Middle East Studies in the News
Pro-Israel lobby trying to hijack the hearts and minds of US policy-makers
A war of words is raging in the United States in the wake of last September's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington between supporters of Israel and prominent American academicians, who specialize in the Middle East, to win the hearts and minds of American policy-makers as they battle terrorism in the region and a decades-long conflict between Arabs and Israelis.
The outcry against these American academicians, some of whom hail from the Arab world and other countries in the Middle East, was touched off by Martin Kramer, who until recently served as director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. His book is titled Ivory Towers on Sand, The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America.
"It is no exaggeration to say," Kramer said in his publication released after the terrorist attacks here, "that America's academics have failed to predict or explain the evolution of Middle East politics and society over the past two decades."
And he went on to say that the alleged repeated failures of these academics "have depleted the credibility of scholarship among influential publics." In Washington, he claimed, "the mere mention of academic Middle Eastern studies often causes eyes to roll."
Moreover, Kramer noted that the proliferation of think tanks in Washington in recent times "represents a circumvention of the prevailing culture of Middle Eastern studies in America." He added that these think tanks provide a venue for policy-focused research and writing.
Several academicians were also chastised by name, most prominently among them Edward Said and his book, Orientalism which was published in 1978.
The attack, featured prominently in various media outlets including academic journals, coincided with the "stampede" of undergraduates at many American campuses who suddenly found themselves interested in Middle East-related issues.
Kramers polemical book was understandably dismissed by several academicians as well as the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), which has some 2,600 members and is due to hold its annual conference on Nov. 18 in San Francisco. The conferences opening session will deal with "Sep. 11: Responses and Future Implications."
The monograph was published by the pro-Israel Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), an influential think-tank which has several former government leaders, including former Secretaries of State Warren Christopher, George Schultz and Alexander Haig, on its board of advisers. Before his appointment as deputy secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz was also a member. WINEP's former executive director was Martin Indyk, until recently the US ambassador to Israel, and who is now with the Brookings Institution. Dennis Ross, the Clinton administration's special coordinator for the Middle East, is also on WINEP's staff.
In turn, WINEP, now in its 16th year, takes a vehement stand against these academicians as well. Its chairman and president, Fred S. Lafer and Michael Stein respectively, wrote in the preface to the 130-page publication that in the wake of last Septembers tragic attacks, "some" of these academics were "insightful, informed, and informative (but) many, however, were superficial, misguided, and wrong."
They charged that "America is ill served by the way in which the Middle East is studied and presented at institutions of higher education across the nation. "
Additionally, they zeroed in on academicians who are Middle Eastern by origin. "Many of the academics who hail from the region are still caught up in the passion of its discredited causes," and, they found, "there is a widespread sympathy for Middle Eastern radicalism and an abiding suspicion of America's global role."
In a self-serving comment, Lafer and Stein noted that "speaking truth to power has been the prime mission of the Institute from its inception. One of its objectives was to provide an antidote to the fallacies of the reigning orthodoxies of Middle Eastern studies, some of which had spilled over into Washington."
The study, which they say is one of the most important the institute has ever had the privilege to publish, is not about any one issue but "about how Washington should process the information it receives from academe on all issues."
In other eyebrow-raising remarks in Kramer's monograph and his talk at the institute last month, he predicted that as a result of the terrorist attacks here, there will be additional US government funding available to those working on the Middle East. If the money continues to flow to the same recipients, he warned in his talk at WINEP, it will enable them to remain in their present state, "disconnected from reality, thus stifling the chances of those who would pursue new research that might bring academe back into the realm of policy and return the professors to their former state of relevance."
But the study did not sit well with many academicians who were interviewed by The Daily Star for their reaction. Several thought it was a "political attack" by pro-Israelis on Middle East scholars who do not share their views. A Georgetown professor put it this way: "(The tactic is to) discredit the individuals in order that their views, different from their perspective on public policy and foreign policy, will not be taken very seriously by the policy-making community."
Kramer, explained the president-elect of MESA, proceeds in his critique "from an Israeli frame of reference in which much of the Middle East studies establishment is directly or indirectly linked to government foreign policy and intelligence efforts."
Joel Beinin, professor of history at Stanford University said in a message posted at MESA's website: "This approach is not particularly democratic nor does it guarantee a higher standard of scholarship."
He then took issue with Kramer's presumption that "one of the main purposes of the Middle East studies ought to be to predict things like the horrific attacks (of last September) is fundamentally misguided." Rather, he continued, "the primary purpose of studying any culture is to understand it in its own terms."
He went on: "We might argue about whether scholars or Islamic societies have been doing that well or not. But the extent to which their scholarship does or does not serve the immediate needs of the US government is not particularly relevant to the point."
R. Stephen Humphreys, the current president of MESA and Middle East historian at the University of California at Santa Barbara, agreed that many academics in his field are estranged from policy-makers. "I think it is the case that there is a distance and alienation," he told The Chronicle of Higher Education. "Partly, it's generational. Part of it has to do with the ethnic background of many Middle East specialists. Partly, it's a generalized feeling among many Middle East specialists that US policy is impossibly wrongheaded on so many levels, and many don't want to be tainted by it."
Rashid Khalidi, a past president of MESA, explained that "far from not being confronting policy makers and the lobbies that drive them, American academics are too intimidated to state bluntly that US Middle East policies flies in the face of the most elemental realities of the region." US policy in the Middle East, he said in an interview with The Daily Star via e-mail, "is doomed to failure, and indeed to bring on our heads some of the mishaps we are currently seeing."
He added: "Such scholarship has done much to elucidate the Middle East: It is ignored in Washington because, to be blunt, many people there live in a fantasy world, where the word occupation does not exist, where Israel can do no wrong, where Islam and Arabs are naturally suspect, and where the word 'terrorism' is wielded for the most blatant partisan purposes."
Dr. Khalidi is professor of Middle East history and director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Chicago. He is at present on sabbatical leave, working on a book on modern Palestinian history.
Michael C. Hudson, a member and former director of Georgetown's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, told The Daily Star it was "hard not to believe that this is a very carefully calculated, politically motivated attack on the whole academic Middle East studies establishment in the United States."
He added: "The fact that it is published by a policy institute with well-known close ties to the Israeli lobby, and which speaks from a pro-Israeli perspective, leads one to suspect that this is an attack on an academic community whose members are, by and large, heavily critical of Israel when they are expressing personal political opinions about the Middle East."
Hudson, who teaches international relations, is the Seif Ghobash professor of Arab Studies in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington. The university is also home for the Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding, whose director John L. Esposito, was criticized by Kramer.
The Middle East studies profession, Hudson underlined, is not politics, "this is not what it does." Nevertheless, he continued, "it is well known that the product of academics who work on the Middle East -not just political studies but humanities-have been very critical of Israel's occupation (of Palestinian territories) and of Israels general behavior in the Middle East." He explained: "There has been a certain alienation of Israeli analysts from the (Middle East Studies) Association." Kramer's main charge, in Hudsons opinion, is that Middle East scholars here are "soft on Islam."
He continued: "When they discover the mainstream of American Middle East scholarship does not share their view, they want to contest that view, which is a legitimate thing to do; but they also want to smear, discredit the individuals in order that their views on public policy and foreign policy will not be taken very seriously by the policy-making community. I think it is a political attack."
George S. Hishmeh, one-time editor-in-chief of The Daily Star, is a Washington-based Arab-American journalist .
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