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General Articles
Columbia and the Academic Intifada

Efraim Karsh

Since its birth in 1948, Israel has faced down numerous attempts to destroy it or undercut its right to exist. War, terrorism, economic and diplomatic ostracism, UN resolutions, media vilification, not to mention the spread of anti-Semitic libel, have all taken their toll. Recently a new, seemingly more confined but no less difficult challenge has been added: an effort to harness the perceived moral and intellectual force of professional scholars in the campaign to de-legitimize the Jewish state.

I am not just speaking of the anti-Israel and anti-Jewish campaign that erupted on Western campuses simultaneously with the launch of the Palestinian terror war in September 2000, and that intensified as Israel took steps to contain it. To this has been added classroom denigration of the state of Israel and its supporters, and even open advocacy of its destruction.

Last April’s decision by Britain’s 48,000-strong Association of University Teachers (AUT) to boycott Haifa and Bar-Ilan universities is the most obvious example of this latter phenomenon. The decision, subsequently rescinded in the face of an international outcry, had nothing to do with scholarly considerations: Israel is the only Middle Eastern country where academics enjoy complete and unrestricted freedom of expression. Nor did it reflect an honest sense of solidarity with the Palestinian universities of the West Bank and Gaza, which for the past decade have been under the control not of Israel but of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Rather, the boycott was a frank attempt to single out Israel as a pariah nation, to declare its existence illegitimate. As the Haifa academic Ilan Pappe, whose (false) claim of persecution by his university provided the pretext for the boycott, pleaded with the AUT on the eve of its resolution:

I appeal to you today to be part of a historical movement and moment that may bring an end to more than a century of colonization, occupation, and dispossession of Palestinians. . . . The message that will be directed specifically against those academic institutes which have been particularly culpable in sustaining the oppression since 1948 and the occupation since 1967 can be a start for a successful campaign for peace (as similar acts at the time had activated the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa).

In other words, Israeli scholars were to be ostracized not for any supposed repression of academic freedom but for their contribution to the creation and prosperity of the state of Israel, a racist, colonialist implant in the Middle East as worthy of extirpation as the former apartheid regime of South Africa. With this as the boycott’s goal, small wonder that one of its prime movers, Sue Blackwell of Birmingham University, posted a picture on the web of herself wrapped in the Palestinian flag and headlined “Victory for the Academic Intifada.”

Still, however despicable such efforts by open Israel-haters, most of whom claim no knowledge of Middle Eastern affairs, it pales in comparison with a far more insidious development in the field of Middle East studies itself, the training ground of future scholars, opinion-makers, and policy experts. Here the textbook example is the department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures (MEALAC) at Columbia University in New York, whose faculty members have been plausibly accused by students of abusing their positions in order to vilify Israel, to promote anti-Zionism, and to stifle free discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

 

In the fall of 2004, the David Project, a Boston-based advocacy group, produced a video titled Columbia Unbecoming. In it, various students recounted their personal experiences of classroom bias and intimidation. Three professors came in for particular criticism.

Hamid Dabashi, the head of MEALAC, was accused of, among other things, canceling classes to attend, and to permit his students to attend, a pro-Palestinian rally on campus that featured a call for Israel’s destruction. George Saliba, who teaches Arabic and Islamic science, allegedly told a Jewish student in a private discussion that she had no claim to the land of Israel or any right to an opinion on the Israel-Palestinian question because, unlike his brown-eyed self, “You have green eyes; you’re not a Semite.” On another occasion Saliba reprimanded a student who had questioned his habitual substitution of the term Palestine for Israel, as if to deny the existence of the Jewish state: “Oh, so that’s the ax that you have to grind? Why Israel is being called Palestine in my class? What about the plight of the Palestinians? Why isn’t that what you are talking to me about?”

Students were even more critical of Joseph Massad, a protégé of the late Edward Said. Among the more serious accusations were Massad’s likening of Jews to Nazis and his disparagement of Israel as a racist state. Reportedly, Massad taunted one student, who had served in the Israeli army, “How many Palestinians have you killed?,” and informed another that he would not “have anybody here deny Israeli atrocities.” One student recounted Massad’s telling his class, “The Palestinian is the new Jew, and the Jew is the new Nazi.”

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. Three of the five members were known critics of Israel, and two of these three had signed a petition calling on Columbia to divest its holdings from companies selling arms and military hardware to Israel. (An anti-divestment petition had also attracted wide support on campus, but none of the five had signed it.) Another member had served as Massad’s dissertation adviser, and shortly before being appointed to the committee had signed a letter decrying press reports about MEALAC’s prejudice as “the latest salvo against academic freedom at Columbia.”1

In its report, released at the end of March, the committee predictably circumvented the core issue. Focusing on “significant deficiencies in the university’s grievance and advising procedures,” it ruled that Massad had acted inappropriately by responding “heatedly” to “a question that he understood to countenance Israeli conduct of which he disapproved,” while consigning to “a challenging gray zone” his taunt about the number of Palestinians a student had supposedly killed. At the same time, the panel had nothing but praise for “Massad’s dedication to, and respectful attitude toward, his students” and for his “willingness . . . to permit anyone who wished to do so to comment or raise a question during his lectures.” Indeed, so open-minded was Massad in the committee’s estimation that his “pedagogical strategy” actually “allowed a small but vociferous group”—presumably, pro-Israel students—“to disrupt lectures by their incessant questions and comments.”

Adding insult to whitewash, the committee found “no evidence of any statements made by the faculty that could reasonably be construed as anti-Semitic.” Above all, it scanted the majority of the complaints, which centered on none of these matters but rather (as the committee itself noted) on “what a number of students perceived as bias in the content of particular courses” as well as on charges that “particular professors had an inadequate grasp of the material they taught and that they purveyed inaccurate information.”

All this was too much even for the New York Times, which had been overtly sympathetic to the Columbia faculty throughout the crisis. “Most student complaints,” it now editorialized correctly, “were not really about intimidation, but about allegations of stridently pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli bias on the part of several professors.” Since the committee had failed, in the words of the Times, “to examine the quality and fairness of teaching,” the university was still left with the need “to follow up on complaints about politicized courses and a lack of scholarly rigor.”

 

This at least cuts to the heart of the matter. The issue is not whether professors should treat their students with due respect, as indeed they should, but whether they should be permitted, under the guise of academic freedom, to pass off personal bias and open political partisanship as scholarly fact. That the committee avoided this issue is hardly a surprise. For when it comes to honest scholarship, there can be no question of where George Saliba, Joseph Massad, and Hamid Dabashi stand.

Massad, for example, who emphatically dismissed the charges against him as part of a coordinated hate campaign by Israel and its right-wing supporters in America, recently published a series of articles in the English-language edition of the prominent Egyptian paper al-Ahram. There he repeatedly derided Zionism as a form of European imperialism and Israel as “a racist Jewish state” (or “a racist settler colony”), openly advocating its replacement “by a secular democratic bi-national state”—the PLO’s shorthand slogan since the late 1960’s for a Middle East without Israel. Turning the history of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on its head, Massad claimed that “Jewish colonists were part of the British colonial death squads that murdered Palestinian revolutionaries between 1936 and 1939 while Hitler unleashed Kristallnacht against German Jews.” Thus, he concluded, “the ultimate achievement of Israel” was the “transformation of the Jew into the anti-Semite, and the Palestinian into the Jew.”

Hamid Dabashi echoed Massad’s anger at the “malicious defamation of my department with no basis in truth” (as he wrote to the Spectator, Columbia’s student paper). In his own public statements and writings, however, Dabashi has if anything outdone Massad in concocting a scenario of the Middle East in which Israel not only has no legitimate place but can hardly be said to exist, except as an unnamed Dark Force.

“I flew to Palestine and landed in Ben-Gurion checkpoint,” Dabashi wrote of a brief visit in February 2004 “to four Palestinian cities”: Gaza City, Ramallah, Nazareth, and Jerusalem (the last two of which are, at recent report, still in Israel). During his weeklong stay in the country that “they call ‘Israel,’” the only non-Arab civilians he noted were knots of ultra-Orthodox Jews “rushing to some unspecified destination.” Nowhere to be seen in the streets of Jerusalem, evidently, were the Jewish Israelis—men, women, and children—who constitute the vast majority of the country’s population. Instead, he found the streets inhabited by heavily armed soldiers “with very long machine guns hanging from their necks,” as befits “a military base for the rising predatory empire of the United States.”

Back at the Ben-Gurion “checkpoint” on his return flight to New York, Dabashi was struck by an airport scene resembling something out of the pages of Hannah Arendt’s reflections on the “banality of evil.” Before him was not a departure lounge but

a fully fortified barrack, with its battalion of security forces treating all the transient inmates with equal banality. It was not just colored Muslims like me that they treated like hazardous chemicals. It was everyone. “One,” as in our quintessential humanity, melted in this fearful furnace into a nullity beyond human recognition.

But his torture was not over; once on line to board the aircraft, Dabashi was forced to contemplate with horror “a young couple and their five children, all boys and all with yarmulkes on their heads,” the mother pregnant, the father “murmuring something under his breath,” the children “each eating a McDonald’s hamburger. I presume McDonald’s makes kosher hamburger. I was quite nauseous.”

Only after having finally escaped from this “massive machinery of death and destruction” to the safety of Manhattan did Dabashi permit himself a detached scholarly meditation on the origins of so “miasmatic [a] mutation of human soul into a subterranean mixture of vile and violence.” Where could it have come from? His answer:

Half a century of systematic maiming and murdering of another people has left its deep marks on the faces of these people. . . . A subsumed militarism, a systemic mendacity with an ingrained violence constitutional to the very fusion of its fabric, has penetrated the deepest corners of what these people have to call their “soul.” No people can perpetrate what these people and their parents and grandparents have perpetrated on Palestinians and remain immune to the cruelty of their own deeds.

Like Massad, Dabashi found a home for his lucubrations in al-Ahram, a paper that itself regularly features anti-Semitic articles and cartoons. His thoughts on the nature and history of Israeli society tell much about the tenor of the academic department he had the privilege of heading at one of the world’s great universities. They also prompt a question of their own: where do such ranting constructions of reality have their origin?

A lengthy historical treatise could be written in answer to that question, but the first place to look is at the career and writings of Edward Said, the patron saint of Middle Eastern studies in its current incarnation. Like Dabashi, Massad, and many others, Said, who died in 2003, made a specialty of appropriating the experience of the Jews as his own, even while belittling Jewish collective identity and savaging the Jewish state.

“I don’t find the idea of a Jewish state terribly interesting,” Said told an interviewer for the Israeli paper Ha’aretz in August 2000. “I wouldn’t want it for myself. Even if I were a Jew. I’d fight against it. And it won’t last. . . . Take my word for it. . . . It won’t even be remembered.” Making his own vision of the future explicit, he added: “[T]he Jews are a minority everywhere. A Jewish minority can survive [in Arab Palestine] the way other minorities in the Arab world survived.”

In his published work, Said discounted altogether the historic Jewish attachment to Palestine and misrepresented Israel’s creation and subsequent struggle for survival as a predatory colonialist endeavor to occupy another people’s land and to dispossess the indigenous population. Missing from his account were such inconvenient facts as the Arabs’ outspoken commitment to the destruction of the Jewish national cause, the sustained and repeated Arab efforts to achieve that end from the early 1920’s onward, and the no less sustained efforts of the Jews at peaceful coexistence. In his account, Zionism emerged instead as an offshoot of European imperialism at its most rapacious. As for the Palestinian Arabs, they were Zionism’s hapless victims, “whose main sin [was] that they happened to be there, in Israel’s way.”

Like his protégé Joseph Massad, Said invoked the Holocaust only in order to deny the reality of Jewish identity and history. “I am one of the few Arabs who have written about the Holocaust,” he boasted to Ha’aretz. “I’ve been to Buchenwald and Dachau and other death camps, and I see the connection.” But his acknowledgement of the Nazi murder of European Jews was merely a tactical ploy. As he candidly explained, “by recognizing the Holocaust for the genocidal madness that it was, we can then demand from Israelis and Jews the right to link the Holocaust to Zionist injustices toward the Palestinians.”

Said spared no effort at hammering home that linkage. In the mid-1980’s, for example, he compared the notion of Jewish statehood with Nazi Germany’s “organized [program of] discrimination or persecution.” “I do not want to press the analogy too far,” he wrote in 2002, on the second anniversary of Arafat’s terror war, “but it is true to say that Palestinians under Israeli occupation today are as powerless as Jews were in the 1940’s.”

A strange assessment on the anniversary of a Palestinian war that had already resulted in the bloody murder of some 700 Israelis and the wounding of thousands more in daily terror attacks. But then, Said was also quick to dismiss Palestinian terrorism itself as a figment of Israel’s imagination, “invented so that its own neuroses can be inscribed on the bodies of Palestinians.” Unhindered by his lack of any professional knowledge of Israeli society or politics, he indicted Israel as “a country whose soul has been captured by a mania for punishing the weak, a democracy that faithfully mirrors the psychopathic mentality of its ruler, General Sharon, whose sole idea—if that is the right word for it—is to kill, reduce, maim, drive away Palestinians until break.’”

 

Although he mobilized the machinery of post-modernist “discourse” to construct his portrait of Israeli reality, Said was no more original in his choice of rhetoric than his acolytes after him. The repudiation of Jewish nationalism has, in fact, been a staple of Arab propaganda ever since the early 1920’s, was institutionalized in the PLO Covenant of 1964, and received international codification in the UN’s 1975 resolution declaring Zionism “a form of racism and racial discrimination.” Almost as antique is the equation of Zionism with Nazism and colonialism. Within a year of its creation in 1964, the PLO had produced a short pamphlet, titled Zionist Colonialism in Palestine, foreshadowing Said’s “postcolonialist” arguments.

Take, for example, the pamphlet’s description of the birth of Zionism:

The frenzied “scramble for Africa” of the 1880’s stimulated the beginnings of Zionist colonization in Palestine. As European fortune-hunters, prospective settlers, and empire-builders raced for Africa, Zionist settlers and would-be state-builders rushed for Palestine.

Here is the same idea as rendered in Said’s The Question of Palestine (1980):

Zionism . . . coincided with the period of unparalleled European territorial acquisition in Africa and Asia, and it was as part of this general movement of acquisition and occupation that Zionism was launched initially by Theodor Herzl.

Or consider the pamphlet’s explanation of the main difference between Zionism and 19th-century European colonialism:

Unlike European colonization elsewhere, . . . Zionist colonization of Palestine was essentially incompatible with the continued existence of the “native population” in the coveted country.

And here is Said:

Zionism was a colonial vision unlike that of most other 19th-century European powers, for whom the natives of outlying territories were included [emphasis in original] in the redemptive mission civilisatrice.

And the Jewish state’s ultimate objectives? According to the pamphlet, “the Zionist concept of the ‘final solution’ to the ‘Arab problem’ in Palestine, and the Nazi concept of the ‘final solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’ in Germany, consisted essentially of the same basic ingredient: the elimination of the unwanted human element in question.” Said avoids such highly charged terminology, but his gist is unmistakably the same:

There is, of course, the charge made by National Socialism, as codified in the Nuremberg Laws, that Jews were foreign, and therefore expendable. . . . Then there is the almost too perfect literalization that is given the binary opposition Jew-versus-non-European in the climatic chapter of the unfolding narrative of Zionist settlement in Palestine.

 

Lying propaganda is perhaps to be expected from a revolutionary organization committed to eliminating by violence a longstanding member of the United Nations. Its introduction into the college classroom is another matter. But it is here that Said’s influence has been unrivaled, and well beyond the confines of Columbia, his own institution. Catapulted to international stardom by his 1978 book Orientalism, a blistering attack on supposed Western perceptions of the Middle East and Islam, Said used his celebrity status to blur, if not to erase altogether, the dividing line between political propaganda and academic scholarship. He was quickly followed by legions of disciples, many of whom would make their careers in departments of Middle East studies by consciously patterning themselves on this “Salah al-Din [Saladin] of our reasoning with mad adversaries,” to quote Dabashi’s perfervid eulogy of his intellectual hero.

And herein lies the crucial importance of the Columbia case. Far from being an exception, its classroom teaching is emblematic of the pervasive prejudice that has afflicted the field of modern Middle Eastern studies for quite some time.2

That prejudice is fueled in equal parts by money and ideas. We have seen where some of the leading ideas come from. The money comes from oil-rich Arab countries that have created endowed chairs or research centers over which they exercise lasting control. Only last year, Harvard was forced to return a $2.5-million donation from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for the creation of a chair named after the UAE’s ruler, Sheik Zaid ibn Sultan, when it was revealed (again by student initiative) that an Arab think tank connected with Zaid was promulgating anti-American and anti-Semitic views. Columbia, by contrast, went out of its way to hide the UAE’s $200,000 contribution to a newly endowed chair in modern Arab studies and literature, and then insisted on retaining the money once the link had been exposed. Fittingly, the chair is named for Edward Said.

It is difficult to overstate the tenacity of the resulting infestation of Arab dogmatism in Middle East studies as a field. Over the last two decades, one would be hard-pressed to find books on the Arab-Israeli conflict issuing from Middle East-studies departments that present the Jewish state in a dispassionate, let alone a positive, light, and hardly any such items appear on course reading lists. Thus, at Columbia, the syllabus for Joseph Massad’s fall 2004 survey course on the Middle East included, in addition to readings from the canonical Edward Said and the subtler Orientalist Albert Hourani, a single work on Israel: a three-decades-old screed by the French Marxist historian of Islam, Maxime Rodinson, whose title, Israel, a Colonial-Settler State?, says it all. Scholars daring to defy the general stigmatization of Israel have been attacked and marginalized.

Above all, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the largest and most influential professional body for the study of the region, whose 2,600-plus members inhabit departments of Middle East studies throughout the world, has become a hotbed of anti-Israel invective. Past presidents of the association like Joel Beinin of Stanford and Rashid Khalidi of Columbia—the latter holds the Edward Said chair—have, in one form or another, publicly advocated the destruction of Israel as a state. Joseph Massad won MESA’s prize for the outstanding Ph.D. dissertation in the field, and the resulting book was warmly reviewed by three past MESA presidents, not to mention by Said himself.

Given these circumstances, it was only natural for a group of prominent MESA members to send a letter to Columbia’s president in support of the beleaguered MEALAC staff, or for the association’s president-elect, Juan Cole of Michigan, to rush to the aid of Massad—the victim, as Cole put it, of “a concerted campaign” by “the American Likud.” “In parlous times like the post-9/11 environment,” Cole stormed, “demagogues grow powerful and American values are endangered. Massad is the canary in the mineshaft of American democracy.”

Even if the Columbia leadership were to do the decent thing, by acknowledging the ongoing bigotry of its professors and by disciplining the offenders, such action would only address the symptoms and not the causes of the pervasive anti-Israel and anti-Jewish bias in the field of modern Middle East studies. Not only is the academic intifada against the Jewish state thriving, the reigning terms of discussion it has introduced for understanding Middle Eastern reality have become perfectly normal, perfectly conventional, perfectly accepted in academic discourse. It will take more than a single student protest to undo the rot that has settled into the study of the Middle East and that is now quite comfortably at home in Western universities.

Efraim Karsh is head of Mediterranean studies at King’s College, University of London. His new book, on the history of Islamic imperialism, will be out next year from Yale.

1 The best and most dogged reporting on the Columbia affair was done by Jacob Gershman of the New York Sun.

2 For chapter and verse, see Martin Kramer, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America (2002).

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