Tomorrow, Joel Beinin of Stanford University will become president of the Middle East Studies Association, the leading organization for professors who focus on that part of the world. He would be a lousy choice any year, but he's an especially bad one in the wake of September 11.
That's because Beinin has spent much of his career belittling U.S. policy in the Middle East and chastising its ally Israel. He is symptomatic of a much bigger problem, too: the complete failure of Middle Eastern studies as an academic field to prepare the United States for the brutal terrorism of Islamic radicalism. "It is no exaggeration to say that America's academics have failed to predict or explain the major evolutions of Middle Eastern politics and society over the past two decades," writes Martin Kramer in Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America, a sharp monograph just out from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Time and again, academics have been taken by surprise by their subjects; time and again, their paradigms have been swept away by events."
Beinin embodies this failure in his area of purported expertise. In 1988, he described Israel as a "garrison state" and said its "total economic collapse is not inconceivable." Then he set forth a bold prediction: "In the coming decade, we can expect to see a series of crises in the Israeli economy, sharpening social and political conflict, a more aggressive stance toward the Arab world, and growing Israeli dependence on the United States." He also said he was "pessimistic" that Israel would have a government that would "seek to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict on terms which will secure self-determination for the Palestinian people."
He turns out to have been fabulously wrong. As Kramer points out, "In the decade following publication of this grim forecast, Israel's economy doubled in size; Israel became a global center for civilian hi-tech; military industries retrenched; and Israel's dependence on American aid, measured in absolute terms as a percentage of gross domestic product, diminished sharply. Israel launched no aggressive wars. Instead it recognized the PLO and turned formerly occupied territory over to exclusive Palestinian control. Politicians across the Israeli spectrum either welcomed or resigned themselves to the inevitability of a Palestinian state."
Beinin views himself as something more than an objective scholar: He is a full-time political activist. Last summer, for instance, he was agitating for the United States to suspend all military aid to Israel, according to the Chicago Tribune.
The only thing MESA can possibly say in its defense is that Beinin was elected long before September 11; it's only now, at MESA's annual convention, that he will formally take the helm. Yet Beinin is hardly alone in his prejudices. They helped get him elected in the first place, and they add a troubling flourish to Kramer's compelling thesis that the whole field of Middle East studies lies in shambles.