A Pulitzer Prize and Academy Award-winning composer might seem an unlikely critic of Columbia Univeristy's Middle East studies department. But last week, when John Corigliano was honored as a distinguished Columbia College alumnus, the composer took it upon himself to criticize the bias in that Columbia department.
"There has been an enormous, enormous amount of publicity about the various departments of Middle Eastern Studies," he said in his acceptance speech. "And about the fact that the anti-Israeli policy in these [departments] is enormous. And one can say that of the department of Middle Eastern languages and cultures at Columbia, that that's true here."
Corigliano's critique of Columbia's department of Middle Eastern languages and cultures (MEALAC), is should put the university on notice that it has a problem. Unfortunately, that problem is about to get worse, with the arrival of Rashid Khalidi next fall as MEALAC's inaugural (anonymously funded) "Edward Said Professor of Middle East Studies" and head of the university's Middle East Institute.
A glance at Khalidi's work shows why this is a step in the wrong direction for Columbia University. His writings and statements routinely cross the line from education into a political advocacy that is not just extremist but often factually wrong. Four examples:
On American foreign policy. Following Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait, Khalidi called the widespread resistance to this act of aggression an "idiots' consensus" and called on his colleagues to combat it.[i] After 9/11, he admonished Washington to drop what he called its "hysteria about suicide bombers."[ii]
Khalidi asserts that the U.S. government has "yet to support the independence of Arab Palestine,"[iii] despite open endorsement by President George W. Bush of a Palestinian state[iv], and nearly $1 billion in direct U.S. aid to the West Bank and Gaza since 1993.[v]
And beware anyone who disagrees with Khalidi! He throws reckless accusations out against them, such as calling Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz "a fanatical, extreme right-wing Zionist."[vi]
On Palestinian violence. Khalidi glorifies anti-Israel violence as contributing to "political enlightenment"[vii] and unsurprisingly admires those who carry it out. His loyalty to Palestinian terrorist groups run so deep that he actually dedicated his 1986 valentine to the PLO, Under Siege, to "those who gave their lives . . . in defense of the cause of Palestine and independence of Lebanon."[viii] The book whitewashes PLO violence against Israelis and Lebanese, as well as the Syrian occupation.
On media coverage. When Palestinian violence garners unfavorable publicity, Khalidi's response it to blame the messenger, not the murderers. Thus, in response to Palestinians lynched two off-duty Israeli officers on October 12, 2000, Khalidi did not critique the perpetrators of this crime, but railed against the "prostitute" and "cynical" media that dared to show Palestinians triumphantly displaying bloodied hands after the killings. In like spirit, he faults not those Palestinians who erupted in joyous street celebrations at the murders of 3,000 Americans on 9/11, but the media for having the temerity to report these occurrences.[ix]
On Israel as a U.S. ally. In Khalidi's fevered imagination, Israel is not a democratic ally but an "apartheid system in creation" and a destructive "racist" state. In his efforts to indict the Jewish state, Khalidi is quite prepared to make up accusations, such as his claim that Israel's army has "awful weapons of mass destruction (many supplied by the U.S.) that it has used in cities, villages and refugee camps."[x] This is a plain lie. That so few Americans agree with his bizarre reading of Israel's democracy as a menacing enemy state causes him to dismiss them as "brainwashed."[xi]
In short, Khalidi's scholarship is laced with a vicious political radicalism. That Khalidi holds such views is, of course, his right. What is worrisome is that Khalidi advocates his political views at a leading research university under the auspices of scholarship. "He is a dangerously powerful academic," says a former student of his, Talia Magnas, speaking to "hundreds at a time of his virulently anti-Israel sentiments."[xii]
To make matters worse, Khalidi is joining at Columbia a university already brimming with politicized scholarship by Middle East specialists, including Nadia Abu El-Haj, Hamid Dabashi, Joseph Massad, Edward Said, and George Saliba.
In short, Khalidi's move to Columbia involves a biased scholar accepting an anonymously endowed chair named for a biased scholar to head a biased department. It's fair to say that the arrival of Khalidi at Columbia will give this university the largest, most politicized Middle East studies roster in North America.
Corigliano's remarks reportedly drew sustained applause at the gala awards ceremony. This is a sign, we expect, that the stakeholders in a great university are beginning to realize the problems in its study of the Middle East.
Alyssa A. Lappen is a writer in New York and Jonathan Calt Harris is managing editor at Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.
[i] Norton, Augustus Richard, "Breaking the Gulf Stalemate Strategy," Los Angeles Times, Nov. 18, 1990.
[ii] Khalidi, Rashid, "Challenges and Opportunities," American Committee for Jerusalem, June 2002.
[iii] Khalidi, Rashid, "American Anointed," American Prospect, Nov. 19, 2001.
[iv] Bush, Pres. George W., "President Bush Addresses U.N.," Washington Post, Nov. 10, 2001. http://ods-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N01/631/82/PDF/N0163182.pdf?OpenElement
[vi] "Bush Winds Back U.S. Policy," Australian Financial Review, Feb. 8, 2001.
[vii] Elgrably, Jordan, "Crisis of Our Times: Nationalism, Identity and the Future of Israel/Palestine, an Interview with Rashid Khalidi" Oct. 2000, http://www.opentent.org/essays/khalidi.html www.opentent.org; Solomon, Alisa, "Fuels for the Fire," Village Voice, Sept. 19-25, 2001.Elgrably, Jordan, ibid.
[viii] Khalidi, Rashid, Under Siege, pp. ix.
[ix] Elgrably, Jordan, "Crisis of Our Times: Nationalism, Identity and the Future of Israel/Palestine, an Interview with Rashid Khalidi" Oct. 2000, http://www.opentent.org/essays/khalidi.html; Solomon, Alisa, "Fuels for the Fire," Village Voice, Sept. 19-25, 2001.
[x] Khalidi, Rashid, "Basic Truths from Both Sides of the Conflict," Chicago Tribune, Apr. 3, 2002; Elgrably, Jordan, ibid.
[xi] Tasker, Fred, "U.S. Policy is a Source of Mistrust," Miami Herald, Sept. 23, 2001, Elgrably, Jordan, ibid.,former Khalidi colleague.
[xii] Magnas, Talia, Dec. 17, 2002 email and interview, former colleague.