Bologna, one of Italy's most beautiful cities, has the nicknames "la rossa" ("red" referring to the city's buildings though it later took on a political connotation), "la dotta" ("learned" referring to the oldest university in Europe), and "la grossa" ("fat" referring to the city's exquisite and decadent food). For an exchange student from Northwestern University, Bologna was indeed a world away from my experience. But it was also here at the University of Bologna where I encountered a curious prejudice that makes a mockery of the city's tradition of scholarship.
I had enrolled in a Middle East class in the University's political science department. Though weaker than the Middle East Studies classes I have taken at Northwestern, it was a relatively standard course. Thus I found the polemical bias of this unassuming course particularly disturbing—especially in the context of a didactic and hierarchical Italian academic system in which the words of the professor and readings are considering the Gospel.
I spoke Italian well enough to detect overt bias against the state of Israel during lectures. For example the professor asked a student, an Arab citizen of Israel, to introduce himself. He politely did so. But since the student failed to express any grievances about his Arab-Israeli status, the professor decided to do so for him by emphatically, sarcastically and cynically telling us we had a heard a very, very good representation of the plight of the Arab citizens of Israel.
When Italians speak—especially to the ear of a foreigner, myself included—it often sounds like they are constantly arguing. That was my initial reaction, but my polemical professor was serious when she corrected the Arab student for not complaining sufficiently or at all about being a member of the only Arab population in the Middle East with full political and religious rights, a free press, excellent health care, women's and gay rights, and one the highest life expectancies in the region. She almost became slightly crazy in mid lecture when the topic at hand was Israel.
Then came the final oral exam that wholly determines a student's grade. I chose the Arab-Israeli conflict from the choice of topics and browsed over the syllabus:
These readings are required for frequentanti—students like myself who regularly attend class. Some of the Italian titles on the extended syllabus also speak for themselves:
The professor's judgment was that we needed to learn about "religious national fundamentalism in Israel"—but not that of Hamas, "Israel's original sin"—but not the original and continual Arab sin of rejecting Israel's right to exist, and her own writing on the "Jewish colonies in the occupied territories"—but not the Syrian military and economic occupation of Lebanon.
The books were heavy on polemics. I found Benny Morris' book useful and loaded with information, but his dubious revisionism regarding the Palestinian refugees leave little doubt as to why our professor chose this history of the conflict. Reinhart's book, a polemical and one-sided criticism of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians after Oslo, was apparently included in order to vindicate the instructor's opinions of Zionism by showing an Israeli could hold them. Edward Said's book, a collection of short op-ed pieces written between 1995 and 2002, expands on the premise that the Oslo Peace Process was merely an Israeli ploy to continue its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Although lacking academic credentials in the field, Said could never be excluded from the syllabus of anti-Israel polemic calling itself a "class".
The New Intifada's major contribution to the syllabus—as articulated in Chomsky's introduction—is that not only is Israel solely to blame for the entire conflict, but that this atrocity occurs due to Israel's support from the United States. No one should find this surprising given Chomsky's hatred of America. One chapter, "The US Media and the New Intifada", describes a pro-Israel bias in the mainstream American press without addressing the ritualistic anti-Semitism in Arab media. Another chapter, "The Implementation of the Right of Return", describes why and how hostile foreign born Arabs should come to live in Israel. In other words, Arabs have a "right" to a Trojan Horse but the Arab states bear no responsibility or acknowledgement for their pillaging and expulsion of various Sephardic Jewish communities throughout the Middle East. If the narrowly one-sided discourse did not take away any credibility from the book that it never had, it didn't even live up to its title. Shouldn't a book describing the "Intifada" include in its 354 pages just one mention of suicide terrorism—this Intifada's main tactic—that routinely and deliberately targets women, children, and the elderly?
The required reading clearly indicated that the instructor did not believe there was an "Arab-Israeli conflict"—but rather only "Zionist crimes in Palestine".
My disappointment with the bias of the class was only superceded by my disappointment with the scholarship of the class. Unfortunately I traveled across the Atlantic not to attend the same university as Dante and Copernicus, but rather to be force-fed activism that apparently only an ignoranous would—or even could believe. Said was a professor of Comparative Literature; Noam Chomsky, a professor of Linguistics, served as Reinhart's thesis advisor at MIT in that field. I don't know what to find more dishonest: their intellectual incest or pretenses to expertise outside of their fields. Of the twenty-one contributors (including Edward Said) to The New Intifada only one is an academic specialist on the topic at hand: Glen E. Robinson—someone who compared career terrorist Yasser Arafat to Moses.
My professor and many other academics suffer from the mental disorder of Palestinianism—an obsession with and hatred of Israel that disguises itself by promulgating Palestinian rights as the major, sometimes only, humanitarian cause of our time. The hypocrisy of these partisans knows no bounds. Feminists or homosexuals will side against the only country in the region that respects their rights, liberals will side against the only democracy in the region with any semblance of the rule of law or due process, and Arab activists will remain deafeningly silent as Arab militias carry out genocide and gang rape on a massive scale in Darfur.
At Bologna then, an understanding of the Arab-Israeli conflict does not appear to be the goal. The blurb on the back cover of The New Intifada captures the intent better:
"The case for an international grassroots movement in support of Palestinian rights is made with urgency and persuasive clarity."
Whatever it is, it is not "la dotta" or anything having to do with scholarship.
D. Beraka wrote this piece for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, which is designed to critique and improve Middle East Studies at North American colleges and universities.