In The Arab Lobby I documented the history of Middle East scholarship in the United States, noting that researchers, often referred to as “orientalists,” were dispassionate scholars who immersed themselves in the history and culture of the region and studied original texts written in the languages of the region. That is rarely the case today.
The descent from scholarship to propaganda can be traced, according to Martin Kramer’s book, Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, to George Hourani’s 1968 presidential address to the Middle Eastern Studies Association. Hourani declared that “the Arabs’ claim to a state [in Palestine] is . . . based on indisputable facts,” while “the claims of the Jews to live in and have a state in a part of Palestine . . . present a serious ethical problem.” Hourani rejected Jewish historical and religious claims to the land of Israel and characterized early Zionist settlement as immoral.
This speech was a watershed in Middle East Studies that marked the end of the tradition of keeping personal views out of the classroom and academic writing and introducing partisanship to the discipline; scholarship subsequently became secondary to the advancement of a political agenda. Today, MESA has dropped the façade of neutrality, according to Kramer, who notes that the organization is now going to be creating platforms for the discussion of the academic boycott. Given the vote to move in this direction was 561-152, it appears the membership favors boycotting Israel, which already is done informally by the exclusion of Israel, or any scholarship related to Israel from most Middle East departments. What is most galling, not to mention hypocritical, is that MESA believes its members should be immune from criticism and fights an effort to hold them to academic standards for teaching and scholarship.
The situation has grown worse over time, stimulated by the writings of a virulently anti-Israel Columbia literature professor named Edward Said. In 1978, Said turned the tradition of the orientalists on its head in his book Orientalism, by arguing that westerners speaking about the Orient were by his definition ethnocentric racists and imperialists. Said delegitimized Western scholarship on the East, arguing that all of its practitioners were, consciously or not, tainted by prejudice and the desire to keep the Arab peoples in a state of submission. Essentially, Said argued only Muslims were capable of studying Islam or the Muslim world, which, if extended to other regions would preclude non-Asians from studying Asia, non-Europeans from studying Europe, non-Catholics from studying Christian history and so on.
In 1958, Congress passed Title VI of the 1958 Defense Education Act to fund the establishment of institutes to teach foreign languages of strategically important areas unavailable elsewhere. The first Middle East Centers were set up at Michigan, Princeton, and Harvard. Today, the U.S. Department of Education provides funding for 17 Middle East centers, which includes research grants and funding to conduct public outreach. The reviewers of grant applications have typically been Middle East Studies professors who reject any proposals related to Israel and fund the work of like-minded colleagues at centers often receiving Saudi funding. Stanley Kurtz, a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, summarized the impact:
The United States government gives money—and a federal seal of approval—to a university Middle East Studies center. That center offers a government-approved K-12 Middle East studies curriculum to America’s teachers. But in fact, that curriculum has been bought and paid for by the Saudis, who may even have trained the personnel who operate the university’s outreach program….So without ever realizing it, America’s taxpayers end up subsidizing—and providing official federal approval for—K-12 educational materials on the Middle East that have been created under Saudi auspices. Game, set, match: Saudis.
To give one example of Kurtz is talking about, the commemorative book published on the fiftieth anniversary of the establishment of Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies noted that the center’s outreach program was funded by the federal government, Harvard, and the Saudi Arabian Oil Company (Aramco).
Today, the Center for Middle East Studies at Harvard remains problematic. For example, in Fall 2015, 126 courses were offered by the center and affiliate departments. Of those, only two related directly to Israel, one on the Arab-Israeli conflict and the other an Advanced Seminar in Modern Hebrew: Israeli Culture: Cinema & Literature. The former is taught by Marjorie Sa'Adah, whose published works are focused on Europe and her only apparent publication related to the Middle East is a study of political identity in the Arab Middle East. The second course focuses on the works of the well-known Israeli writer Sami Michael, whose personal views are hypercritical of virtually every aspect of Israel.
CMES lists 15 faculty teaching about Israel, only four are professors (one is Emeritus), the rest are master’s degree candidates and postdoctoral fellows. Among those listed as teaching courses listed by CMES or on the faculty are:
Stephen Walt, a well-known political scientist with no expertise in the Middle East, who has become known for his virulent attacks on Israel and American Jews, and his academically bankrupt book on the Israeli lobby.
Master’s student Zena Agha did a spoken poem video on YouTube in which she said, “It was the fate of the Palestinians/to be wiped out in their millions.” She also co-founded and runs the website Infita7.com in which she talks about contemporary Middle Eastern issues. She is passionately pro-Palestine (and is herself a Palestinian-Iraqi). She categorizes Israel’s “occupation” of the West Bank as “genocide.”
Lorenzo Kamel, a visiting postdoctoral fellow wrote an article for OpenDemocracy.com in which he said that Israel colonizes the Palestinian Territories.
Sara Roy has written extensively on the Palestinians and the Gaza Strip. The child of Holocaust survivors, she has criticized comparisons of Israel’s occupation with the Nazi genocide, but condemns the “occupation” and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. In 2008, she said that Hamas is not like the Taliban because they won an election and provide social services. In 2009, she blamed Israel for humanitarian problems in the Gaza Strip. In 2014, she accused Eli Wiesel of “denying Palestinians their humanity.” In the same article, she justified Palestinian children throwing rocks at soldiers as harmless taunting. She is one of the many faculty critics of Israel who rails against those who demand accountability from professors and accuses them of trying to silence those who disagree with “a neo-conservative agenda.” She also accused The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs of censorship when it rejected her review of a book on Hamas that all the journal reviewers said was one-sided.
Sadly, the dearth of courses is not limited to the Center for Middle East Studies. A search of the word Israel in the Harvard catalogue yields 37 courses; however, of those, the only courses related to the history, politics or culture of the modern state are a course on the ethnography of the Middle East, a summer school course on international conflict, and a divinity school course on religion, conflict and peace.
Alas, Harvard is Harvard, so few parents or donors are going to recoil from the university’s failure to provide its students with a serious education about Israel. The absence of Israel at Harvard is disturbing, but of even greater concern is that the leaders who emerge from this august institution will be ill-informed about the Middle East and may perpetuate the Arabist mentality prominent in the State Department and other government institutions that is so damaging to America’s interests in the region.
Dr. Mitchell Bard is the author/editor of 24 books including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and the novel After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.