"Don't expect me to take a pro-Israel view. I'm an Arab."
So declared Gilbert Achcar—professor of development studies and international relations at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies—at the outset of his lecture last month at the University of California, Berkeley. Those in the audience hoping for scholarly objectivity were thus informed that Achcar's ethnicity trumped intellectual independence and that, despite evidence to the contrary (Nonie Darwish, the founder of Arabs for Israel, comes to mind, as do the majority of Israel's Arab citizenry), an Arab could not be pro-Israel. One had to give him credit for at least confirming his biases up front.
A Lebanese-born, self-described "academic, writer, socialist, and anti-war activist," Achcar was on a University of California speaking tour to discuss his 2010 book, The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives. His UC Berkeley lecture was sponsored by the Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) and was held in its Saudi-largesse-provided Sultan Room, with a glowing introduction from CMES vice chair Emily Gottreich. The audience of around 75 students and adults had to strain at times to discern Achcar's words, delivered as they were in a heavy accent and low tones, but the crowd appeared politically sympathetic.
Achcar's book, which according to the lecture description purports to "cover Arab attitudes to Zionism, anti-Semitism, Nazism and the Holocaust from the aftermath of the First World War to our time," joins a growing body of scholarship that employs Holocaust studies to deny Israel's legitimacy and downplay contemporary Islamic anti-Semitism. Such work enjoys significant legitimacy in academic circles, as it masks its outlandish conclusions with scholarly apparatus while confirming the biases of the left-leaning, anti-Israel Middle East studies establishment. In their critical review of Achcar's book, atypical professors Matthias Kuntzel and Colin Meade conclude, "this is a book in which an author from the political left seeks to protect the dogmas of Western anti-Zionism from the reality of Arab anti-Semitism" (click here to access a debate between the reviewers and Achcar).
Achcar wasted no time confirming the review's thesis and slandering eminent Princeton University historian Bernard Lewis, who has written about the history of Nazism and Arab anti-Semitism, in the process. As Achcar put it:
Mine is a scholarly investigation fixed into a current frame aiming at revising the image in western scholarship. The lies of Bernard Lewis are extremely biased, which produced an image of Arabs being pro-Nazi, the locus of the new anti-Semitism.
The audience chuckled in agreement as Achar extended his attack on Lewis. He claimed that a close reading of Arab newspapers of the 1930s and 40s found an overwhelming rejection of Nazism in the name of liberal values. He identified four predominant positions: liberal Westernizers, communists, nationalists, and fundamentalists. Only among the latter, he alleged, were there serious numbers of anti-Semites—the result of the Arab-Israeli conflict. This tired argument of blaming anti-Semitism in the region on the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 is trotted out by apologists for Arab anti-Semitism despite ample historical evidence of its previous existence.
He continued in the same vein, claiming that, "At the time of the Dreyfus trial [in late nineteenth century France], there was philo-Semitism, but the Zionist project ruined that." Later, he proposed that, "If Israel would shift, we could decrease the tension," without elaborating on the extent of the "shift" he envisioned.
Achcar was determined to assign anti-Semitism's origins to the West:
The discourse of conspiracy theories about Jews is very Western. The shift was with increasing tensions in Palestine; the discourse was imported from the West.
He briefly acknowledged a Koranic basis for anti-Semitism, but then pivoted to blame Christianity:
Yes, there is an anti-Judaic element in Islam, but it's part of the three monotheistic religions, and certainly there's more enmity to Jews in Christianity than Islam.
Achcar attempted to downplay the crucial role played by Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem during the 1920s and 30s, as a Nazi-collaborator and a figurehead for Arab anti-Semitism:
[The Mufti as Nazi] is all blown out of proportion . . . it's presented that he inspired the Final Solution. This is [the kind of] propaganda against Arabs that's popular in English. . . . Thousands had a much greater role in the Holocaust than the Mufti. The Mufti was turned into central Zionist propaganda after 1945; [he] was aimed at the United Nations [for the purpose of] presenting Arabs as a continuation of the Nazis and the creation of a Jewish state as a moral duty. 1948 becomes the final battle of WWII; useful in saying the only other choice was genocide. [Based on this logic], the fate of Palestine would be decided by the world powers.
He addressed anti-Semitism in the modern-day Middle East, but, as with his treatment of Bernard Lewis, blamed the messenger by alluding to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), a website that provides translations of regional media:
Today in Israel there's a huge amount of literature which monitors anti-Semitic expression. There are websites devoted to this search and funded by the [U.S.] State Department; biased websites such as the one founded by a high ranking person in Israeli intel. Anti-Arab attitudes in Israel are not monitored.
The latter comparison is a red herring. Achcar didn't acknowledge that, unlike its anti-Semitic counterpart, "anti-Arab attitudes in Israel" are neither widespread, promulgated through state-provided education and other official means, nor the primary reason for the continuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
He admitted that there has been a surge of anti-Semitic, Islamic "resistance"—a despicable euphemism for terrorism—but claimed that such "counter-violence . . . pales in scale" to Israel, "the most powerful state in the region."
He then proceeded to address the scourge of Holocaust denial in the region with more apologetics:
Holocaust denial is a form of protest. [I'm ] not excusing it, but it is necessary to understand. Holocaust denial is the anti-Zionism of fools. It [the Holocaust] happened.
Achcar didn't deny the Holocaust, but he repeatedly denied Israel's right to defend itself, an act he termed "Israel's aggressive behavior." Furthermore, he claimed, "The Jews are not oppressed now as they were in western history."
Later in the lecture, he minimized the genocidal threats issued daily by the Iranian regime as, "the government using anti-Semitism, not so much against Israel, as competition with the Saudis; [it is] trying to win over Islamic fundamentalists." Moreover, he noted, "a nuclear holocaust would hit everybody in the region," as if this would deter fanatics hoping for the apocalypse.
Achcar concluded by drawing an asinine correlation between the Holocaust or Shoah and the "Nakba" or "catastrophe," the Arabic term to describe the creation of the state of Israel:
The Shoah ended in 1945, but the suffering of the Palestinians is never-ending. The Holocaust was a major tragedy in human history. But the Palestinians didn't do it. This denial of the Nakba is a major obstacle for reaching peace.
During the question and answer period, Achcar was challenged by a woman in the audience who asked him, "Do you blame the Jew-hatred in the Hamas Charter and the Hezbollah Manifesto on Israel, or the West, or Christian history?" He reacted by accusing her of not listening and of having preconceived notions, but she pressed on until he answered angrily, "I am not going to repeat myself. I said that the Hamas Charter has anti-Semitic elements. I explained to which tradition this belongs," when in fact, Achcar had not previously mentioned the Hamas Charter. She then asked him, "Can you blame that on Israel and the United States?" to which he responded predictably, "Yes, I blame the U.S., which funded fundamentalism in the 50s and 60s."
Another audience member—perhaps herself an academic, given the level of her paranoia—complained about students taking notes that, as she put it:
[G]o on websites like Campus Watch. The students are paid, $100-$200 bucks. It's ruined some careers. So some people do not speak about the issue, but some keep on speaking. I was wondering since you come from Europe, are you able as an academic to speak honestly? How are you treated?
It's a different tradition; there is more room for this debate . . . with this book I was interviewed in major mainstream Israeli newspapers [even though] I have been accused of 'normalizing the enemy.' I've been invited to speak in Jewish studies and reviewed in the Jewish Review of Books. I am proud of that.
Perhaps he was proud, also, of his lecture at the University of California, Davis later that month, which was sponsored by the Jewish Studies Program despite significant outcry from the local Jewish community, pro-Israel groups, and concerned academics. The lecture included founding chair David Biale, current chair Diane Wolf, and professor Susan Miller, who lauded Achcar's scholarship as "courageous" during her introduction. Achcar can count fawning anti-Israel Jewish studies professors among his fan base.
Achcar's entire University of California speaking tour is indicative of the aforementioned "anti-Zionism of fools" so prevalent in academia today. The rot is so pervasive that it's infected Middle East studies, Israel studies, Jewish studies, and Holocaust studies alike. At this rate, there will be no bastions of true scholarship left.
Please e-mail your concerns and comments to the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley (email@example.com) and to the Jewish Studies Program at UC Davis (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Berkeley resident Rima Greene co-wrote this article with Cinnamon Stillwell, the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Related Topics: Academia, Arab-Israeli debate in the U.S., Middle East studies | Cinnamon Stillwell | Rima Greene
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