. "Nevertheless, it is criticism within an appreciation for the positive and the commitment to work for improvement. This is particularly important in assessing Israel," he added, noting that there are "those within and outside the country who view the country's history as but a litany of misdeeds and the Zionist enterprise as illegitimate."
In order to teach his students to fairly assess Israel, many of his classes dwell on the Arab-Israeli conflict. In the fall semester of 2005, for example, Troen taught separate courses titled "Topics in Israeli Social History" and "History of Modern Israel"; both classes devoted a fair share of their readings to Zionism, colonialism and the Palestinian question. At New York University, Ronald Zweig, the newly appointed Marilyn and Henry Taub Professor of Israel Studies, teaches an undergraduate course titled "Zionism and the State of Israel"; of the six books that make up the core reading for the course, two deal exclusively with the Arab-Israeli conflict.
A similar approach exists on the other end of the ideological spectrum. At Columbia, Rashid Khalidi, who holds the Edward Said Chair, teaches a course sweepingly titled "History of the Modern Middle East"; its syllabus is rich with books and articles about the State of Israel and its conflicts with its Arab neighbors. Tellingly, both sides often concentrate on the same key documents—the Balfour Declaration, the U.N. Partition Plan—albeit with dramatically different emphases.
The soft-spoken Troen politely but firmly denies the allegation that he, or any other endowed Israel studies professor, was appointed as a foot soldier in a war against pro-Palestinian scholarship.
"I don't agree with the notion of combat," he said. "It suggests propaganda. It suggests advocacy. I don't think that's what any of us are about. We're real academics. We assume that knowledge can dissipate baseless animosity. To that extent, we're there to combat ignorance, not advocate a particular line."
In 2004, Helen Diller, the wife of real estate magnate Sanford Diller and a University of California Berkeley alumna, was moved to donate $5 million to Berkeley's Center for Middle East Studies to fund research grants and sponsor a series of visiting Israeli scholars. "You know what's going on over there," she told the San Francisco Jewish newspaper, J. "With the protesting and this and that, we need to get a real strong Jewish studies program in there.... Hopefully, it will be enlightening to have a visiting professor and it'll calm down over there more."
But the Yiftachel incident sounded warning bells in the minds of Jewish donors eager to establish a pro-Israeli presence on American campuses. "You lose control once you give the money to a university," explains Ilan Troen. "You give with hope, and you may have expectations but there are no guarantees."
"Why don't philanthropists place Israel studies chairs in Middle Eastern studies departments?" asks Troen. "Because they're smart. Either by intuition or knowledge, they've come to the conclusion that Middle East departments are not a hospitable home. The fault for that is to be found in the Middle East studies establishment in this country."
In the Jewish community, a small group of conservative scholar-activists based in think tanks see the Diller story as part of a much larger phenomenon. They place much of the blame on the Middle East Studies Association of North America. MESA, founded in 1966, serves as an umbrella for subgroups of vastly different persuasions, including the Association for Israel Studies, and counts more than 2,600 professors, researchers and students among its members.
Martin Kramer, who is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington, DC, and Daniel Pipes, who directs the Middle East Forum, each operate independent web sites that frequently accuse MESA's leaders of defaming Israel and scrutinize the comments made by professors such as Khalidi. (There is also the David Project, which helps fund Jewish university students to fight against perceived bias.) In a recent web posting entitled "MESA: The Academic Intifada," Kramer reviewed the titles of papers submitted in the last four MESA conferences and found that 59 dealt with Palestine, far more than had been published on any other nation. He expressed particular outrage over such titles as "The Making of a Human Bomb: State Expansion and Modes of Resistance in Palestine" and "Martyr Bodies: Aesthetics and the Politics of Suffering in the Palestinian Intifada." "For MESAns," Kramer concluded, "the Palestinians are the chosen people, and now more than ever."
The notion that Middle Eastern studies has become pro-Palestinian to the point of implicitly condoning terrorism makes Ali Banuazizi cringe. Banuazizi, the Iranian-born co-director of the program in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at Boston College, was president of MESA until November and continues to sit on the organization's five-member governing board.
"Nothing can be gained by writing off 2,800 academics and labeling them an anti-Israel or anti-Semitic cabal," says Banuazizi. "There are certainly those kinds of elements in MESA—it would be disingenuous to reject that idea and say it's not the case—but there's a large middle in MESA that is both reasonable and objective." Several insiders in the association agreed with Banuazizi, estimating that, of the organization's members, perhaps only 20 percent could be labeled as being politically engaged in service of any ideology or cause.
Unlike MESA's current president, Juan Cole—a University of Michigan professor who is highly critical of Israeli policy—Banuazizi is considered a moderate by Kramer. At Kramer's request Banuazizi gave a named lecture in Tel Aviv University; he also spent a semester teaching at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. Although the two men disagree about MESA's political leanings, they see eye to eye on one crucial point: Establishing Israel studies chairs outside the auspices of Middle Eastern studies hurts both disciplines. "The answer to flawed Middle Eastern studies," Kramer told the Forward last year, "isn't Israel studies, it's better Middle Eastern studies." Banuazizi agrees, but for different reasons. He believes that by failing to see MESA's nuances and dismissing it as a monolithic organization, pro-Israel academics are, in fact, hurting Israel. "You don't want to isolate Israel studies," he said. "Ultimately, Israel's concern as far as its foreign policy is concerned relates to its neighbors as well." Separate the scholars who study Israel from those who study Iran, Turkey or Afghanistan, he added, and a schism is created that deprives Israel studies scholars from gaining a full regional perspective.
"We know," Banuazizi adds, "that these people out there, in the Middle East, separated themselves, and that they're in conflict with each other. What does it say about us, academics, scholars, intellectuals, if we can't get it together and teach in the same department? Are we going to reflect the adversarial state? Are we going to maintain two separate fortresses and continue this, or are we going to try and establish a more objective and civil, and hopefully productive, dialogue?"
Rabbi Arthur Hertzberg, author of such classics as The Zionist Idea and The Jews and America, finds attacks on the political beliefs of Middle East professors to be unforgivable. "The Arab chairs are as entitled to have their say as we are," says Hertzberg, who has taught courses in Zionism at Columbia, Princeton, Rutgers and Dartmouth. "Khalidi has every right to be a Palestinian nationalist, provided he gets his footnotes right. I was at Columbia for 30 years, and nobody ever questioned my Zionist connections. They only questioned whether I got my footnotes right."
Hertzberg and other academics were perturbed when conservative scholar Stanley Kurtz of Stanford University's Hoover Institution brought his concerns to Congress. In 2003, the House Subcommittee on Select Education convened a hearing on "International Programs in Higher Education and Questions of Bias." Kurtz singled out Edward Said as the instigator of the anti-Israel bias. He then argued that Title VI funding, a major source of income for Middle East studies professors and graduate researchers, should be reduced and executive-branch supervision should be instated. The House passed a bill in that spirit, the International Studies in Higher Education Act, but it languished in the Senate. It was reintroduced in the House in 2005. If passed, the bill is likely to have a tremendous effect on area studies in general and Middle Eastern studies in particular.
Ironically, increasing government oversight of Middle Eastern studies could encourage more private donors with deep pockets and deeper passions to step in. This may already be occurring: In December of 2005, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the Saudi prince who ranks fifth on Forbes' list of the world's richest people, donated $20 million each to Harvard and Georgetown; a portion of the funding will be used to endow chairs. Even money from wealthy oil sheiks should not be a cause of alarm, reflects Stanley Katz, Professor of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University and former president of the American Council of Learned Societies. "There's some good coming out of all this," says Katz. "People are mobilizing to raise money for chairs. If universities are responsible in seeking out good scholars, everybody gains.
"We have a long tradition in this country of soliciting funds to produce knowledge," Katz adds, "and on the whole this works well, mainly because it's a game everyone can play. There are wealthy people of all political persuasions. It's a very competitive system. But we do rely on the good judgment of university administrators and faculty to adhere to professional standards, both in soliciting funds and making appointments. By and large, I think it works quite well."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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