Last Thursday night, faculty and students celebrated the launch of the Center for Palestine Studies. It is the first of its kind in America. The center, once it receives its funding, will sponsor research in the newly independent field of Palestinian culture and history. It will also offer Palestinian intellectuals a chance to work alongside Columbia professors and students.
The creation of the center offers new opportunities, but it's problematic in at least one important way—its title. The faculty involved, from Professor Rashid Khalidi to Professor Joseph Massad, should address this type of structural question in order to clarify the mission of the center, presented only in broad strokes on its website.
Speakers at the launch event discussed the center's goals in terms of the legacy of Edward Said. Professor Brinkley Messick said of Said, "He was one of the most prominent scholars of the late 20th century in literary criticism and public intellect," and added that one of his main interests was "the question of Palestine." In his afterword to "Orientalism," Said wrote that only a "negotiated settlement between the two communities" could bring about peace in the Middle East. This vision had space for a Palestinian and an Israeli state.
But this is not a center for the study of Edward Said, but rather for Palestine—the name of a state that does not officially exist. The title of the center, then, implies a position on the state of Israel that is not necessarily consistent with Said's vision.
As far as the question this column poses—why call it the Center for Palestine Studies?—we need not wade into the contested history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. What we know is that, from the moment the British Mandate for Palestine ended in 1948, there was no place on the United Nations' maps of the Middle East called "Palestine," and that there is no such place on them today. Yes, there are territories mainly occupied by those who identify as Palestinians, but no Palestine. The geographical region that used to be referred to as Palestine has been relabeled "Israel."
What does it mean that the Center for Palestine Studies draws reference to a time before the creation of the state of Israel?
One possible explanation is that the center intends to study a period in which that area was called Palestine. The "About Us" section of its website reveals that the center intends to study modern culture as well as the past, which leaves us with our question unanswered.
Outside of a history classroom, religion is another context in which the term "Palestine" is used. It does not seem likely, however, that the center is referring to Palestine as a biblical location, or as the home of the Philistines, the ancient tribe from which the name is thought to be derived. Though some of the faculty members involved are experts in religion, the center is thoroughly interdisciplinary. Our question is still unanswered.
A third possibility is that the distinction between "Palestine" and "Palestinian" in the title is arbitrary—that its implications are therefore unintentional and do not represent any position of the center. This, I believe, is unlikely. The Columbia website includes a directory of its centers, which include the centers for Brazilian Studies, Iranian Studies, and French and Francophone Studies. These centers are all named with adjectives, not nouns. So why not "Palestinian"? The Center for Palestine Studies cannot possibly claim that it follows a normal model for the way centers are titled.
To be clear, I believe the study of Palestinian culture has the potential to enrich Columbia's intellectual community. The problem is that the center's founders have not yet made a specific effort to clarify their position on an important issue. From an academic standpoint, it would be myopic to ignore the existence of Israel. If the center is to live up to the legacy of Edward Said, it cannot afford to make such a gross omission. It does little to assuage my concern that the word "Israel" does not appear once in the Center's 500-word mission statement, while "Occupied Territories" appears several times.
Why not call it the Center for Palestinian Studies? Those involved have a responsibility to address this type of question. Otherwise, they leave themselves open to what I can only hope is a misinterpretation of the center's position on the state of Israel.
Amanda Gutterman is a Columbia College sophomore majoring in English. The Far Side of the Familiar runs alternate Wednesdays.