Despite the political changes sweeping the Middle East for better or worse, Arab intellectuals both inside and outside the region remain entrenched in their old anti-Israeli and anti-American positions.
They seem to derive comfort from living in the illusions of the past, rather than face the changing realities of the present, however detrimental the implications are for the future of the people on whose behalf they make their misguided arguments.
Intellectuals have traditionally forged ahead as a force of social and political change, rejecting oversimplifications, empty slogans, and sweeping generalizations which are the domain of the propagandist. Intellectuals act as the surveyors of past and present generations and through clear thinking they preserve unbiased judgments while shining light on current public affairs. That is not what is happening with the majority of Arab intellectuals today, who, in my view, forfeited that obligation to their public by allowing themselves (by choice) to become the propagandists for their respective governments. Surely not all Arab intellectuals fall into this category, but unfortunately enough do.
Arab intellectuals can generally be divided into four different groups: In the first group are those who have resigned themselves to living in an environment, such as in Syria or Saudi Arabia, that does not allow or severely restricts free public political discourse such. In the second group are those intellectuals who, co-opted by their respective governments, have become these regimes' mouthpieces and chief propagandists. (This group will be the subject of part II of this commentary.) Then there are those who refused to be silenced; they left their country of origin and melted away into their adopted countries, mostly in Europe and the Americas, quietly enjoying their newfound freedoms. And, finally, there are those who also opted to resettle mainly in Western nations where they joined the ranks of intellectuals in academia and think tanks. Many of them have even become even more radically vociferous against Israel and the United States than their counterparts in their country of birth. It is not only that the members of the fourth group are prisoners of the past and blind to the changing realities before their eyes, their biases and prejudices betray equally their academic integrity and the very causes they so ardently espouse. They are the subject of this article.
The Palestinian cause, for example, has over the years been the source of countless forums for discussion and debate. Arab academics entrenched in of Middle Eastern studies departments in scores of universities have naturally taken the lead not just in establishing the curricula but in determining the nature of the discourse between students and faculty inside the classroom and on campus. The problem of extreme biases and flagrant distortions of the truth about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict recently came to a head at Columbia University with the screening of "Columbia Unbecoming," a film produced by Columbia students with the support of the David Project.
"The growing presence of faculty and students who come from Arab countries with a tradition of anti-Semitism and without a tradition of freedom of expression or students' rights has probably contributed to the intimidation of students shown in the film," said Prof. Judith S. Jacobson, a member of the Department of Epidemiology at Columbia. Increasingly appalled by the barrage of scurrilous lies being told about Israel and the mindless anti-Israel and anti-U.S. sentiments, professors Jacobson and Edward S. Beck with a small group of like-minded academics founded Scholars for Peace in the Middle East in June 2002 to create support groups to deal with this situation.
"In the past three years," Jacobson stated, "We've come to realize that we are confronting a pervasive loss of integrity in the academy. What has recently been termed the Palestinianization of the academy is not support for the Palestinians (we would not have a problem with that because we are both pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian, and no, that is not an oxymoron), but an obsessive focus on Israel's 'crimes,' and unfounded charges of racism, apartheid, and genocide directed at Israel."
A few months ago, I was invited to participate in a panel discussion at Columbia University about academic integrity. The other panelist was Lisa Anderson, PhD, the Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) at Columbia, and Ed Beck was the moderator. During the discussion following our presentations, a student asked why a professor had made the book "Israel as an Apartheid State" required reading although it was written in 1973, the author died more than a decade ago, and no other required reading in the course syllabus provided a counterweight to this obviously anti-Semitic text.
Dean Anderson insisted that beyond approving the syllabi of new courses, university administrations do not dictate the content of courses. Although I acknowledged that professors are, by and large, free to choose their course materials, I wondered aloud at what point the prevalence of materials biased to a single point of view and filled with hate became a threat to an academic institution's integrity. Other students then complained that some professors do not give students any opportunity to question inaccurate anti-Israeli statements. Not only is this suppression of questioning a clear violation of academic integrity; it also prevents open-minded students and faculty from supporting the legitimate rights of Palestinians.
As the Israelis and Palestinians are trying to reconcile their differences and perhaps find some modus-operandi for coexistence, it behooves the Arab academic community to take a hard look at its role and responsibilities. It is high time to abandon the illusions of the past and bring new light and new hope to their people who have suffered enough but whose suffering can end only when they recognize that Israel is part and parcel of their destiny.
Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Studies at NYU and is the Middle East Project Director at the World Policy Institute, New York. Alonb@aol.com