Already recognized as one of the world's great educational institutions and a bastion of academic freedom, Columbia University steps to the forefront once again on Thursday, as it becomes the first American university to house on campus a center dedicated to Palestinian studies.
"The corpus of writings is huge. There is a whole world of art and culture," said Brinkley Messick, chair of the Anthropology Department at Columbia and co-director of the new Center for Palestinian Studies.
"The corpus just hasn't been organized," he said. "That is what the center will bring. It will become the repository of sources, organizing and coordinating materials, and opening an academic space for inquiry into Palestinian history and literature and art, all aspects of Palestinian culture."
The center will be publicly launched at 7:30 p.m., Oct. 7, 2010 in 309 Havemeyer Hall on Columbia's main campus. The CPS will be a part of the university's Middle East Institute. All of the funding for the center is from the university through the Middle East Institute.
Messick explained that the center honors the scholarly legacy of Edward Said, a Palestinian and world-renowned scholar of comparative literature, who taught at Columbia for 40 years. Said died in 2003.
In his best known work,Orientalism, published in 1978, Said explored Western stereotypes of the Islamic world and argued that Western scholarship on the Middle East was based on Western imperialism. Said's work opened a vast and vibrant new area of inquiry into works of history, politics and literature.
Messick said that Said's legacy still draws prominent scholars on Palestine to the university. The center will build on that.
"The center will be a beacon to other universities and to the world," Messick said. "We will provide the resources for scholarship, materials for research and discussion from numerous disciplines - art, literature, architecture, history, music, film - as well as other materials like legal documents, property records, posters, postcards. The sky's the limit."
Many of these materials have been scattered all over the world and Palestinian scholarship, consequently, has been fragmented.
"The imagination did not have an outlet. Now, it does. Now many different scholarly projects become real possibilities," Messick said.
Issues involving Palestine and Islam are, nowadays, often lightning rods for controversy. Columbia itself is no stranger to controversy.
In 2004, a professor in Middle East studies, Joseph Massad, was the subject of an investigation by a university Ad Hoc Grievance Committee. Massad, a Palestinian, was portrayed in a documentary film made by a pro-Israel activist organization, as anti-Semitic. But the committee found that the allegations were baseless.
While the controversy flared, many called for Massad's dismissal. Once cleared, however, Massad stayed at Columbia and received tenure.
In 2007, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke at Columbia, as part of the School of International and Public Affairs' annual World Leaders Forum. Ahmadinejad's inclusion in the forum caused a public outcry.
Columbia President Lee Bollinger, who drew sharp criticism for permitting the Iranian president to speak, defended his decision.
"Columbia, as a community dedicated to learning and scholarship, is committed to confronting ideas -- to understand the world as it is and as it might be," Bollinger said at the time. "To fulfill this mission we must respect and defend the rights of our schools, our deans and our faculty to create programming for academic purposes."
Messick harbors no illusions about the possibility of a Center for Palestinian Studies drawing fire.
"We expect some blowback," he said. "We don't know what shape it may take. But we are not on the street. This is Columbia, known for academic freedom. And the center is an academic activity within the solid, reputable Middle East Institute. I'm sure we will get criticism and I'm sure we'll survive it."
With the launch of the center comes the launch of the center's website, which will further augment the center's capacity for scholarship and the diffusion of knowledge.
Rashid Khalidi, CPS co-director, and Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, will introduce the website at tomorrow's ceremony. The New York premier of "Zindeeq," a new film on contemporary Palestine by noted director Michel Khleifi, will follow, and the director will be present for a Q&A with the audience after the film.
"There are some very good reasons to have a Center for Palestinian Studies," said Amy Newhall, executive director of the Middle East Studies Association, a learned society based at the University ofArizona, in Tucson, Arizona.
"For a diasporic people like the Palestinians such a center is a guarantee that history is not lost, that identity is not lost," she said. "It's a knowledge bank, and that's good. A center is a repository of cross-disciplinary information, and more information can only help."