Middle East studies in the News
Deja Vu at Columbia [on Middle East studies, George Antonius, Norman Finkelstein, et al.]
by Hillel Halkin
Attics, as everyone knows, are places in which curious things can turn up. Cleaning out our own last week, I found an interesting article.
It was in one of several boxes of my father's papers that I had taken from his apartment after his death in 1990. My father, though he taught various other Jewish subjects as well, was primarily an Arabist with a specialty in medieval Judeo-Arabic philosophy. His academic teaching career, which ended with a full professorship at New York's City College, began in 1936 as a lecturer in the Semitics department of Columbia University. And that's where the article found by me comes in, because it turns out that Columbia — which even before the Ahmadinejad visit last month was in the news a few years ago for its campus conflict between pro-Palestinian professors in its Middle East Studies department and pro-Israel students systematically demeaned by them — was the site of such struggles far longer ago than I would have guessed.
The article, which I believe was given to rather than written by my father, was in the form of an unsigned, typewritten manuscript entitled: "Whither Semitics? — Columbia's Non-Appointment of George Antonius — 1936."
George Antonius, as a few people may still remember, was a prominent Arab intellectual in his day, a Lebanese Christian whose book "The Arab Awakening," an account of Arab nationalism and its struggle with Western colonialism, is a highly readable pastiche of history and political polemic. Needless to say, Antonius, although more fair-minded than many Arabs, was no friend of Zionism. In his book's concluding lines he wrote:
"The treatment meted out to Jews in Germany and other European countries is a disgrace. … but … to place the brunt of the burden [of alleviating Jewish distress] upon Arab Palestine is a miserable evasion of the duty that lies upon the whole of the civilized world. It is also morally outrageous. … The cure for the eviction of Jews from Germany is not to be sought in the eviction of Arabs from their homeland. … no room can be made in Palestine for a second nation. … " And yet, the article from the attic related, after the death in 1936 of the academically distinguished Professor Richard Gottheil — for over 40 years the sole member of Columbia's small Semitics department and a highly committed Jew who never mixed his Jewish commitments with his scholarship — Antonius was chosen by Columbia's president Nicholas Butler to take over the position. The key figure in pushing Antonius' appointment was a Columbia alumnus named Charles Crane, a wealthy businessman with an interest in international affairs, strong connections to the Middle East, and a decidedly pro-Arab point of view. Crane, who snidely wrote Butler that he had considered Gottheil "more of a rabbi than a professor," convinced Columbia's president to hire Antonius. "I think," Butler wrote in explaining his decision, "that the pro-Zionist Jews would be well-advised if they listened to [Antonius'] point of view, for it seems to me that the present crisis [in Palestine] is in part due to a failure among the Jewish leaders to learn the other sides of the Palestinian problem." Shades of the Ahmadinejad visit!
New York's Jewish community reacted sharply. Speaking on its behalf, Rabbi Stephen Wise, a Zionist leader and one of American Jewry's foremost public figures, wrote Butler that Antonius was "a deadly foe to everything that is Jewish. [He] may not have the frankness of his anti-Jewish convictions, but he is known in all Jewish circles to be a dangerous marplot against the security and well-being of Palestine Jewry."
More importantly, Antonius' opponents pointed out, he lacked the academic credentials for the job. An amateur historian with no significant academic experience, he was, as the renowned (and non-Jewish) biblical archeologist William Albright said of him in a letter to Butler, "a good propagandist and journalist with wide experience of political affairs in Palestine and Arabia, but no scholar and hardly the man for a university."
Butler may have wanted Charles Crane's money, but not at the expense of antagonizing New York's Jewish community. Before long he folded, although not before blaming, in an apologetic letter to Antonius, "certain Jews [who] questioned your competence." Columbia rescinded Antonius' appointment and gave the job to Arthur Jefferey, a professor at the American University in Cairo. Concomitantly, it expanded its Semitics department by hiring two young Jewish lecturers. One was my father.
And the anonymous author of the article concluded:
"Despite Columbia's protestations, its authorities bear ultimate responsibility for the politicization of the Semitics appointment in 1936. Whatever Crane's motives were, it was for the university to assure the scholarly competence of Gottheil's successor. Ironically, it was Antonius' political enemies who performed this function for the university but who received the blame, not the credit, in the episode."
Familiar-sounding, no? More even than the invitation to Ahmadinejad, it reminds one of the events on Columbia's campus between 2004 and 2005. It also brings to mind the Norman Finkelstein affair at De Paul University in Chicago — especially since Mr. Finkelstein, whose pet subject is how the memory of the Holocaust has been hijacked by (of all people!) Jews and Israelis, could also boast of no real scholarly achievements to speak of.
Deservedly, Mr. Finkelstein was recently denied tenure at De Paul because of a Jewish campaign to demonstrate that he lacked all academic integrity. It was a fight worth winning, not because qualified scholars with anti-Israel politics should not be allowed to teach at universities, but because men whose only qualification is their politics do not belong in institutions of higher learning. And it is a fight that started, I was surprised to discover in the attic, at Columbia in 1936.
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