Sunday, March 20, 2005

The War Over Middle East Studies

In recent months, there has been a bitter war over the future of Middle East studies at Columbia University in New York City: will pro-Zionist professors or pro-Palestinian professors control the destiny of the field? Criticism of allegedly pro-Palestinian professors such as Joseph Massad (right) and Hamid Dabashi (below left), who some former pro-Zionist students claim intimidated or ridiculed them for their support of Israel, has reached a boiling point. Massad, Dabashi, and other professors, supported by other current and former students (including Jewish and Israeli students) have countered that their critics are making up or heavily embelishing the facts.

For a detailed overview of the situation, see: http://www.thenation.com/doc.mhtml?i=20050404&s=sherman.


To view Professor Massad's profile, see:
http://www.columbia.edu/cu/mealac/faculty/massad/

To view Professor Dabashi's profile, see:
http://www.columbia.edu/cu/mealac/faculty/dabashi/

Jumping on the bandwagon of critics are self-appointed Middle East studies watchdogs like Daniel Pipes (right), a former member of the U.S. Institute of Peace, and Martin Kramer, of Tel Aviv University and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Both Pipes and Kramer, along with their supporters, are avowedly pro-Zionist, though they tend to claim only to desire "fair" coverage of Middle East studies. Although they claim to desire "fair and balanced" Middle East studies departments, when one closely examines their speeches, articles, and blogs, it becomes apparent that what Pipes and Kramer desire is the muzzling of pro-Palestinian professors and to silence discourse that is critical of Israeli policies. Both are avowed critics of the late Edward W. Said (right), professor of literature at Columbia and one of the most eloquent spokesmen for the Palestinian cause before his untimely death in 2003; he also authored the landmark books Covering Islam and Orientalism, masterful critiques of West-centric studies of "the Orient," from a point of view that is superior and often arrogant. Both are also highly critical of Rashid Khalidi (left), the outspoken professor who holds the Edward W. Said endowed Chair of Arab Studies at Columbia. In short, they wish to "recapture" Columbia's Middle East studies program for the pro-Zionist camp. Their goal isn't to make sure both sides are presented, their goal is to ensure that Israel is presented in the best possible light.

Kramer (www.martinkramer.org) authored Ivory Towers on Sand, a critique of Middle East studies that alleges that there is a pro-Arab bias, and that the current crop of scholars is by and large out of touch with reality. Pipes is associated with Campus Watch (www.campus-watch.org), a self-appointed watchdog group that seeks to seek out and criticize academics who are not sympathetic to Israel, and maintains his own web site (www.danielpipes.org), while also publishing numerous articles in The New York Sun and other publications. Pipes and Kramer are also connected to the Middle East Forum (www.meforum.org), which states in its declaration of purpose, "The Forum holds that the United States has vital interests in the region. In particular, it believes in strong ties with Israel, Turkey, and other democracies as they emerge; works for human rights throughout the region; strives to weaken the forces of religious radicals; seeks a stable supply and a low price of oil; and promotes the peaceful settlement of regional and international disputes." The Middle East Forum's motto is "Promoting America's Interest," which in and of itself is not negative. However, its focus on being a policy wonk organization pushes its scholarship into the realm of polemic. Kramer is also a fellow at the pro-Zionist Washington Institute of Near East Policy.

Both Pipes and Kramer (left) are highly educated, and indeed both have held distinguished positions at insitutions of higher learning from the University of Chicago to Tel Aviv University to Princeton University. Both have also written decent works of scholarship; Pipes authored Slave Soldiers and Islam: The Genesis of a Military System, published by Yale University Press; Kramer edited Shi'ism, Resistance, and Revolution. However, both decided to focus their abilities and efforts on trying to influence public policy, both in the U.S. and Israel. Their scholarship for the most part has left the realm of academic discourse and has entered the hazy world of policy wonk quasi-scholarship. In short, Pipes and Kramer are less interested in pursuing legitimate research and seem to be overly concerned over the level of influence that they are able to wield over public policy.

Now, of course there are professors who are pro-Palestinian. There are also professors who are pro-Israeli. In and of itself, this is not a problem. A professor's views become an issue of concern when he or she allows them to influence their teaching or classroom discourse to such an extent as to deny the rights of their students to hold differing points of view. Everyone is entitled to their views on political and societal issues, however there is a delicate balance between opinionated scholarship and sheer polemic.

It is also true that scholars, from Pipes and Kramer, are capable of real work. They have shown themselves to be capable of producing quality research. However, just because they are capable of such quality, that doesn't always mean that they attempt to meet that standard in everything they do. So, one can carefully use materials by Pipes and Kramer, and other academics, but it is always important to examine closely how they are written. Bias can be subtle and even unintentional. If the writer fails to catch it, we the readers must, or be misled.

The main problem with people such as Pipes and Kramer is that beneath their scholarship is an overtly political goal. In other words, while masquerading as non-biased scholars, they are certainly every bit as biased as those they criticize. Both Pipes and Kramer are avowedly pro-Israeli and both have visions of "peace" that is little more than a plan for continued domination of Israel over the Palestinians. Pipes and Kramer don't want a real peace, instead they want Israel to maintain its military, economic, and social control over the Palestinians as has been the case since at least June 1967.

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