Campus Watch in the Media
U.S. Mideast Academics Fight Charges of Bias
A controversy is raging over the way Middle Eastern studies are taught at U.S. universities, with critics arguing the field is dominated by anti-Israel ideologues, while the academics say they are targets of an attempt to stifle free speech and academic liberty. The controversy erupted with the October 2001 publication of a book, "Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America" by Martin Kramer, an academic whose career has taken him to Tel Aviv University, the University of Chicago and Cornell and Georgetown universities. Coming a month after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the book argued that U.S. scholars of the Middle East, blinded by a pervasive anti-Western bias, had completely ignored the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the threat represented by figures like Osama bin Laden. "These academics adamantly denied the potential of terrorism and showed contempt for those who argued that large-scale terrorism was possible," Kramer said. Joel Beinin, a Middle Eastern Studies professor from Stanford University, who then headed the 2,600-strong Middle East Studies Association, hit back with a message to members dismissing the attack as mean-spirited and spurious. "We should actively advocate the idea that lively discussion of Middle Eastern affairs, not slavishly parroting of whatever pronouncements come from Washington policy-makers, is the best way to promote good public policy and an informed citizenry," Beinin said. "We need to explain why our understandings of the Middle East are often at variance with popularly-held views." Kramer and his allies called on the Bush administration to reexamine the millions of dollars it gives each year to Middle Eastern departments, most of which goes to fund language studies. His plea fell on deaf ears. Congress increased the budget for fiscal year 2002 for such programs by $20.5 million, a rise of 26 percent. The assault broadened last September when the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum, a pro-Israel research and policy group, launched a web site (campuswatch.org) to monitor what it regarded as biased scholarship and teaching at some of the most prestigious U.S. and Canadian universities. "There's a pattern of political extremism, intolerance of alternative points of view. Students with pro-Israel views have been mocked in class and penalized in their grades," said Daniel Pipes, who heads the Middle East Forum.
He urged students to monitor their professors and report alleged cases of bias so that dossiers could be built up. The site currently has files on 35 institutions. When it went live, nearly 100 outraged professors asked to be added to the list to protest what they saw as intellectual intimidation. Beinin and other Middle East scholars vehemently deny penalizing students who disagree with them or making them feel uncomfortable. "I try to be scrupulously balanced in presenting different points of view. No student will go away from my class never having heard a different opinion than my own. Any student who disagrees with me and makes even asemblance of a coherent argument gets an A," he said. Complicating the debate even more is an ongoing national campaign by faculty and students aimed at forcing U.S. universities to sell any investments they have with Israeli firms and U.S. companies that do business with Israel. Some have also called for academic boycotts of Israeli scholars. This prompted a warnings from Harvard University President Larry Summers last September that some of these activities had crossed the line to anti-Semitism. Supporters of the divestment campaign responded that there was no connection between opposition to Israeli policies and anti-Semitism. Lisa Anderson, dean of the school of international and public affairs at Columbia University, who succeeded Beinin as head of the MESA, acknowledged that some of Kramer's criticisms had merit, although she said they went too far. "It is true that certain valid research topics have been excluded from the scholarly agenda. In particular the study of terrorism per se has not been a priority," she said. But Beinin said most academic study of terrorism -- which he termed "terrorology" was nonsense. Rashid Khalidi, a Middle Eastern historian at the University of Chicago, said there was nothing fundamentally wrong with a university faculty having a particular ideological slant. He cited his own university's economic department, which he said was dominated by conservatives and advocates of "supply side" theories inspired by Milton Friedman. "You have to make a distinction between what I say as a citizen and an expert in public and the way I behave in class. It is essential that students are not made to feel in any way intimidated. That's a legitimate point but I don't believe it happens. These people (the critics) are in the gutter when they say such things," he said.
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