Middle East studies in the News
Dreams of a Debate
by Ariel Beery
The phrase "a picture is worth a thousand words" has special significance when it comes into play in the Middle East. The use of the visual medium to convey messages continues to be common practice in the Middle East: Arab dictators have their faces plastered throughout the streets of their capitals, and Muslim fundamentalists use the backdrop of the Dome of the Rock to convey their historic claim. This affinity for the visual medium, however, is not limited to the region. This week, Columbia University's Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures has submitted its own visual interpretation of the Middle East, and it is, not surprisingly, one devoid of Israel.
As complicated as the situation in the Middle East is, it has become rather clear to all parties involved that, eventually, there will have to be two states for the two peoples. This mutual recognition of rights is imperative for any peace to exist. But before each of the sides can recognize the other's right to the land, they must understand the other's story.
With that in mind, I was shocked to see a map resembling the British Mandate of Palestine on the posters of the Palestinian Film Festival, which will be held at Columbia this weekend. The map was painted in deep red and labeled Palestine in place of Israel. With white doves flying along the top of the map and no mention of the State of Israel, this vision of the Middle East endorsed by Columbia's MEALAC Department seems to suggest that there will only be peace once Israel ceases to exist.
The problem lies not with the fact that MEALAC is sponsoring this festival, entitled "Dreams of a Nation," but rather in the fact that MEALAC, a department that should educate and present all the sides and ideologies of the cultures of the Middle East and Asia, has consistently focused on the Palestinian side of the issue, not legitimately addressing the Israeli-Zionist narrative. When quickly scanning the work and ideological leaning of the MEALAC faculty, one sees a clear and unabashed bias most recently reflected in this film festival but also evident in the fact that nearly the entire department signed the divestment petition, along with, among others, most of the Anthropology department.
This bias is not limited to MEALAC alone: the African Institute sponsored a two-day conference entitled "An African Conversation on Israel and Palestine" in September--surprising in light of the fact that millions are being massacred in the Sudan, and famines and AIDS continue to claim untold lives across the continent. Instead of focusing on these genocides, famines, and epidemics, the Institute, led by Mahmood Mamdani, devoted two days of its time, energy, and capital to making a comparison between South Africa and Israel--an analogy President Bollinger found "both grotesque and offensive."
But this bias gets worse. One example is the game being played by our Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs, Lisa Anderson. As pointed out by Martin Kramer, a noted expert and critic of the Middle East, on MartinKramer.org, Anderson, who also serves as the president of the national Middle East Studies Association (MESA), openly flaunts her organization's own resolution that calls "on institutions in Middle East Studies to make regular disclosure of the sources of funding for their programs." Anderson, it turns out, led a successful private campaign to raise approximately $4 million for the creation of the Edward Said Chair and an endowment. Anderson has not disclosed the donors' names. This refusal, as Kramer notes, leads some to "assume the worst: Palestine's cause has its share of unsavory advocates, and when they don't come forward, there is usually a good reason." Along with the millions of Saudi petrodollars flowing to the United States to fund their public relations campaign, millions continue to flow into the pockets of terrorist cells around the world. It is actually quite embarrassing that Columbia University, one of the premier institutions of higher learning in the world, has legitimized and institutionalized such a clear and apparent bias, thereby entrenching the sides of the conflict, instead of searching for ways to compromise and diffuse it.
As for the blood-red map of "Palestine," think what would happen if the tables were turned. It is safe to say that there would be outrage if MEALAC was a bastion of ultra right-wing Zionism and advertised a festival with a blue and white map of Israel encompassing both banks of the Jordan River. If the tables were turned, there would be a public outcry for the University to recruit faculty with diverse views; but as it is, these departments are only buttressing their ideological viewpoint--and they are doing so at full steam.
All that said, I will be among those people purchasing the festival pass for the Palestinian Film Festival, not because I agree with the views that will be presented but precisely because I might disagree with them. I feel it is my responsibility as someone who has taken a side on the conflict to know what the other side feels in order to enable me to look for a common ground. I only wish the same were true for the departments of our University.
Ariel Beery is a first-year in the School of General Studies.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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