Academic conferences used to be meeting grounds where scholars discussed their latest research and work, taking home new knowledge that would enhance their teaching.
The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) Conference at the San Francisco Hyatt Regency, which I attended on Sunday, November 21, however, was anything but such a scholarly exchange.
When I arrived at the conference, I looked over the information tables. One table offered what can only be described as anti-Israel, anti-U.S. propaganda in the guise of scholarly and professional research society materials. On the bulletin board was a business card for Alison Weir's IfAmericansKnew.org, an anti-Israel Web site claiming that America's support of Israel should be terminated, and that a Palestinian state should replace Israel. The site uses misleading statistics to push its hateful message. For instance, the chart depicting American aid to Israel and the Arab world ignores the fact that, while Palestinians receive less U.S. aid than Israel does, the Arab world as a whole gets much more; in addition, aid to Israel is reciprocated through new technology. Also, the Web site's statistics on Palestinian casualties include suicide bombers and armed combatants as "civilian casualties."
Weir has also distorted history in the past. She once called a massacre of 60 yeshiva students in Hebron in 1929 by Arabs an "Arab uprising" against Jewish oppression – even before Israel existed. Manipulation of statistics to advance political goals for foreign dictatorships should not be welcome at an academic conference.
At the same table, free copies of a glossy newsmagazine called the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs were being distributed to the academics in attendance. Most people, upon seeing the publication, might assume it was similar to Newsweek or Time; the inside cover claims the report has been "telling the Truth for more than 20 years. … Interpreting the Middle East for North Americans." What most people don't know is that the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs magazine and Web site – indeed, the entire organization behind it – are funded by Saudi Arabia, a despotic regime that has been quietly buying its way onto every campus in America, particularly through Middle East Studies centers in the U.S.
Articles in the magazine included anti-U.S. and anti-Israel diatribes by the likes of the 83-year-old dyed-in-the-wool leftist radical Rachelle Marshall from Stanford, who condemns as evil both Israelis fighting Palestinian terrorists and U.S. forces in Iraq dealing with similar terror attacks. An article by Alison Weir claimed that Israelis beat American activists for walking Arab children to school in Gaza (with no proof that the thugs were Israelis, since the assailants were hooded and robbed the victims). The message throughout was that Israel and the United States are "colonialist" warmongers, and titles such as "Israel's Day of Penitence: Drown Gaza in a Sea of Blood" were typical.
That was just some of the free reading material being distributed. I could find nothing presenting an opposing point of view.
I next attended what was to be the highlight of the evening: a speech by outgoing MESA president Laurie Brand from USC. Brand's speech, rather than being a scholarly discussion of the state of Middle East Studies, particularly during the War on Terror, was an anti-U.S., anti-Israel harangue. Titled "Scholarship in the Shadow of Empire," Brand's speech echoed the theme on the tables outside, presenting not the truth, but an agenda to portray America as being imperialist and our allies, whenever they support the U.S., as being "colonialist."
Brand had an audience of slightly more than 300 people, and I found myself sitting next to Alison Weir, who passed out business cards and lobbied against Israel. Weir isn't an academic, but she apparently had the academics' ear at the conference. Barbara Lubin, an activist for the PLO from Berkeley, was also featured at a conference session titled "Gender and Conflicts in the Middle East." Like Weir, Lubin is not a college professor but a propagandist against the United States and Israel. She raises funds for a Palestinian "charity" whose leader in the West Bank refused to sign a U.S. State Department directive against using U.S. aid for terrorism (because, she claimed, many of her patients are terrorists).
Brand first identified the United States as the "Empire" and then used that term exclusively for the U.S. throughout her speech. Brand asked if Middle East Studies should remain just an academic field of study or if it should be used for what she termed other problems and challenges of "inequality" and "exploitation" of the Near East.
Just as she used the pejorative term "Empire" for the United States, she declared all scholars, especially those in the Middle East Studies Association, the "academy," which she defined as those open to ideas and scientific study, a definition contrasting sharply with the propaganda outside. She called the U.S. government an imperialist entity, while academics who fight it from within ("embedded patriots," she termed them) were portrayed as true seekers of knowledge, a commentary that lacked any intelligent objectivity. Brand used catchphrases often found in systematic propaganda in the most totalitarian countries of the world: She claimed our government constantly acted "against international law" or engaged in "lies" and "manipulation."
Gradually, the speech degenerated into a polemic against the U.S. government and, more importantly, the Bush administration.
Brand spoke contemptuously about federal grants to create Homeland Security centers in areas where Middle East Study centers exist. She discussed NSEP (National Security Education Program) and NLFI (National Flagship Language Initiative), both programs designed to create more Arabic-speaking scholars to aid the war effort.
She then seethed about the failure of a part of HR Bill 1337, a House bill to create an International Education Advisory Board to examine "all points of view" during the war, which was effectively killed in Congress. She said she hoped it would succeed in the future as a necessary part of the "academy" and "scientific inquiry" (This from a woman who marched in the streets of Beirut against the U.S. going to war in Iraq. She also has suggested that American students studying abroad need to avoid their own embassies in order to pursue scholarly study without that pesky American democratic perspective over their heads).
She basically accused the "Empire" of interfering with the "academy" and the free pursuit of ideas simply by dint of our national security taking precedence in time of war. Three thousand people killed in New York on 9/11, suicide bombings in Israel, and beheadings in Iraq never made the play list that night for Laurie Brand. She accused the "Empire" of creating a "coercive apparatus" against those in the "academy" who expose the administration's "lies," harassing the opposition in order to silence it.
She then lit into the Academic Bill of Rights (ABOR) introduced by Congressman Jack Kingston, R-Ga., and David Horowitz. Describing Horowitz as "a far left-wing turned right-wing commentator," she explained how the bill was set up to prevent indoctrination in the classroom by requiring a plurality of methodologies and a diversity of approaches – an accurate description. She went on, however, to declare it an abuse of academic rights that would make teaching creationism in the schools mandatory (the key foundation of the Academic Bill of Rights centers on the humanities, not the sciences, unless unfair political indoctrination is also occurring within the sciences), a complete misinterpretation of the bill, which she then fervently rejected.
She clamed the ABOR would curb academic freedom and play into the hands of the "Empire" to stifle "scientific inquiry." She lamented the lack of a plurality of views about whether Iraq was making nuclear weapons before the war and about Iraq being portrayed as democratic and free afterward. She accused the Bush administration of not exploring any option other than a military intervention in Iraq. She also did not bother to condemn Saddam Hussein.
Her comments did not reflect a plurality of views to help all Americans and provide them security, but rather to ease the burden of an enemy in a new kind of war. She made accusations of illegitimate uses of torture by the administration without substantiating any of them. Where government policies have succeeded or are in process, she called them failures. She accused the Bush administration as seeing scientists as only useful for manipulating findings to the administration's own political ends.
Quoting Homeland Security's objective of funding Middle East Studies programs to promote the "best and brightest" scholars in order to combat the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, she claimed that professorial integrity was being compromised by a "coercive Empire" supported by "mainstream media." She then lauded MESA as being at the forefront of "academic research and educational issues."
She urged members of MESA to "rethink" cooperating with the U.S. State Department or the CIA, despite the fact that Middle East Studies is funded principally by our government. She concluded her speech by condemning the detention of terrorist combatants in Guantanamo Bay, describing Israeli attacks against Hamas terrorists as Apache helicopter attacks on "refugee camps," and accusing U.S. soldiers fighting to create a stable democratic Iraq of launching an unnecessary attack on the people of Fallujah.
Brand's biography in the MESA program directory reveals that she found her niche in academia at the Institute for Palestine Studies, where she apprenticed under the likes of Edward Said. Said was once a member of the Palestine National Council, which helped dispatch terrorists to kill people. Brand made her way to the new Middle East Studies department at USC that was set up probably by Saudi funding. Her bio notes that other faculty members sought to have her removed from USC because of her open support of the enemy in the War on Terror, but they failed. That failure is easier to understand after one experiences the standing ovation she received by those attending the MESA Conference.
Brand's speech was an embarrassment to anyone with real academic objectivity in Middle East Studies, especially anyone who is a citizen of the Untied States in time of war after 9/11. A quick review of those in attendance revealed a large number of professors of Arab descent or from Arab countries, and the standing ovation was proof positive of a receptive audience to such an openly seditious speech.
During the awards ceremony that followed, it thus came as no surprise that Rashid Khalidi, the new Middle East Studies chair at Columbia, was given an award for his newest book attacking Israel and the United States. In the past, Khalidi has approved of killing Israeli soldiers during the peace process. His book was described as "a courageous and strongly stated essay on war in the Middle East and especially on the war against Iraq." (The emphasis is mine, the implication being that removing Saddam Hussein was not a war of liberation.)
A brief speech was also given about how the U.S. imperialist reach "had seriously deteriorated" the university system in Iraq, with libraries having been looted and "democratic ideas" being compromised. The absurdity that universities in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, who modeled his dictatorship after Joseph Stalin, were more open to the "free exchange of ideas" than they are under U.S. "occupation" could only be heard in the halls of the propaganda ministries of the dictatorships of the Arab world; the exception, of course, might also be in the classrooms of these professors at the MESA Conference here in the United States.
I moved on to the film screenings. Every film being promoted that night dealt with anti-Israel themes. A large film poster touted a film titled "Peace, Propaganda and the Promised Land." It featured such luminaries as Noam Chomsky, Robert Fisk, Hanan Ashwari, Michael Lerner and Hussein Ibish, all known Israel bashers, and it wasn't difficult to imagine the film's content. While most mainstream films have quotes from reviews by reputable journals on their posters, this one had reviews such as "the definitive document on the conflict" and " a superlative film," quoted not by mainstream journals but by organizations that advocate the dismantling of Israel.
The film shown that night was "Divine Intervention," which began with a scene of an Arab in the West Bank loading hundreds of bottles onto his roof. The guy next to me wondered out loud, "What the heck is he doing?" I replied, "What else? Storing bottles to throw at Jews," which is exactly what occurred next in the film. The film was billed as a comedy.
In a later fantasy scene, Israeli undercover police officers are shown being killed by a Palestinian woman wearing an Arafat-style kefiyyah who hits them in the forehead with darts that have an Islamic star and crescent attached to the ends of them. In one fabricated scene at a checkpoint, an Israeli soldier stops an Arab driver and comments on what a nice imported leather jacket he has – then steals it from him. An Israeli soldier would be court-martialed for that. Checkpoints are a theme in the film, but the filmmaker never shows them being blown up, with Israeli soldiers dying, being maimed and burned. Instead, the Arabs are shown pranking them or attacking them with a balloon that has Arafat's face on it.
At the conclusion of the film, questionnaires were passed out asking if viewers thought the film was suitable for the classroom.
I decided to interview some faculty attendees and gravitated to the upstairs bar, where I met Nabil Al-Tikriti, a professor from the University of Chicago; Albrecht Fuess, a Middle East Studies professor from the University of Erfurt in the former East Germany; and a Ph.D. candidate named John Curry, attending from Ohio State. All three condemned the U.S. presence in Iraq and blamed the U.S. invasion for the "collapse" of the Iraqi government. When I asked if the majority of the Iraqi people weren't better off since the removal of Saddam Hussein, they all said no. Curry cited an Arab proverb that "a bad government is better than no government at all." They complained that Iraq wasn't a democracy under U.S. presence there.
I asked, "But the U.S. government is now setting up elections. Hussein was murdering 5,000 Iraqis a month. How can you say they were better off?" Al-Tikriti stated: "That's a myth that Hussein killed more than 5,000 a month. It was more like 20 per month and that was only during the last seven years of his rule." Fuess interjected, "If you do the math, you can see it is impossible." Fuess put Iraq's population at 22 million and declared that at the rate of 5,000 per month over 35 years of Saddam's rule over Iraq, he would have to have killed 2.1 million people. (Actually, the number is more than plausible, because compared to Hussein's idols, Hitler and Stalin, both of whom he modeled his regime after intentionally, Hussein was a piker. The Kurdish village of Halabja alone netted over 5,000 dead when it was gassed by Hussein.)
Basically, the idea was that the U.S. is doing wrong in Iraq and no good will come of it, not even the liberation of the Iraqi people from a Hitler wannabe. They claimed there was absolutely no connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, yet anyone who reads a newspaper knows that Ansar Al-Islam was founded in Northern Iraq with Hussein's permission and is now leading the insurgency against U.S. soldiers. They still insisted it wasn't true.
These are the same people who our government is funding as "experts" on the Middle East.
I finally asked about indoctrination in the classroom and expressed that I'd seen how it occurs, based on what scholars attending the MESA Conference were discussing. Al-Tikriti commented that he felt professors had a right to teach their personal opinions in the classroom and asked what I had against it. I answered that opinions backed up by verifiable academic research should be taught, but that I'd seen blatant propaganda throughout that evening's conference. He asked me what I would change.
I replied, "I'd invite those academic Middle East scholars who actually support America's war effort overseas and security needs here at home. People like Daniel Pipes or Martin Kramer." I continued, "Why aren't they here at the MESA Conference?"
"They'd be shouted down," replied Al-Tikriti.
Lee Kaplan is a contributing editor to Frontpagemag.com.