Balancing the bias
by Asaf Romirowsky
February 2, 2009
What can be done to reverse the failures of Middle East studies in North America? Students today are subjected to radical views of the Middle East by professors who seldom brook dissent. Georgetown's Program for Jewish Civilization (PJC) offers an alternative for students seeking to avoid the academic weaknesses that have so infected Middle East studies.
These analytical shortcomings are well documented: politicized curricula, agit prop substituting for solid teaching, and an unwillingness to ask difficult questions about Middle Eastern cultures are only some of many faults to plague the field in recent decades.
Georgetown University presents a case-study of this failure. Awash in Saudi money and heavily influenced by the late Edward Said's ideology of ubiquitous Orientalism, Georgetown is perhaps the most Wahhabi-friendly university in America. Although school administrators and many in the media consider donations from Saudis and other Arab nations to American universities as generous support to schools that have educated their elites, these gifts in fact support work that often turns a blind eye to the region's systemic problems in favor of skewering American and Israeli interests.
Major Arab donations to US universities began in the 1960s and `70s, with Muslim donors funneling millions of dollars to support Islamic studies, hire faculty specialists in Middle East studies, and fund scholarships and conferences. But this largesse only exacerbated extant problems in Middle East studies, so that today politicized scholarship, some of it backed by petrodollars, is commonplace throughout the field. Critics of Middle East studies in North America point frequently to widespread anti-Israel, anti-American bias in scholarship and teaching on the Arab-Israeli conflict as evidence of the field's politicization and decline.
Given this pedagogical and epistemological decline, Georgetown's decision to establish the Program for Jewish Civilization (PJC) in 2003 is a significant milestone along the path to reforming the scholarship and teaching of the region. Beyond the more common subjects of religion and literature, faculty study the economic, cultural, political, historical, philosophical, and scientific accomplishments of the Jewish people.
Michael Oren, author of two bestselling books on Middle Eastern history, specializes in diplomatic and military history at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based research institute. This year he is a visiting professor at PJC, and in conversation with me he gave PJC high marks:
PJC is today America's leading institute for teaching and research on Israel and an integral part of Georgetown's prestigious School of Foreign Service. Enrolling dozens of students—Jews and non-Jews—and hosting an average of one public lecture per week on subjects relating to Israel and the Jewish people, the PJC is unique among university programs. And its location in the country's premier foreign affairs school, situated in the nation's capital, affords PJC a special role in influencing current and future American policy.
Similarly, Robert Lieber, a driving force behind the program, explained to me that PJC's home in Washington, close to America's foreign policy leaders, makes it stand out. There is a clear corollary, Lieber says, between teaching in Washington and having the ability to put theory into practice. Its location also helps it attract Middle East scholars of the caliber of Oren and Ambassador Dennis Ross.
Lieber also highlighted the program's ability to draw students from across the academic spectrum along with members of Washington's Jewish Community. Such widespread enthusiasm demonstrates the need for PJC at Georgetown. Through its rigorous classes and public lectures, the greater university community can learn about the richness of Jewish civilization—along with the Arab-Israeli conflict—free from the bias that too often colors academic interpretations of the contemporary Middle East.
That bias figures in what is perhaps the most important mission of PJC: to balance the influence of two other centers at Georgetown. The Center for Contemporary Arab Studies (CCAS) advocates for a "one-state" solution between Israelis and Palestinians—a "solution" that would destroy Israel as a Jewish state. CCAS has provided a podium for such scholars as Virginia Tilley of Hobart and William Smith College, an advocate for the one-state solution who couches the radicalism of her position in academic cant.
Even more problematic is the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, named for the Saudi prince whose $20 million donation in 2005 gave the Center's leader, John Esposito, a much louder voice in the Middle East studies community. Since then, the Alwaleed Center has become the locus of academic apologetics for Wahhabism in America. Along with his colleagues Yvonne Haddad, John Voll, and others, Esposito and the newly rejuvenated center are now in a position to proliferate a glossy vision of Wahhabi Islam to Americans.
The Alwaleed Center isn't shy about forging ties to radical-Islamist groups with links to those who have launched attacks against Jews and Americans world-wide. A prime example of such collaboration is a joint conference held by the Alwaleed Center with the United Association for Studies and Research (UASR) in July 2000. UASR was by then known as the political command for Hamas in the United States, and Esposito's co-chair for the conference was then-UASR executive director, Ahmed Yousef, who fled the country in 2005 to avoid prosecution and consequently served as a Hamas spokesman in Gaza.
Given this hostile environment, PJC's launch proves that determined administrators and committed professors can confront the anti-Israel scholarship of Middle East studies departments. But they must have the courage and independence to buck powerful, well-funded interests on their own campuses. Other universities should follow Georgetown's bold lead and create centers and programs such as the Program for Jewish Civilization. By ensuring that Jewish history and culture receive the research and teaching they deserve, we can offer an alternative voice to the monolithic, one-sided agenda that has dominated so many campuses where, for far too long, the loudest voices have supported a decidedly anti-Israel perspective.
Asaf Romirowsky is an adjunct scholar for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, and manager of Israel and Middle East affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.
Related Topics: Academia, Middle East studies | Asaf Romirowsky
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