What can be done to reverse the failures of Middle East studies in North America? Students today are subjected to radical views of the Middle East by professors who seldom brook dissent. Georgetown’s Program for Jewish Civilization (PJC) offers an alternative for students seeking to avoid the academic weaknesses that have so infected Middle East studies.
These analytical shortcomings are well documented: politicized curricula, agit prop substituting for solid teaching, and an unwillingness to ask difficult questions about Middle Eastern cultures are only some of many faults to plague the field in recent decades.
Georgetown University presents a case-study of this failure. Awash in Saudi money and heavily influenced by the late Edward Said’s ideology of ubiquitous Orientalism, Georgetown is perhaps the most Wahhabi-friendly university in America. Although school administrators and many in the media consider donations from Saudis and other Arab nations to American universities as generous support to schools that have educated their elites, these gifts in fact support work that often turns a blind eye to the region’s systemic problems in favor of skewering American and Israeli interests.
Major Arab donations to US universities began in the 1960s and ‘70s, with Muslim donors funneling millions of dollars to support Islamic studies, hire faculty specialists in Middle East studies, and fund scholarships and conferences. But this largesse only exacerbated extant problems in Middle East studies, so that today politicized scholarship, some of it backed by petrodollars, is commonplace throughout the field. Critics of Middle East studies in North America point frequently to widespread anti-Israel, anti-American bias in scholarship and teaching on the Arab-Israeli conflict as evidence of the field’s politicization and decline.
Given this pedagogical and epistemological decline, Georgetown’s decision to establish the Program for Jewish Civilization (PJC) in 2003 is a significant milestone along the path to reforming the scholarship and teaching of the region. Beyond the more common subjects of religion and literature, faculty study the economic, cultural, political, historical, philosophical, and scientific accomplishments of the Jewish people.