‘Arab World' lecturer argued ‘distorted view' with one-sided accusations; yet, high community turnout offered some balanceUniversity of California-Irvine professor Lara Deeb missed few opportunities to cast Israel in the role of sole aggressor and regional pariah during a public lecture at Rice University on April 10. Of the 150 people who attended the evening lecture, 30 were members of Houston's Jewish community, several of whom participated in the program's question-and-answer session.
Deeb's presentation, titled, "Understanding Hizbullah," was the final installment of the 2007/08 multipart "Arab World: History, Politics & Culture" lecture series. The event was held at, and was co-sponsored by, the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy on the Rice campus. The Boniuk Center for the Study and Advancement of Religious Tolerance at Rice University was not listed as a co-sponsor for Deeb's presentation, as it had been at previous "Arab World" events.
Rice's lone modern Middle Eastern studies professor, Ussama Makdisi, organized the lecture series. Makdisi, who teaches students that Israel is an illegitimate colonial state that has "ethnically cleansed" Palestinians from the land, initiated this program three years ago "to provide a forum for perspectives on and from the Arab world." In presenting his series to the Rice community and to the Houston public, Makdisi remarked that it "has brought to Rice leading scholars and journalists who write about the Arab world, not with malice or ignorance, but as part of a perpetual dynamic of inquiry and criticism." Despite this packaging, however, the series has served to advance a clear partisan political agenda, which often centers upon one-sided criticism of, and bias against, Israel.
Two years ago, Ilan Pappé presented as part of Rice's "Arab World" series. Pappé is a committed Marxist who openly advocates the destruction of Israel. A revisionist historian by trade, he repeatedly has been discredited as a fabricator of information. The first speaker in the 2007/08 program was Romi Khouri, who offers courses in anti-Israel propaganda for the east Jerusalem-based Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. Khouri's appearance at Rice was followed up by a presentation from controversial Columbia University professor, Joseph Massad.
At his Nov. 1, 2007, Rice lecture, Massad repeatedly equated Zionism with Nazism. Without citing credible sources, he argued that Israel and its supporters today are perpetrating worse crimes against the Palestinians than Hitler previously had against European Jewry. Makdisi, in his introduction of Massad, praised the Columbia professor as a hero for standing up against an alleged Zionist conspiracy that has attempted to keep him silent. During the lecture's Q&A, challenges to Massad's thesis were stifled, both by Massad and the lecture series' creator, Makdisi, who was one of only a few Rice faculty members in attendance.
At the April 10 Deeb presentation – which had far greater attendance from Rice colleagues and staff members – Makdisi's conspiratorial theorizing was significantly toned down. And, the presenter herself conducted business in a comparatively more professional manner. Pleasantries aside, however, Deeb's lecture on the virtues of the southern Lebanon-based Shiite organization, Hezbollah, was no less one-sided than previous "Arab World" lectures, and no less riddled with half-truths, disputable accusations and partisan advocacy presented as objective observation.
An intellectually honest presentation on "Understanding Hezbollah" would have included a balanced view on the spectrum of ways that the organization is viewed and understood – from a "resistance" militia-turned-political party and "social welfare" network, as defined by most local supporters and many Arab and Muslim world nations, to an Islamist "terrorist" and "anti-Semitic" organization and an Iranian "proxy," as defined by Israel, the United States and several other Western countries and some Sunni Muslim and Arab Christian critics. Yet, Deeb's presentation offered no such balance or objectivity. Rather, she depicted a Hezbollah that is legitimate in its entirety, despite some allegedly baseless internal non-Shiite Lebanese objections, and a Hezbollah religious and political leadership that is both commendable and admirable, especially in its commitment to violent "resistance" against Israel and Western "interference."
In summary, Deeb described the origins and history of Hezbollah, as well as the evolution of its leadership and supporters. She characterized the organization's beginnings in the 1970s as being part of a greater regional Shiite empowerment movement influenced by the "martyred" Imam Hussein, the third Imam, according to a majority of Shiite Muslims, who was killed in the Battle of Karbala in 680, and epitomized by the bloody Iranian revolution, whose victor was Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in 1979.
Deeb framed her explanation of Hezbollah's origins in the context of greater Lebanese history. With a sectarian political system that she indicated "underrepresented" the country's quickly growing Shiite communities in Beirut's southern suburb and in southern Lebanon, the local Shiite population soon found a champion of "pious" Shiite "mobilization" in cleric Musa al-Sadr, who drew inspiration from Imam Hussein and Ayatollah Khomeini to found a political movement called the "Movement of the Deprived." When civil war broke out in Lebanon in 1975, which Deeb characterized not as religious or sectarian in nature, but political, other Shiite "activists" soon gained popularity, such as Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, one of Hezbollah's current top religious leaders, and Hassan Nasrallah, its current political leader.
Contradictions, omissions and accusations
According to Deeb, Hezbollah began as a confederation of fighters who were among the many in Lebanon who took up arms in the outbreak of civil war. When Israel then "invaded" Lebanon in 1978, and again in 1982, Deeb argued, the Hezbollah fighters, who would not publicly declare their official membership in known writing until 1985, found new purpose: "To fight the Israeli troops that were occupying their villages," she said.
"The brutality of this  Israeli invasion cannot be underestimated as a factor in the formation of Hezbollah," Deeb argued. "Hezbollah simply would not exist in its current form had the invasion and the continued occupation of south Lebanon not taken place," she added.
This statement, however, was one of many instances throughout the 45-mintue lecture in which Deeb omitted key contextual information; ignored well-documented public statements from Hezbollah leadership to the contrary; and went into great detail over the alleged death and destruction inflicted by Israel against the Lebanese/Hezbollah side, which she graphically illustrated with a PowerPoint® slideshow, while discounting the death and destruction on the Israeli side.
Deeb insisted that Hezbollah's attacks against Israel, from the 1970s to the present, have been purely self-defensive. Though she admitted that the organization's 1985 manifesto, which never has been revised, pledges Hezbollah's commitment to the elimination of Israel – "our struggle will only end when this entity [the State of Israel] is obliterated" – Deeb argued that, in fact, Hezbollah's renewed attacks against Israel only seek to regain territory, the so-called Shebaa Farms, that it considers part of Lebanon, as well as the release of Hezbollah fighters currently held in Israeli jails.
However, Deeb's narrow characterization of Hezbollah's "self-defensive" posturing directly contradicts public statements made by the organization's political leader and secretary general, Nasrallah. For example, in a 2000 Washington Post article, Nasrallah said: "I am against any reconciliation with Israel. I do not even recognize the presence of a state that is called ‘Israel'. . . . That is why, if Lebanon concludes a peace agreement with Israel and brings that accord to the Parliament, our deputies will reject it. Hezbollah refuses any conciliation with Israel in principle." And, in a Feb. 2, 2005, appearance on Hezbollah's Al-Manar TV satellite network, Nasrallah said: "Israel is our enemy. This is an aggressive, illegal and illegitimate entity, which has no future in our land. Its destiny is manifested in our motto: ‘Death to Israel.' "
Similarly, Hezbollah spokesman Hassan Ezzedin revealed the organization's intentions to completely destroy Israel in a 2002 The New Yorker interview. He said: "If they [Israel] go from Sheba'a [Farms], we will not stop fighting them. Our goal is to liberate the 1948 borders of Palestine"; the Hezbollah spokesman then added that after this "war of liberation," the remaining Israelis of European origin would be deported.
In Deeb's generalizations that Israeli "aggression" and "occupation" were the sole reasons for Hezbollah's "resistance," she failed to mention during her prepared lecture why Israel "invaded" Lebanon in the first place, in 1978 and later in 1982. However, Deeb was asked about this omission during the program's after-lecture Q&A session. A woman in the audience asked: "Why would Israel go into Lebanon?"
After chuckling at the phrasing of the question, Deeb succinctly answered: "Um, I don't know how far back to go? . . . In 1982 . . . Israel invaded Lebanon because the Palestinian ‘resistance' organizations, who were fighting to regain their homeland that Israel had occupied, were fighting from within the Lebanese borders."
At no point in her answer, or previous lecture, did Deeb indicate that the "Palestinian ‘resistance' organizations" had been engaging in a series of attacks and raids against civilians in Israel, initially from Jordan and later from Lebanon: These included the March 11, 1978, murder of an American tourist by Palestinian terrorists hailing from Lebanon; and, the March 11, 1978, hijacking of two Israeli buses en route from Haifa to Tel Aviv, which led to the killing of 37 Israelis, again by Palestinian terrorists who had staged their operations from southern Lebanon. Deeb made no mention of the "Coastal Road Massacre" bus-hijackings, which credible historians on both sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict cite as the cause of the Israeli invasion into southern Lebanon three days later.
Deeb's rendering of the Israeli invasions of Lebanon was one of several instances where she omitted key contextual information in describing "crucial" events in Hezbollah's and Lebanon's history. In her introduction, Deeb argued that "U.S. officials and mainstream corporate media outlets" have wrongfully cast Hezbollah in the role of "sole instigator." To counter this characterization, Deeb offered an inverted scenario – excusing Hezbollah's actions as purely self-defensive and justifiable; casting Israel in the role of sole instigator and aggressor; and suggesting that Israel and the United States are the true perpetrators of terrorism.
David vs. Goliath
Through the selective history and interpretations offered, Deeb presented an analogy that has grown increasingly popular in the Arab world and, today, widely is employed in anti-Israel propaganda: This analogy describes the Jewish state as a monstrous "Goliath" and its Arab/Muslim neighbors, and especially organizations like Hezbollah that have committed to violent "resistance," as an oppression-fighting underdog "Davids."
Deeb's discourse supported this analogy throughout the presentation. She gave careful details on how many Hezbollah supporters and Lebanese civilians Israel allegedly killed, wounded and/or displaced; offered several visual images of the destruction Israel inflicted on southern Lebanon, particularly after the July 2006 war; and alleged at length that Israel will continue its "aggression" into the future.
In discussing Hezbollah, Deeb glorified its "grass-roots resistance" to Israeli and U.S. "neo-imperial" "aggression," "invasion" and "occupation." And, she spoke volumes about its political participation in Lebanon; its extensive social welfare network, such as its building of schools and clinics, and assisting in the rebuilding of war-torn southern Lebanon; the funding it provides families of "martyrs"; and the important role "pious" Shiite women play in Hezbollah's daily operations.
Unlike her detailed descriptions of Israeli attacks, Deeb, throughout the presentation, minimized the violence that has been perpetrated by Lebanese groups against local rivals, including during the Lebanese Civil War; violence against Lebanon by its Muslim world neighbors, such as assassinations by Syrian and Iranian subversives; violence against Israel by Hezbollah, such as suicide bombings, kidnappings and rocket attacks; and violence by Hezbollah against Western and Israeli civilian and Jewish targets outside of Israel, such as the bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks in Lebanon, the bombing of the Jewish community center in Argentina and encouraging continued suicide attacks against Israeli and Jewish targets around the world. Deeb also did not include in her presentation that independent observers have shown that Hezbollah has used Lebanese civilians as "human shields" and Lebanese civilian population centers as staging grounds for rocket attacks against Israel and weapons depots.
Challenges to one-sidedness
At previous "Arab World" lectures, the vast majority of attendees had expressed agreement with the series' common anti-Israel messages, and were given platforms to propagate conspiracy theories, prejudices and intolerance of differing views during the Q&A. At Deeb's lecture, however, these indulgences were kept to a minimum, which helped foster an atmosphere in which disagreement more freely was expressed.
Deeb took 15 questions from the audience, including one from the series' organizer, Makdisi. Several of these questions challenged the lecture's one-sidedness and its claims of academic objectivity, thereby helping to bring some balance to the presentation. Without scripted notes, Deeb's arguments during the Q&A often resulted in less-polished obfuscations, inversions and inventions.
One of the first questions challenged Deeb's "undistorted view" of Hezbollah, asking how the audience can "understand Hezbollah" with zero mention of its terrorist activities, including the killing of hundreds of Americans. As examples, the questioner offered a short list of Hezbollah terrorist attacks that included the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut, the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marines barracks in Lebanon, the 1985 torture and murder of William Francis Buckely, the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia and a string of car bombings aimed at American and UN peacekeepers in Beirut over the past few years.
In response, Deeb confirmed that some of these attacks were committed by Hezbollah members, though she argued that others had no "confirmed" Hezbollah connections, particularly those more recent. She also argued that the Hezbollah of the 1970s and '80s was different than the Hezbollah of today, and claimed that "since the 1980s, their [Hezbollah's] military activity has been confined to liberating Lebanon from Israeli occupation."
The next question challenged Deeb's presentation of history offered in the previous question. The audience member pointed out that Hezbollah was behind bombings in Argentina after the 1980s, such as the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992, and that Argentine officials, as well as Interpol, have issued arrest warrants for Hezbollah operatives involved in the attacks.
Deeb answered this question first, by claiming no official Hezbollah connection to these attacks, and second, by claiming that one of the senior Hezbollah members implicated in the attacks, Imad Moughnieh, formally had been a member of Hezbollah, then allegedly was not a member at the time of these attacks, and then was symbolically welcomed back into Hezbollah after he was killed in a car bomb in Damascus, Syria, in February 2008. She then added, "I do not actually know anything about Moughnieh, so I cannot speak to that."
Halfway through the Q&A, a question was asked about the overtly anti-Semitic propaganda that Hezbollah regularly circulates, especially in public speeches and interviews by leaders and through various programming on Hezbollah's Al-Manar satellite TV network, which has been banned in France for airing Holocaust denial and banned in the United States for advocating suicide bombing.
Specifically, the question asked about recent multipart miniseries, such as "Horseman Without a Horse" and "The Diaspora," that Al-Manar TV has broadcast in millions of homes throughout the Arab world and parts of Europe, which feature classic anti-Semitic canards, such as blood libels and alleged Jewish "control" of the world. The question also called attention to public anti-Semitic statements given by Hezbollah's leadership, such as Nasrallah claiming that Jews are the descendents of pigs and monkeys, and specifying that Jews, not just Israelis, are ideologically, religiously and physically inferior beings.
Deeb initially replied by saying: "I haven't, in fact, seen any of those multipart miniseries. . . ."
Before she could go further, a man in the audience stood up and accused Deeb aloud of seeing "only what you want."
He was asked to sit down, and Deeb continued by admitting that Nasrallah "has made anti-Semitic statements in the past," although she argued that "most of the time in his statements, he uses the phrase ‘Zionist enemy' or refers to ‘Israel' and ‘Zionists.' "
Deeb then went further to argue that "in the Middle East, the statements of political leaders are often ‘tools of rhetoric'. . . that serve the purpose of consolidating power within communities. . . . And, unfortunately, there have been moments when anti-Semitic rhetoric is sometimes used in this way, and it worked to create situations where there's a clear enemy, and is done to divert attention away from things like economic problems at home." Though she said that fomenting anti-Semitism is wrong, she did not object to the preaching of hatred and the inciting of murder of Israelis, or denying Israel's right to exist.
In a previous question about comparisons between Nasrallah and other leaders in the region, Deeb pointed out that "Nasrallah is very consistent. . . . His constituency trusts him . . . because he doesn't make promises that he hasn't been able to deliver." When this point was restated in relation to Nasrallah's statements that incite anti-Semitism and violence against Jews, Deeb was spared having to respond by Makdisi, who stood up and asked that questions be limited, due to time, and then asked Deeb a question of his own that called attention away from Hezbollah's ideology.
After several more questions were posed – some that challenged Deeb's characterizations, and others that served to reaffirm her position – a man stood up and launched into a speech about alleged "Jewish terrorists" who were responsible for "killing over 300 men, women and children" at Deir Yassin, and who later became prime ministers of Israel.
To her credit, Deeb asked the man if he, in fact, had a question. Ignoring this though, the man continued the speech and said: "You see that when an American Christian or a Jew talks about terrorism, look what they have done in Iraq. . . . When they talk about terrorism, it's like a prostitute lecturing on chastity!"
After the man finished, Deeb indicated that she "already answered the terrorism question," and reiterated her previous suggestion that certain states are the real perpetrators of terrorism. The program then concluded after a final question about Hezbollah's future support in the midst of the current political standoff in Lebanon, following the Feb. 14, 2005, assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Al-Hariri – which Deeb asserted had no confirmed Hezbollah connection.