After producing two books, seven articles and a course that earned widespread accolades from the student body, James Russell was sure he'd be a shoe-in for tenure at Columbia University.
But Russell, an expert in Armenian studies, soon learned that other factors besides the quality of his scholarship were under consideration.
"Two senior professors in my department explained that I could not expect, as a Jew, to be kept as a tenured professor in the Middle East department," he said.
Now, three years later, Russell, a tenured professor at Harvard University, speaks brazenly against anti-Semitism in academia.
Addressing more than 100 people at the Gershman Y on a recent Sunday morning, he pointed to numerous examples of what some have referred to an "academic jihad."
He called Edward Said, the late Columbia University professor who espoused the Arab cause, the "academic apostle" of radical Islam. Russell blamed Said's "pseudo-scholarship" for painting Israel as a colonial tyrant and Arabs as hapless victims.
"It created an innocent and passive Arab population, raped by imperialists and colonized by Zionists," explained Russell. The scholar also said that Said's work engendered "a general sympathy for the Arabs as postcolonial revolutionaries, together with an easy antipathy towards Israel."
He added that such "scholarship" misrepresents the Middle East, and its history.
Skewed Roles of Oppressed and Oppressor
By way of example, he discussed the Armenian genocide. Russell said this massacre, in which Ottoman Turks led a jihad against Christian Armenians, challenges the notion that Israel is the only country to blame for imperialist aggression in the region. In fact, the American ambassador to the Ottoman Empire at the time, Henry Morgenthau, who happened to be Jewish, was one of the loudest voices raised against the slaughter.
Russell explained that the skewed roles of oppressed and oppressor promoted in Said's construct continue to be leveraged by those who wish to make political points against Israel.
"Now, the means employed by the PLO, Hamas, Hezbollah and so on [would] be justified not by their ends ... but by their causes," he stated. "The idea [is] that no matter what atrocity [they commit], it's understandable because of Israel."
He also debunked the myth that the so-called "Israel lobby" dictates American foreign policy, as suggested by Harvard professor Stephen M. Walt and University of Chicago scholar John J. Mearsheimer. Their lengthy essay, which was published in the London Review of Books in March, ignited a fiery debate about the extent to which an Israel-driven stance on the Middle East is good for the United States.
Russell argued that building stronger relationships with Arab countries -- which give rise to few Nobel laureates, exhibit poor human-rights records and offer little in the way of economic return -- would not be of much value.
"Should one regret that these regimes are not our friends?" he asked rhetorically.
Russell said that even in a world of terrorist threats and suicide bombings, Americans should not apologize for maintaining close ties to Israel.
"If 9/11 happened in part because we're friends of Israel, then the character of that act of murder should be an indication of why a country like America is a friend of Israel and should stand by it," he said to resounding applause.
Likewise, he urged American academics to "go on the offensive" on campus.
Russell gleaned much of his pro-Israel views while teaching for a time at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
"The question is not why I chose to speak out the way I do right now," he said. "The question is why so many Jewish-American students and teachers are so complacent that they don't."