The Altschul Auditorium is a dismal and windowless place. Connected to the lobby of the International Affairs Building by an unassuming entryway that offers no suggestion of what's going on beyond it, the cavernous, softly-lit hall is literally sealed from the distractions of the outside world. The IAB's 15th floor suite commands some of Manhattan's most jaw-dropping views, but Altschul might as well be in a sub-basement.
There could not have been a more perfect venue for this past weekend's conference on "Orientalism from the Standpoint of its Victims," an event allegedly held to memorialize literary critic Edward Said. Its real purpose—as with so many other ideologically-lopsided campus events—was shameless self-aggrandizement, in this case for the scholars who have capitalized on Said's formidable legacy. The conservation, which included appearances from Columbia professors Hamid Dabashi, Lila Abu-Lughod, Nadia Abu al-Haj, Bruce Robbins, and Elizabeth Povinelli—as well as a keynote lecture from Joseph Massad—was an occasionally instructive but oftentimes farcical window into this world of uncritical Saidism, as well as a reminder of just how little intellectual cachet it actually has.
In his 2006 book Dangerous Knowledge: Orientalism and its Discontents, British scholar Robert Irwin offered an exhaustive debunking of Orientalism's central claim: that Middle East scholarship in Europe during the 18th and 19th centuries was primarily interested in establishing the social and intellectual bases for imperialism. Irwin's evidence that the Orientalists had been badly misrepresented and even misunderstood in Orientalism would severely complicate conference presenter Marc Nichanian's claim that "colonialism is nothing else but the implementation of humanism." Although Georgetown English professor Andrew Rubin took some exception to this, he did so on the basis that some Saidian alternative exists—that there can be a humanism whose central occupation is something other than creating and making permanent the divide between East and West. Nichanian's more aggravating fallacy—the suggestion that philology and humanism were ever interested in creating and making permanent the divide between East and West—went virtually unchallenged. And with good reason: there wouldn't be much of a connection between Orientalism and victimhood if the Orientalists weren't the straightforward villains the Saidists make them out to be.
Unsurprisingly, the day's most egregious mental acrobatics came from Joseph Massad, whose keynote lecture attempted to prove that Zionism had conscripted the Jews into the all-out racial warfare justified by Orientalist scholarship. Although Massad spent much of his lecture wondering at Jacques Derrida's apparent Zionism (astoundingly, it never occurs to him that it might have had something to do with his experience as a Jew living in Vichy Algeria), the meat of his argument concerned the creation of the Semite as a racial category by European Orientalists. He argued that the existence of Semites allowed Europeans to coalesce around an "Aryan" racial identity, and that Zionism had embraced this logic both by calling for a Jewish national existence outside of Europe and by inflicting a settler-colonial project on Palestine's Arabs. By this interpretation, Zionism's hostility towards Arabs and insistence that Jews were not European made it part and parcel of the European anti-Semitism of the late 19th century.
Massad's lecture included at least one deeply humiliating factual inaccuracy, as he characterized the Maskilim—or the so-called "enlightenment Jews" of 19th century Europe—as "assimilationist." Although it would have helped his argument if the Jewish Enlightenment movement was assimilationist and by extension opposed to the racial separatism posited by Semiticism, the truth is, predictably, a lot more complicated than Massad's assessment would suggest. Inconveniently enough, the Maskilim were not essentially assimilationist, and offshoots of the enlightenment produced influential proto-Zionists like Leon Pinsker. Like so many other Saidists, Massad is loath to muddy the neat socio-historical picture that Orientalism offers him. This tack produces one absurdity after another, and the Maskilim flap is only one particularly obvious example.
Elsewhere in his lecture, Massad claimed that "Zionism put one group of Semites in alliance with the Aryans and one in opposition to them." I envy his moral clarity, but I do not envy his myopia: one has to forget an awful lot of history to see the Zionist movement as nothing other than a pawn in the centuries-long game of European imperial racism. One has to forget Ahad Ha'am's influential view of Zionism as a vehicle of cultural renewal rather than political domination, and one has to forget the Biluim, the penniless refugees of Russian pogroms who arrived in Palestine in the late 19th century, and who cared more about finding a government that would take them in than comparatively abstract debates about culture and politics. One has to forget Jewish agency as well—that Zionism is a protestant challenge to traditional Judaism, and a radical and even revolutionary redefinition of Judaism writ large—and one has to forget how much this tension between Zionism's transformative potential and its rather sticky real-world implementation troubled thinkers like Hannah Arendt and Martin Buber.
Massad's claim that the West Bank city of Hebron has "500 Semites who went the way of the Orientalist and 166,000 who went the way of the Orient" has only polemic value when scrutinized against this intellectual pedigree. It's anti-historical to explain Zionism's development as a process of co-optation by "Aryan" European interests, just as there isn't much of a basis for locating Zionism in the same tradition of European racism that would result in the slaughter of over six million Jews during World War II, rather than locating it with, say, Rabbi Alkali or Moses Hess or the Ukrainian pogroms of 1881. Indeed, this belief that the only Zionism that exists is the one that murders Arabs on behalf of racist Europeans reflects a basic lack of interest in the historical record itself.
But Massad and Nichanian were less interested in getting the Middle East right than they were in genuflecting before their intellectual idol. After all, they have constructed theories so abstract and convoluted that facts can never hope to penetrate them. But luckily, the theory-over-fact approach can't threaten to penetrate serious discourse on the Middle East. This conference—headlined, as it was, by a speaker insisting on the intimate bonds between Zionism and anti-Semitism—was an exercise in high-minded self-isolation.
The Saidists are trapped in a theoretical echo chamber in which literally anything is possible: with a few obscure quotes, a salvo of four-syllable buzzwords, and a working knowledge of Foucault, you too can prove that Zionism is anti-Semitic, or that philology represents the end of civilization. This might prove a pretty much complete acceptance of the methods and world-view of Orientalism. But as this past weekend demonstrated, that's all it proves.
The author is a List College junior majoring in English and Judaic Studies. He the editor of the Commentariat, the blog of the Spectator opinion section.