As Jehuda Reinharz, president of Brandeis University, watched Middle East departments at other American universities selfishly slug out their own political agendas rather than pursue a greater understanding of the Middle East, he conceived of a new kind of Middle East study center. "We need a first-rate center for Middle East studies that is not pro or con anything," Reinharz told The Jerusalem Post in a recent interview.
Brandeis's new Crown Center for Middle East Studies, principally funded by the Crown family of Chicago, will boast endowed chairs in Israel studies, Islamic studies, Arab politics and possibly Turkish studies. The center's modus operandus, according to Reinharz and Brandeis officials, is to create an institution impartial to political allegiances of the Middle East-specifically those Arab and Israeli, and to study the broader Middle East in context, not just the Arab-Israeli conflict that dominates departments of other universities.
Brandeis's welcome move coincides with the controversy rocking Columbia University's Middle East studies department, which has come under national scrutiny over alleged anti-Israel rhetoric by department professors, as well as student claims of intimidation against those professors. While Israel supporters have privately accused Columbia's Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department of promoting an anti-Israel agenda, the most recent charges were publicly exposed in a documentary film titled "Columbia Unbecoming," produced by a Boston-based Israel advocacy group, The David Project. Adding to the tension, Jewish alumni of Columbia have threatened to cease their financial support of the university if "free speech" is not restored to its classrooms, while the accused professors have denied the intimidation charges. All this has caused President Lee Bollinger to set up a committee charged with investigating accusations of professorial intimidation by MEALAC students.
As Columbia struggles to rectify a predicament that promises no obvious end in sight, Brandeis has clearly taken a wise step toward promoting a more fair and balanced approach to academic study of the Middle East. Instead of a forum for professors to launch polemical debate, the Crown Center pledges to steer clear of the heated atmosphere that has, for example, plagued Columbia's department. Brandeis also hopes to temper student biases in the classroom. Pressed on the question of whether students, apart from their teachers, also have a tendency to turn classroom discussions political, Shai Feldman, formerly of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, and now director of the Crown Center, told the Post, "I wouldn't exclude the possibility of students trying to pull presenters in a polemical direction," but "serious people (the center's professors) will resist that pull."
Here at Yeshiva, where many swear by the maxim, "the grass is greener on the other side," we have little to envy of the fiasco brewing in Morningside Heights. In fact, students involved in the MEALAC controversy doubt whether any good will come of the investigation, largely because they believe the investigating committee is itself prejudiced in favor of the accused professors. On the other hand, we at Yeshiva would be remiss if we didn't wonder why the lofty project that Brandeis has accepted upon itself was not similarly embraced by Yeshiva, a seemingly natural fit for such a project.
To be fair, Yeshiva that has not completely ignored the Middle East. The Schneier Center for International Affairs was a good start toward bringing hot-button political issues to Yeshiva, but the center has no existent faculty, only a director, and acts strictly as a forum for lectures, not course offerings. So far it has brought political thinkers to Yeshiva, like Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, but only for an evening at a time, certainly not for a semester. Departments where one might expect to find a glimpse into the modern Middle East-History, Political Science, and Economics-do not currently offer such opportunities. For that matter, how can Professor Richard White's courses in Arabic be fully appreciated without the proper context that courses in Islam and the Arab world would provide? Even modern Israel gets the short end of the stick. A new Jewish Studies course, "Topics in Zionism," debuted this semester, but, let's be honest, one course does not translate into an interdisciplinary Middle East studies center, which is exactly what Yeshiva brass should be considering right now.
That said, the academic parameters of this theoretical center warrant discussion too: is our priority a center with Israel as its prime focus, as some here have pushed for, or are we interested in broadening the scope of such a center to incorporate the interaction of all cultures and peoples of the Middle East? In other words, are we interested only in the social rifts within Israeli society or does Egyptian democracy interest us as well?
Along these lines, there is also the question of censorship. Are we intellectually honest enough to promote an educational experience that may happen to challenge comfortable notions we have about Israel?
If we are, then let's make it happen. If not, we should bear in mind that MEALAC professors have charged that their student accusers have never been exposed to some of their ideas about the Middle East, which, they say, may explain their discomfort in the classroom.
As Rashid Kalidi, director of Columbia's Middle East Institute put it, "Most kids who come to Columbia come from environments where almost everything they've ever thought was shared by everybody around them," Kalidi told New York magazine in January. "And this is not true, incidentally, of Arab-Americans, who know that the ideas spouted by the major newspapers, television stations, and politicians are completely at odds with everything they know to be true. Whereas kids from, I don't know, Teaneck. Or Scarsdale. Or Levittown. Or Long Island City. Many of them have never been exposed to a dissonant idea, a different idea, as far as the Middle East is concerned. And so you have a situation where it's going to be problematic."
I suspect that, for at least some of us, Kalidi's words ring true; even if they don't, let them serve as a challenge to us to pursue a more sophisticated interaction with the greater Middle East.