When the controversy at Columbia University erupted last fall over charges of anti-Israel bias in courses on the Middle East, many American Jews saw the brouhaha as another alarming sign that pro-Arab academics had gained the upper hand in university Middle East studies departments.
Mideast studies had become polemicized, and American Jews sought to ameliorate matters by pushing for the creation of Israel studies chairs and ensuring that courses on the Arab-Israeli conflict were taught by professors sympathetic to Israel.
But where many American Jews saw political bias, Brandeis University president Jehuda Reinharz saw something else: academic mediocrity.
The controversy underscored for Reinharz what had become an endemic problem in the field: Politics had superseded scholarship as a test of who was fit to teach the Middle East, with the result that political indoctrination had replaced research-driven academic inquiry.
"My problem is not the anti-Zionism or even that many of them are anti-American, but that they are third-rate," Reinharz said in a recent interview with the Jerusalem Post at his Brandeis office, referring to university Middle East studies departments. "The quality of the people [in Mideast studies] is unlike any of the qualities we expect in any other field."
Reinharz has set out to change that by creating a new center for Middle East studies at Brandeis, which he hopes will set a much-needed example of academic rigor in the field.
"We need a first-rate center for Middle East studies that is not pro or con anything," Reinharz said.
The Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis, which will open this April, is one of two new projects at the Jewish-sponsored, non-sectarian university aimed at raising the level of academic scholarship and discourse on Israel and the Middle East. The second, a three-week summer institute that trains professors to teach courses about Israel-related topics, was launched last year.
The need for more objective scholarship on the Middle East could not be more urgent, many academics and observers say.
For more than a generation, they argue, academic seriousness in the field of Middle East studies has been replaced by polemics and middling erudition. The result is that those teaching courses on the subject today not only are failing to provide good scholarship in the field, but are indoctrinating generations of highly educated Americans to be hostile to the Jewish state, they say.
"You now have generations of people going through this department who now have distorted views of what's happening in the Middle East," says Rabbi Charles Sheer, the recently retired Jewish chaplain at Columbia.
The problem far predates the current political conflicts of the Middle East, such as the intifada or the war in Iraq, according to Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, director of UCLA's Hillel center.
"The crisis has not been brought about because of the current politics; it's just brought the problem to light," says Seidler-Feller, who came under heavy criticism two years ago for downplaying Jewish students' concerns about anti-Israel bias on campus. "We've lost a generation here. This current political climate makes people conscious of the fact that we haven't done our homework."
The idea behind the new Crown Center, Brandeis officials say, is not merely to teach courses on Israel, but to make Middle East studies what it ought to be about: the Middle East, not just the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The center will have endowed chairs in Israel studies, Islamic studies, Arab politics and possibly Turkish studies. It will teach the languages of the Middle East. It will span Brandeis's own departments of political science, economics and Near Eastern and Judaic studies. It will focus not just on Israel and the Palestinians, but on Turkey, Syria, Iran and Egypt. Moreover, it will place the study of Israel where it belongs, in the context of the greater Middle East, not in what Reinharz calls "the ghetto of Jewish studies."
The institute will be directed by Shai Feldman, until now the head of the prestigious Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
Reinharz expects the center to produce policy papers, train students and bring scholars in the field to the Brandeis campus. Next year's visiting scholars will include Dennis Ross, president Bill Clinton's special envoy to the Middle East; Khalil Shikaki, director of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research and Abdel Monem Said Aly, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, one of the most influential think tanks in the Arab world. The center's inaugural conference will be held this April 4-5.
"The totality of this presence will precisely establish a degree of objectivity that does not exist in other places," Feldman says. The goal is "to provide objective – which means credible – scholarship on the region."
"The clear message to everyone is we're not an advocacy center," Reinharz says. "This is not ideology. This is scholarship."
Of course, the degree to which the new center at Brandeis, a Jewish-sponsored university, is able to establish a reputation for objective academic research remains to be seen. The center's major funder, the Crown family of Chicago, is well known for its support for sectarian Jewish causes, including the Ida Crown Jewish Academy, an Orthodox day school in Chicago.
Rashid Khalidi, director of Columbia's Middle East Institute and the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia, says he does not agree with Reinharz's assessment of problems in the field. In Khalidi's view, the problem is "organized and systematic attacks on the entire field of Middle East studies," which have resulted in "an unending witch hunt against people who can be portrayed as 'extreme' through selective and out-of-context quotations, innuendo and outright falsification."
The consequence, says Khalidi, is that efforts to clean up the field will marginalize many serious scholars, and "then the only people left in the field will be discredited Uncle Toms and people who never say anything of consequence. That is the obvious intention of those behind these campaigns."
Reinharz says he's well aware of the challenges, but that the center's work ultimately will prove skeptics wrong.
"Hopefully, we'll choose the right people to teach in a thorough and responsible way," Reinharz says.
Feldman says his 27 years at the Tel Aviv-based Jaffee Center suggests that the new center at Brandeis, too, will be judged by the quality of its scholars and the value of its research, not its Jewish location or sources of funding.
"The Jaffee Center has acquired a name in the Middle East for being a serious center of scholarship," Feldman says. "I draw a lesson from this: If you do serious work, you gain respect."
That same philosophy undergirds Brandeis' Summer Institute for Israel Studies.
The goal of the three-week summer program is to provide faculty members from other universities with knowledge about Israel to help them better teach and design courses on the Jewish state. The project's sponsors say simply teaching professors about Israel will go a long way toward combatting hostility toward Israel at US universities and providing balance in discussions about the Middle East.
"It suggests that the real problems regarding Israel on campus are more about ignorance and indifference and less about hostility," says Steven Bayme, director of the Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations at the American Jewish Committee, which is Brandeis's junior funding partner in the project.
"It's less about propaganda and more about education. If you really want to enhance the image of Israel on campus, you have to engage the campus academically. More broadly, it means the introduction of courses that teach the history, politics and society of Israel."
Launched last summer with 18 professors from such fields as religion, sociology, politics and anthropology, the program consists of intensive seminars on Israel's social, political and economic history, Arab-Jewish relations, Israeli cultural studies and an overview of Zionist thought.
This year, the program has been expanded to include a week in Israel in addition to the two weeks at Brandeis – a change last year's participants said was sorely needed. The institute is free for participants, who receive a $2,000 stipend, in addition to having their expenses covered by Brandeis.
The only catch is that the professors must commit to teaching at least one course on Israel at their home campuses the following year.
"I don't want just a seminar to educate intellectuals," Reinharz says. "We're trying to bring Israel to the consciousness of students and faculty all across the country."
Participants "will use their knowledge to buttress what they teach," he says.
About this project, too, Reinharz is adamant that it be apolitical.
"This is Israel, warts and all," he said. "Otherwise, the program would have no credibility."
The ultimate test for both incipient programs at Brandeis is whether they will have any significant impact on Middle East studies beyond the leafy Boston suburb of Waltham.
"There are many, many centers on the Middle East in the States, and it will take time for a single center to have an effect on the overall debate," Feldman says.
In the few years since the problems in Mideast studies took center stage, universities have tried to address the problems in a variety of ways. Many, opting for a quick fix, have brought visiting scholars to campuses to placate critics accusing departments of anti-Israel bias. But the influence of visiting professors ends once they leave and many universities have no comprehensive plan to address systemic problems in their departments.
On that count, at least, Brandeis seems to have the right formula, focusing on long-term solutions.
But it's not clear that bringing more Middle East studies professors to campus won't sink Brandeis into the same battles over polemics that have plagued other universities. Even if the scholars who come are not themselves polemical – and Feldman insists they won't be – one could easily imagine scenarios where passionate students draw the professors into political debates, transforming classes on the history of modern Egypt into vitriolic appraisals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"I wouldn't exclude the possibility of students trying to pull presenters in a polemical direction," Feldman says, but "serious people will resist that pull.
"If I thought for a moment that the individuals involved are polemical in nature, I would not have initiated it," Feldman adds. "Everybody has a perspective. But I don't think that the individuals involved are ideologues or people engaged in polemics."