A recent e-mail exchange with one faculty member of UCLA's Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES), Ra'anan Boustan, an Assistant Professor of Early Judaism and Ancient Mediterranean Religions, illuminates the wall of resistance that members of American academe, especially those engaged in Middle East or Near East Studies, erect to immunize themselves to any criticism of their work from those outside the Ivory Tower.
The other day I forwarded an excellent article concerning "UCLA's Politicized Middle East Studies Professors," (Nov.-12 in FrontPage), to members of CNES. I had published a column on the same subject a few days earlier -- "A Tarnished Golden Anniversary," referring to this year's 50th anniversary of CNES, where the politicized professors discussed in the FrontPage article and me are part of the faculty. One of those who responded to the forwarded article was Professor Boustan.
This scholar-teacher's initial response was to label me a "fascist" and to complain that I was "tarring and feathering academics without engaging in their specific ideas, but merely by associating them with ‘black-listed' figures." He further asked me to "please refrain from spamming me with this drivel." Several similar responses were received from other members of CNES. One would hope that scholars and teachers would be more open to criticism of their work and contrasting ideas, even if they did not agree with them. This sort of openness from those who, in Geoffery Chaucer's words, would "gladly learn and gladly teach," is in the best and truest academic tradition; but it is all too rare on today's politicized American college campuses.
When I replied to Professor Boustan that after all, I was only interested in reporting the facts, and that "one can never ignore reality and facts on the ground," I received a more detailed and serious response from him. Unfortunately, it also epitomizes the view of politicized academics that any criticism of them from outside the Ivy Tower 's walls is persecution, designed only to silence them and repress free debate. The following is his letter in full:
Dear Ms. Neuwirth,
The "facts"? Clear and simple, right? We are at war in Iraq because of such attitudes to the "facts." I am a colleague and friend of those you so glibly besmirched in your public writings, and I contest your "facts." More importantly, please do not imagine that academics have massive amounts of power and therefore need to put in their place. Save your real outrage for those who make decisions (dollars and cents) about peoples lives. Academics are trained and paid to ask hard questions about how the world works, what the various interests are, and how they are played out. This is the normal analytical task of a historian. It involves interpretation of empirical evidence, with which you may very well disagree. But, in my view, it is wholly out of bounds to start "black-listist" [sic] academics for their views. We tried that once back in the 1950s. So did the Nazis. Tread carefully when you start whipping up the indignation of the public against intellectuals.
What follows is an open letter of reply from me to Professor Boustan. It addresses his assertions one by one:
""The "facts"? Clear and simple, right? We are at war in Iraq because of such attitudes to the "facts.""
The war in Iraq cannot explain why your colleagues, Gabi Piterberg, James Gelvin, Sondra Hale, Saree Makdisi and many others have been so biased in their writings and teaching about the Arab-Israeli conflict. With regard to the American-Iraq war: we face militant Islamist terrorism not only in Iraq but also throughout the world. Its tentacles reach all the way from Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia to college campuses throughout the United States . While reasonable people of goodwill may differ about the strategic wisdom of the war in Iraq , no reasonable person can deny that militant jihadism is a threat to civilization in the United States and throughout the world. Its ultimate goals are to annihilate Israel and to conquer the West. Where is American academe's outcry against this enemy? The attitude of "progressive" academics in this country toward the jihad against the West has become one of intellectual "dhimmitude"— meaning subservience to, and acceptance of, second-class status by non-Muslims in a Muslim-ruled social order. Acceptance of such an order, even in the figurative sense of intellectual subservience to the militant Islamist aggressors and their fundamentalist version of Islam, is certainly not genuinely progressive. Rather it involves collaboration with those who wish to impose a reactionary, medieval social order on the entire world. An order in which women are slaves without human rights; killed to protect the ‘honor" of their male relatives if subjected to rape; beaten as a matter of routine by their husbands; not allowed to drive cars or even walk outside unless accompanied by a male relative; forced into marriages as young as nine years old, and mutilated at puberty to deprive them of sexual pleasure. A world where non-Muslim blacks are routinely enslaved if not murdered. One where alleged criminals are whipped and tortured if they are lucky, and have their limbs or private parts cut off if they are not. One where conversion to or proselytizing for another religion is a criminal offense, as is "heresy" or "blasphemy" from what is considered orthodox Islam. A political system in which only violence can change a corrupt or tyrannical government.
We all hate wars and killing. But by lending an ideological and propaganda "hand" to the enemies of the West, especially in times of war, your colleagues are betraying the cause of civilized humanity.
"I am a colleague and friend of those you so glibly besmirched in your public writings, and I contest your "facts."
First, your colleagues and friends have besmirched themselves by their writings and actions. Second, we should recall a saying from the Talmud: "Tell me who your friend is and I will tell you who you are". Collegiality and friendship cannot justify support for wrong and unjust opinions. Third and most important: if you are contesting my facts, please be specific. Perhaps I would learn something, and in that case, I would be most grateful to you for pointing out where I had erred, and would be first to admit my mistakes.
"More importantly, please do not imagine that academics have massive amounts of power and therefore need to put in their place."
Academics do have great power. They mold the thinking of the most talented and brightest of our youth. And our government often relies on the "expertise," whether real or purported, of academics. What our academic community needs is not more power, but more integrity!
"Save your real outrage for those who make decisions (dollars and cents) about peoples lives."
All too often, these decision-makers rely on bad advice from academic "experts."
"Academics are trained and paid to ask hard questions about how the world works, what the various interests are, and how they are played out."
I could not agree with you more about asking hard questions. I am all for it. This is exactly what I try to do in my columns. But I also believe that facts, and not bias or political agendas, should be the focus and objective of these questions.
"This is the normal analytical task of a historian. It involves interpretation of empirical evidence, with which you may very well disagree. But, in my view, it is wholly out of bounds to start "black-listing" academics for their views. We tried that once back in the 1950s. So did the Nazis. Tread carefully when you start whipping up the indignation of the public against intellectuals."
I have not "blacklisted" anyone. A ‘blacklist" is a list of people who are denied employment, subjected to economic boycott, or otherwise punished or discriminated against in some way. (See for example, the definitions of this word in Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language). I have neither the power nor the desire to punish or discriminate against anyone. Neither do any of the people who have criticized the trend toward hostility to The United States , Israel , and the West generally in the Middle East studies departments of American colleges and universities. Criticism is the heart of the academic enterprises, and it is intrinsic to asking hard questions. Criticism is not "blacklisting".
Many academics and others on the so-called "Left" argue that freedom of speech means that they have the right to criticize anyone or anything, but no one has the right to criticize them. They think that freedom of speech is their right to speak without being criticized or opposed for what they say. It is time to identify and expose this false notion of free speech. True free speech is two-sided; it means a free debate, not a monologue.
As for the suggestion that those who criticize the state of Middle Eastern studies in this country are like the Nazis, it is nothing more than name-calling, aimed at deflecting any reasoned scrutiny or critique of academic publications and teaching.
In reality, it is those on our college campuses who rationalize and justify the aggression of the militant Islamists and extremist Arab nationalists: who defame their victims—especially their Jewish victims;-- and who attempt to replace truth with falsehoods and facts with fictions—it is academics who engage in this kind of discourse about the Middle East whose conduct most resembles that of German academics of the pre- Nazi and Nazi eras. It should not be forgotten that it was the anti-Jewish discourse of reputable German academics, such as the famous historian Heinrich von Treitsche, that did the most to legitimate anti-Semitism among the German educated elite, and thereby to make the Nazi takeover and the Holocaust possible in what had been a civilized country.
The truth must be told when 'intellectual' apologists for terrorists mar and distort historical facts on our campuses. What they do is nothing short of emboldening the Islamist terrorists and extremists, and inciting hatred, particularly against America , Israel and the Jews, at a time when all three are being subjected to armed attack. Truly, shame on those "scholars" and "teachers" who defend and rationalize evil.
John Landau contributed to this article.