In 2003, a group of activists at Yale University stood up and gagged themselves with strips of black cloth during a lecture by the Middle East Forum's Daniel Pipes to protest the censure of academics.
A year before, Pipes had accused two Yale professors of "hating America" and was associated through the neoconservative think tank with a project called Campus Watch, which monitors for leftist bias in the study of the Middle East. So many students and professors had come to condemn, support, or gawk at Pipes that bodies clogged the aisles of the lecture hall, and throngs waited outside. An overwhelmed Dean of Student Affairs opened the door to chase them away, only to yield before the rush of students who entered the room and refused to leave.
Two years later, in the same lecture hall, a student began crying during the Q & A after DePaul University professor Norman Finkelstein spoke. The editorials that preceded Finkelstein's visit had turned out a packed audience, anxious to hear the controversial author of The Holocaust Industry discuss his new book, a point-by-point deconstruction of the pro-Israel argument of Alan Dershowitz' The Case for Israel. Such confrontations regularly attract over a hundred students.
The girl's words came uncontrolled: I don't understand how you can say anti-Semitism doesn't exist, my friend was accosted in Europe, to me that's anti-Semitism, how can you say it doesn't exist? Tears welled; she sunk down into her seat as Finkelstein responded.
Any professor who opens his or her mouth about politics in the Middle East, particularly the Israel-Palestine conflict, risks undergoing the sort of politicized peer review Pipes and Finkelstein peddle. Yale has escaped the public drama that Columbia University endured when The David Project, a pro-Israel organization, filmed a documentary about a campus firestorm that started with the alleged remarks of a professor. Here, as on college campuses across the country, conflicts over Israel-Palestine nevertheless continue.
At Yale, the sponsoring organization of a recent panel on the Israeli elections, Caravan for Democracy, asked attendees to "sign in for security purposes," as if anticipating an attack. And the mention of Juan Cole, a noted leftist academic, as a candidate for a new professorship of modern Middle Eastern Studies, sparked a feature article in the campus weekly. Student pressure has extracted from the university a promise of an updated program of study (perhaps a concentration within an existing department, perhaps a new major) focused on the modern Middle East, saddling the school with a series of hiring decisions as politically loaded as the nomination of a Supreme Court judge.
Politics are polemics, and polemics are opinion, and the hefty tuition price tag of an American university education should buy more than a professor's opinion. But education also resists the parameters of polished roundtables and classroom discussion. Yale students learn about the Israel-Palestine conflict from the copies of the New York Times that arrive daily in dining halls, and from speakers, like Pipes and Finkelstein, who visit campus to informally educate students who may not choose to dwell academically on this area of study. With an issue so popularly political, can education ever be neutral?
This spring, 15 students listened calmly as Michael Oren, a guest lecturer, discussed the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. They are the few students who this year enrolled in Michael Gasper's history class, "The Roots of the Palestine-Israel Conflict." Most are History majors; some have studied Arabic; and a few, according to their professor, have some experience with the topic. Oren warned them about calling the conflict the "Six Day War," an Israeli construction, although he would use the terms interchangeably. His eyes darted from under his heavy eyebrows among the students, checking that they understood. When they raised their hands to ask questions about one of the most controversial conflicts in Israel's history, no tears were shed.
This class has been popular in the past, although this year it is competing with Oren's own course, "America in the Middle East," and two others covering Zionism. As a survey designed to attract those who know nearly nothing about a subject, it is often delegated to junior faculty members, making it one of those courses that everyone teaches at some point, according to Gasper. Last term, his first at Yale, Gasper taught a course called "Peasants and Nation in the Middle East" and another about identity formation. In the History department, only one other professor specializes in the modern Middle East.
Most of Gasper's years in the Middle East have been spent in Cairo, a city he says some people might call dirty, and before entering graduate school he taught English in Damascus and a yeshiva in Brooklyn. He approaches Israel and Palestine as he would any historical problem.
"The controversy comes from politics, not history," he said. "The historical view is far more complex than any polemics."
The job of a college professor of history, as Gasper sees it, is not to teach facts, but to train students to ask questions. How many types of Zionism are there? How many types of Arab nationalism? Even within Israel's tight borders, ideas about what it means to be an Israeli multiply: Russian Christians with one Jewish grandparent have the same claim to citizenship as an Orthodox Moroccan or an American Hebrew school drop-out who sometimes forgets how to sing the dreidel song. Gasper is interested in problems like these, not in people yelling at each other until they're red in the face.
And most students do not come to the class seeking such high-pitched arguments. "I've always found people know nothing about the Middle East," Gasper said.
Professors may take on the topic braced for backlash or prepared to relieve students of their media-driven prejudices; yet despite what Gasper calls the "perceived personal stake" many students have in the Israel-Palestine conflict, as more than one Yale professor confirmed, often they teach students who need a map to understand the geography of the area they are studying.
"It's one of the most informative classes I've taken at Yale," said Geraldine Gassam, a current student in the class. Her interest in the Middle East grew from the years she lived in Oman as a teenager. To her, Gasper's class appeals to a less trendy study of the Middle East — one that focuses on the region's own history, instead of its relationship with America.
Since 1967, America has considered Israel an essential ally in the region, and Israelis and Palestinians are battling for land that both groups claim as home — to them, a unique place, host to one of the most holy cities in the world. And yet — despite the attention the area receives — Israel, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank together hold about half as many people as live in the New York metro area. To hear Gasper talk about his class, however, is to disengage from the many discourses that claim a special place for Israel in the world.
Gassam, while calling him absolutely "unbiased" said that if she had to guess, she'd say he was "sympathetic to Palestine." But to Gasper, Israel's treatment of the Palestinians is not surprising. It seems to him that Israel is behaving in the way that nation-states do, staking out a criteria for inclusion and then suppressing populations within its borders that happen not to qualify. It's a process essential to identity formation everywhere, particularly in the modern Middle East. Anyone interested in studying the region will confront it, he says, in one country or another.
Although the History department, through which both Oren and Gasper teach, has requirements in European and American history, theoretically a student could take more classes — eight — on the modern Middle East as a History major than as a Middle East Area Studies major, where four of 12 credits are assigned to language study and one to the ancient Near East. The Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) department at Yale has specialized in the ancient and medieval Middle East since the 1960s, when the university underwent a review of its curriculum. Already crowned in a Cold War world with strong Slavic and Far Eastern departments, Yale decided, on the recommendation of outside consultants from schools like Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania where programs in the modern Middle East had solidified already, to concentrate its resources on the ancient past of the region.
Benjamin Foster, who is the overseer of the Yale Babylonian Collection and professor of Assyriology, has taught at Yale for over three decades. Every time he teaches the class "Introduction to the Middle East" his students advise moving it from the nine AM slot to later in the day. Foster prefers teaching classes early in the morning, when students who are committed to taking his class make the effort of getting out of bed. The class grew out of student interest and is one of the few courses in the department that discusses more recent centuries, including the Israel-Palestine conflict. Foster introduces the conflict with a request that students sequester their own treasured narratives for the few hours of class time dedicated to the topic.
"I don't regard it as a topic I'm afraid of. The students have seen all the editorials; they want to know the facts," he said in an interview.
He supplements his lectures on the facts of history with "people and places reading." Based on recommendations from his colleagues, he selects stories from both Israeli and Palestinian authors that offer perspectives on particular events and historical moments.
Throughout his 35 years of teaching, Foster has never had an angry confrontation with a student and has received only a handful of nasty complaints. To him, the department's approach derails such conflicts before they begin.
"The trend in the American academic establishment is in terms of conflict — the clash of civilizations." At Yale, though, "we tend to teach the inner values of these cultures, " he said. "My complaint is that all they teach is terrorism, extremist Islam, or, on the other side, repressed Palestinians. We're not into what went wrong."
This year, the department is graduating five students whose first major is NELC, and a handful of others who chose it as their second major. For other seniors, even those interested in the Middle East, departments like History or Political Science better serve their needs.
n late March, Michael Oren's first lecture after spring break is packed. After learning about missionaries, pan-Hellenism, and U.S. military advisors in Egypt, students will begin to examine the past 60 years of U.S. relations with the Middle East through the themes of power, faith and fantasy.
Oren, an Israeli citizen, contributing editor of The New Republic, and senior fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem think tank, is giving the course at both Yale and Harvard this spring and has a forthcoming book on the subject, Power, Faith and Fantasy: America in the Middle East 1776 to the Present, scheduled for release in January 2007.
Oren is an expert in the study of Israel. His first book, Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, made the New York Times Bestseller list. When he speaks, he likes to tell students to stop writing notes and just to listen to a spurious historical anecdote. At one lecture, he described the first negotiations involving land for peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors. A US diplomat, he recounted, proposed the "kissing triangles" solution, in which Israel would give up a triangle of its land to Egypt and a triangle of its land to Jordan in exchange for peace. The two triangles would meet at one point, over which the Israelis would build a bridge connecting the northern and southern areas of their remaining territory. The plan, Oren said, collapsed when Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser asked what would happen when, inevitably, an Israeli trucker stopped to piss off the bridge: War.
Oren's lectures focus on narrative, episodes and characters — facts, more than questions. While Gasper assigns readings in which historians ask competing questions and offer different interpretations of facts, Oren's course reading is filled with travel narratives and summaries of diplomatic exchanges. Without depending on historians' academic battles, however, Oren believes he presents a balanced view of his topic. Receiving complaints from both sides of the political spectrum, he said, tells him he is succeeding in being impartial.
Oren rejects the influence the late Edward Said has had on the study of the Middle East. "I think it's historically spurious," he asserted.
As a scholar who has made a career in politics and journalism, Oren is not a typical professor. Rushing into his office hours one day in March, he already had in tow one young man seeking his advice. Two more showed up within the next 15 minutes. His spacious office, tucked into the International Security Studies building just across the hall from Charles Hill, Yale's diplomat-in-residence, had room for all of Oren's visitors.
Before he began speaking with students, he apologized and checked his phone messages. The London Review of Books had recently published an article by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt skewering what the authors called America's Israel lobby, and Oren was expecting a call from Martin Peretz, the editor-in-chief of The New Republic, asking him to drop everything and write a response. (In the end, Peretz wrote it.)
"Almost everyone who has survived in Israel Studies has survived outside academia," Oren said, when he turned his attention back to the room, and cited a dearth of journals in which to publish. He believes that more money and effort can support the study of Israel on college campus, whether through establishing chairs in Israel Studies or promoting non-curricular programs.
"The atmosphere among faculty, not just among students, can be inimical to Zionism and Israel. The student's ability to get a balanced story is circumscribed."
The antagonism toward Zionism that Oren points out has prompted a recent trend in Israel Studies appointments across the country. Privately endowed Israel Studies chairs have sprung up at places such as the University of California at Berkeley and Columbia University, presumably to safeguard against an anti-Israel academy. The chair at Columbia was endowed in reaction to the establishment of a chair in honor of the late, controversial, Palestinian-born Edward Said. Most professors who hold such chairs, like Ilan Troen, Brandeis's Israel Studies chair, deny that their positions are based on a reactionary, pro-Israel bias. In an interview for Moment Magazine, Troen said, "We're real academics. We assume that knowledge can dissipate baseless animosity. To that extent, we're there to combat ignorance, not advocate a particular line."
In the absence of a modern Middle East program, pro-Israel or not, there are few options through which Yale students can learn any story at all about Israel or Palestine. This spring, the university is offering three courses whose descriptions include the word Palestine, one of which is "The Earliest Rabbinic Literature." The remaining two — Gasper's lecture and his graduate course "Directed Readings: the Palestine/Israel Question" — also appear as courses on Israel, alongside a seminar on modern Israeli literature, an introduction to Middle East politics and a Hebrew Bible seminar.
In total, there are but five or six courses that spend any time on Israel or Palestine, and, at most, half that number take on the contemporary political situation. Yet a student of Italy could choose from 10 different courses. But gradually the curriculum is responding to student interest in Israel and Palestine: last year, Yale brought in visiting professor Guile Ne'eman Arad, who taught a course titled "Modern Israeli Society," and within the past few years, the NELC department hired Hala Nassar, who in the past has taught courses that covered Palestinian drama as a form of protest.
Kate Siskel, a senior NELC major, prefers courses about Israel to courses about the Israel-Palestine conflict. Although she had learned about Israel in Hebrew school, in college she sought out an academic perspective to complement the lessons she had learned as a kid.
But among her friends from the campus group Yale Friends of Israel, she said, she is one of the few who pursued academic work on the region. During her last term at Yale, a final chance to study Balkan film, hieroglyphics or ornithology, she, too, is taking classes that have nothing to do with Israel.
In the unparalleled atmosphere of undergraduate education, where any topic, however obscure, can count toward a degree, students who have already learned the fundamental history of Israel-Palestine, whether in Hebrew school, from living in the region, or from their families, may find the few classes available too basic. While students with no knowledge of the Middle East can pursue academic, balanced narratives of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the classes have less to offer the activists on campus — the standard audience for a lecture by Daniel Pipes or Norman Finkelstein.
As Yale develops a program in modern Middle Eastern Studies, the opportunity for more advanced classes will increase. At this point, it is not clear whether the program will develop within the NELC department, under another, like International Studies, or on its own. Whether or not the university decides to hire Juan Cole, the first inklings of controversy have already appeared. Although the standard-bearing, foundational courses on a flash-point issue like Israel-Palestine demonstrate a professionalism that divorces politics and academics, professors who, like Oren, edit recent academic history out of their syllabi may have a harder time telling students the story from both sides.
The NELC department has avoided trouble by focusing on the deep roots of culture in the Middle East. Venturing further into the modern era, the university runs the risk of accidentally stepping on a mine buried just beneath the surface.
Sarah Laskow, who graduated from Yale University in May, looks forward to confronting the world next year armed with nothing but a degree in Comparative Literature.