Middlebury Arabic School
To the Editor:
I would like to congratulate Franck Salameh for tackling an issue too often taboo in discussion of Arabic language instruction ("Middlebury's Arabic Morass," MEQ, Summer 2006). To address the singer Fayrouz and to disparage her distinctly Lebanese themes is to twist reality. Too many in the Arab world try to impose a homogenous narrative onto a diverse region. Politics denudes Arabic language curricula of the richness of Gibran Khalil Gibran, Mikhael Neaimy, and Sa'id Akl.
At the Summer Institute for Intensive Arabic Language and Culture (SINARC), our students travel across Lebanon and Syria, visiting areas described by different poets in order to appreciate such diversity. It is unfortunate that while the Middle East slowly recovers from Arab nationalism, programs in the states fight to keep such ideologies alive.
Mimi Milki Jeha
Director, Summer Institute for Intensive Arabic Language and Culture
Lebanese American University
To the Editor:
Middlebury College has received a number of inquiries about its intensive summer Arabic Language School as a result of Franck Salameh's article.
Mr. Salameh alleges that pan-Arabism overwhelms the Arabic school's treatment of the ethnic and linguistic minorities and that lack of representation diminishes or disparages those cultures. The Arabic School attempts to reflect the diversity of cultures within the Arabic-speaking world. This is difficult given the need to provide students with a solid foundation in a standard dialect. Mr. Salameh claims that the dominance of Modern Standard Arabic within the curriculum reflects a lack of respect for the range of dialects encompassed by Arabic. On the contrary, while recognizing the importance of Modern Standard Arabic as the language of contemporary research, the Middlebury Arabic School also teaches classes in Moroccan, Egyptian, Levantine, and Palestinian dialects.
Nevertheless, area studies are by their nature controversial. It is difficult to present to students a comprehensive overview without running the risk of omitting or under-representing some issues. It should be apparent why no Arabic program aimed at providing students with maximum language proficiency in a short time will be able to address every cultural issue.
All but one of Salameh's specific allegations are wrong. The Arabic school did not itself organize any religious services, Muslim, Christian, or Jewish. Director Mahmoud Abdalla assisted Jewish students seeking services using the same procedures followed for Islamic and Christian prayer services. Nor were halal meals privileged over kosher meals; students' individual dietary requirements were accommodated on request, using the same procedures for both. The controversial map on which the state of Israel was labeled as "Palestine" was typical of those used by many Arabic-speaking countries. As soon as Mr. Abdalla was made aware that such a map was on display in the Arabic School, he had it removed. Since then, any maps in official use by the Arabic School have shown the state of Israel.
The two Jewish students referred to by Salameh returned to the Arabic School in 2006. They told me they felt neither discrimination nor intimidation in the Arabic School. They recommended the Middlebury program to Jewish friends. We have more than a dozen Jewish students in the Arabic School every year.
Can Middlebury College guarantee that all Arabic School instructors have a balanced view of the Middle East and the region's politics? No, but we recognize the problems and challenges of teachers who bring to Middlebury perspectives, biases, and ideological convictions representative of their home countries.
We assess the performance of every faculty member in every class. We require students to complete anonymous evaluations to gain as much insight as possible. This process enables us to strengthen the learning experience for students.
Dean of Language Schools and Schools Abroad
To the Editor:
As an alumnus of the Arabic summer school at Middlebury College, I agree with Professor Franck Salameh on one point: The Middlebury program constitutes the gold standard of Arabic language instruction in the United States. Much else that he writes is nonsense.
Professor Salameh says the Middlebury program indoctrinates students with a "tendentious Arab nationalist reading of Middle Eastern history," and he argues that Middlebury pushes the idea that "Arab identity trumps local identities and that respect for minority ethnic and sectarian communities betrays Arabism."
This is not the case. My experience at Middlebury in 2000 was that the program was largely free of politics. Apparently, the faculty had been instructed by the then-program director in consultation with Middlebury College to avoid political debates with students inside of class and out. In fact, class and extracurricular activities ignored politics almost entirely. Assigned readings were drawn from the entire corpus of Arabic history and literature and, in class, faculty were too busy drilling students in Arabic grammar and helping them to expand their vocabulary to give attention to politics. Certainly, nobody had either time or energy for any focus on Arabism, tendentious or otherwise. It is unfortunate that Professor Salameh should have permitted his own opposition to Arab nationalism, admittedly a failed ideology, to shape his reaction to a distinguished academic program.
When I was at Middlebury, the Fourth of July was hardly ignored. Rather, we had a variety of activities, including a very American barbecue and a memorable tug-of-war. As an "older student sporting closely cropped hair," I find Professor Salameh's charge that visiting faculty from the Middle East treated such students with "noticeable coolness" to be risible. My experience was just the opposite.
I have known Lebanese-American professor Mahmoud al-Batal for some thirty years. He has written the definitive textbook for Arabic language instruction and is apolitical to a fault. Everything is in the eye of the beholder: Professor Salameh's description of the visiting lecture by Professor Al-Batal on Lebanon, I believe, is far more revealing of the views of Professor Salameh than it is reflective of those of Professor Al-Batal.
The Middlebury Arabic program hardly "force[s]" area experts to "march in ideological lock step." I consider it unfortunate that the Middle East Quarterly opted to publish an essay so far from the truth.
Antony T. Sullivan
Founder and Director
Near East Support Services
Franck Salameh responds:
Michael Geisler mischaracterizes my article. I did not only advocate on behalf of Middle East minority narratives and Arabic dialects; rather, I critiqued the Middlebury Arabic school's indoctrination of language students and its conflation of scholarship with partisan readings of history.
I based my study on the Arabic School's curriculum, teaching tools, and observation of the ideological predilections of faculty, administrators, and guest lecturers during the summers of 2003 and 2004. Mr. Geisler did not begin his deanship until 2005.
Mr. Geisler should not dismiss as an innocent under-representation of minority issues the cultural contempt and dismissal of minority cultures incorporated into formal scholarly lectures and other academic exercises. The Arabic program promoted historical pan-Arabism's homogenized narrative. A survey of announcements and videotaped lectures confirms that there was no attempt to foster balance of perspectives.
Mr. Geisler omits reference to other points: Middlebury College Food Services contradicts Mr. Geisler's claim that the Middlebury administration did not apply special program-wide regulations to the Arabic school. Nor was the ban on alcohol during Arabic school functions consistent with Middlebury's other language programs. Testing language replicated Arab nationalist slogans. Mr. Geisler's claim that the school treated Jewish, Christian, and Muslim prayer services equitably is false, and his subsequent discussion with two Jewish students borders on intimidation. Middlebury defines the gold standard of Arabic language training programs. Mr. Geisler should be aware that, in an atmosphere where criticism is discouraged and public complaint akin to betrayal, students consider acknowledgment of professorial bias to be professional suicide.
Still, I welcome Mr. Geisler's agreement that visiting faculty members who carry the biases and ideologies of their home countries should no longer engage in political advocacy or proselytize. While Middlebury takes pride in teaching students how to think in Arabic, they should not conflate this with teaching students what to think.
Mr. Sullivan seeks to use an earlier experience to discredit a more recent trend toward indoctrination at the Middlebury Summer Arabic program. While I share a high regard for Middlebury, this does not excuse the blending of pedagogy and ideology.
Wishing criticism away is insufficient; the evidence I presented is overwhelming. Like Mr. Geisler, Mr. Sullivan fails to address the evidence outlined in my article.
On specific points raised by Mr. Sullivan: I admire Professor Mahmoud al-Batal's contributions to the field of Arabic language instruction. That Al-Batal is an inspiring teacher does not render him beyond reproach, though, especially when he ventures into topics outside his academic specialty and attempts to pass philosophical and ideological predilections as scholarship. By his own admission, Dr. Al-Batal is political and an inveterate Arab nationalist. Mr. Sullivan description of Al-Batal as "apolitical to a fault" is dishonest. I urge Mr. Sullivan to consider Al-Batal's videotaped July 2004 lecture at Middlebury should he harbor any doubt.
"The Israel Lobby"
To the Editor:
Every time an academic writes about "the Israel lobby," invariably something is missing. Whether it is Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer grossly exaggerating the lobby's power, or David Verbeeten minimizing it in the Fall 2006 Middle East Quarterly ("How Important Is the Israel Lobby?"), there is deficiency in analysis. Few academics have a clue about how Washington works, how lobbyists interact with Congress, or how policy decisions are made. Nor do those in the Ivory Tower have a feel for how Congress can influence foreign policy and its relationship to both public opinion and the executive branch.
When writing about lobbying and the political process, it helps to have had some hands-on experience in both our foreign policy bureaucracies and on Capitol Hill. Otherwise, it is too easy to be off the mark in determining how policies can be influenced by outside interest groups. Verbeeten, for instance, states that, "Between 1973 and 1987, AIPAC knew more failure than success in influencing key U.S. decisions." While this may be true in some instances on a macro scale, many of the pro-Israel lobby's successes have gone unnoticed or unreported. Between 1974 and 1980, when I was executive director of AIPAC, we had quite a few successes. For example, little has been made public about the technological limitations placed on the F-15 aircraft sold to Saudi Arabia in 1978 and, similarly, on the AWACS aircraft the Saudis purchased in 1981. When I met with Jordan's late King Hussein in Washington a year before he died, he confirmed that the Hawk missiles we supplied him in the mid-1970s were still set in concrete. The PLK—or "plucky little king" as he was referred to in State Department cables—knew full well that it was congressional pressure that led to restrictions on the missiles' mobility in order to prevent them from being any threat to Israel's air dominance.
There was also the harsh congressional criticism of the "Rogers Plan" of December 1969 calling for an imposed settlement whereby Israel essentially would return to its pre-1967 borders; the 1970 Senate initiative authorizing the first military credits for Israel, and congressional pressure on the Nixon administration to deliver F-4 Phantom jets to Israel, aircraft which later bore the brunt of the air war in 1973.
Why would Verbeeten have any knowledge of another instance where AIPAC cut a deal offering not to fight U.S. aid to Syria in the late 1970s in exchange for three times as much assistance for Israel in addition to the amount that the administration had already budgeted? Also during this period and subsequently, Congress has consistently added billions in economic and military aid to Israel above and beyond administration requests—something unheard of with regard to foreign aid appropriations, which for most countries meant the axe rather than the ladle.
There are two other major accomplishments that go unmentioned in Verbeeten's article: the Jackson-Vanik Freedom of Emigration Act and the Senate "Letter of 76." Both merit elaboration.
Under the leadership of the late Senator Henry "Scoop" Jackson, and over the strenuous objections of Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was pushing détente with the Soviet Union, Congress passed landmark legislation denying trade benefits to Soviet Russia unless it permitted Soviet Jews to leave. This effort spearheaded by the National Conference on Soviet Jewry and the organized American Jewish community constituted a decisive defeat for the administration and a boon for Israel.
Then, in May 1975, Kissinger, frustrated by his inability to wring further concessions from Israel during his shuttle diplomacy between Israel and Egypt, announced that there would be a "reassessment" of U.S. relations with Israel. Given Israel's growing dependence on U.S. support, this threat was countered by a strong bipartisan letter of support signed in just a few days by seventy-six U.S. senators. In their letter, the senators made it clear that Israel was not to blame for the collapse of the talks with Egypt. And they were quite specific in asserting that any delay in U.S. arms shipments to Israel was "dangerous."
A clear call for closer U.S. cooperation with Israel has been a staple over the years of the congressional message to various administrations along with disdain for "even-handed" policies when it came to dealing with Israel and its Arab foes. Congress has consistently insisted on treating Israel as a friend and ally. The bipartisan support this position continues to enjoy today is no small feat in an increasingly fractious and partisan Congress. Lopsided congressional votes favoring Israel have become a fact of political life.
While Verbeeten is correct in stating that it is an "exaggeration" to say that the role of the Israel lobby in U.S.-Israel relations is "salient, decisive, and unique," still, the lobby has been successful in working with Congress to counter the State Department's predisposition to favor the interests of the numerous Arab and Muslim countries with which it interacts. Success is not measured in achieving positive results in every instance, for example, in moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, but also by imposing self-limitations on an unsympathetic bureaucracy.
Ultimately, the real underpinning of "the lobby's" success is the fact that most Americans consider a secure Israel to be in the best interests of the United States. Americans acknowledge that Israel is more like us than are its neighbors. This is what really drives U.S. policies in the region. And helping steer this course are many thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish Americans who insist on having their voices heard and who enthusiastically participate in our democratic process. To my mind then, the truth about the influence of "the lobby" lies somewhere between being an all-powerful force and being largely irrelevant. While it is neither of these, it is undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with by our policymakers.
Morris J. Amitay
David Verbeeten responds:
Mr. Amitay has inadvertently misconstrued my article. I do not say the contemporary Israel lobby is irrelevant, but rather I provide historical context for that influence which it now does exert. This influence is contingent upon a preexisting receptivity on the part of government officials to listen to pro-Israel arguments. I agree with Mr. Amitay that Congress reflects the pro-Israel attitude of the American people. This explains why Congress tends to support Israel despite, not because of, lobby pressure.
The point of my article was to demonstrate beyond any doubt that Walt and Mearsheimer's argument that the Israel lobby directs the Congress is ludicrous. AIPAC should be commended for its hard work. Its lobbying was essential to the passage of the Jackson-Vanik Freedom of Emigration Act and the issuance of the Senate Letter of 76. But, what empowered AIPAC so much was the fact that, after the Six-Day war especially, most policymakers sought close U.S.-Israel ties. The desire for close ties bolstered AIPAC more than AIPAC bolstered the desire for close ties. It was this symbiosis between mood and the efforts of AIPAC to tap that mood that helped advance strong relations, even under a president like Nixon who was apathetic to the Jewish community and Israel.
 "Senate Letter to President Ford," Near East Report, May 28, 1975.
 Morris J. Amitay is a former Foreign Service officer, House and Senate aide, and executive director of AIPAC from 1974 to 1980. He is now vice chair of JINSA, founder of the (pro-Israel) Washington PAC, and heads a lobbying/law firm on Capitol Hill specializing in national security issues.