Amid the struggle for hearts and minds in the Middle East, there's a small new patch of common ground in an unlikely place.
With its inaugural conference April 4-5, Brandeis University's Crown Center for Middle East Studies will launch its quest to create a first-rate center of Middle East scholarship that avoids polemics, eschews advocacy and disavows political agendas.
According to its director, Shai Feldman, former head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, the Crown Center will be a place where all Middle Eastern scholars — Arab, Israeli, Palestinian, Persian, Turkish and American — can engage in dialogue, research and scholarship.
"The center will seek to produce a discourse on the Middle East as dispassionate, objective and centrist as possible," Feldman told JTA in a recent interview.
The $25 million center, underwritten in large part by the Crown family of Chicago and located at the Jewish-sponsored, non-sectarian university in a Boston suburb, has chairs in Islamic studies, Arab politics, Israel studies and Sephardic studies, and is looking to endow three more.
It will have a state-of-the-art television studio, enabling center experts "to react quickly to any developments, and allow any network to hook up to us directly," Feldman said.
Feldman's first appointments of senior fellows demonstrate the center's intent to encompass the region's diversity. They are Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestine Center for Political and Survey Research in Ramallah, and Abdel Monem Said Aly, director of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.
The two will participate in next week's conference and will begin teaching classes in the fall. Dennis Ross, who served as President Clinton's special envoy to the Middle East, also will serve as a visiting scholar next year.
"The Middle East is at the epicenter of our political world," Aly told JTA in a telephone interview from Cairo. "The challenge for the Crown Center is that the region is very much enigmatic. It's still understudied."
Aly, who hosts his own television show and serves as a political commentator on Orbit TV, believes regional economic cooperation can produce the kind of vibrant growth that some believe will change the nature of conflict resolution in the Middle East.
From Ramallah, Shikaki told JTA of his hope "that the Crown Center will contribute to the debate on the Middle East from a balanced and nonpartisan perspective."
One of the Crown Center's first study projects will be a look at the role of women in the Middle East, and Feldman envisions the center serving as a resource for the most prominent female scholars and thinkers.
According to Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz, the major obstacle facing the center is "academic mediocrity" — because, in his view, so much of Middle Eastern scholarship has been superseded by politics.
"Too many of the centers that currently exist are so infused with ideology, so obsessed by the Israeli-Arab conflict, they have become less interested in scholarship and more interested in scoring political points," Reinharz told JTA.
Discussing his reasons for creating the center, Reinharz said he kept recalling the U.S. State Department's plea for help after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, "asking anyone who knows Arabic to please raise their hand."
The lack of competent scholarship in this country on such a crucial issue was "inexcusable," Reinharz said. The Crown Center's goal "is to create the next generation of first-rate Middle Eastern scholars."
The launch comes at a time of increased polarization over the way Israel and the Middle East are taught on American campuses.
In recent months, Columbia University has been rocked by charges of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel bias in its Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department. A short documentary prepared by the David Project, a Boston-based Israel-advocacy group, recounted how several Columbia students said they felt threatened academically for expressing pro-Israel viewpoints.
In turn, even public dialogue with a Palestinian scholar can prove controversial and provoke outrage in the Jewish community. In December 2004, right-wing activists criticized three leading Jewish community groups in Boston for hosting a discussion on the post-Arafat Middle East that included Sari Nusseibeh, a visiting Palestinian scholar at Harvard University who is president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem and has served as a PLO official.
Though Nusseibeh's public statements are more moderate than those of almost any other Palestinian official, his critics sought to portray him as an advocate of terrorism and asked that the session be cancelled.
Still, Reinharz said there has been "zero pushback" in the Jewish community about the development of a nonpartisan Middle East center.
"There has only been praise from all quarters," Reinharz said. "People have been really effusive in praise for what we are doing."
"I'm not interested in left-wing, right-wing or center-wing," Reinharz continued. "I want the students to be exposed to a variety of views. The students are going to have to make up their own minds."
The inaugural conference will feature the kind of "open, high-level discussion and debate" among scholars that Feldman advocates.
One session, "Israel's Disengagement Plan: The Internal Debate," features Israel Harel, a former chairman of the Yesha council of Israeli settlers.
The next session, "Palestinian-Israeli Relations: The Next Steps," features Yair Hirschfeld, one of the principal architects of the Oslo accords and a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Haifa.
As Feldman notes, Harel and Hirschfeld "agree about absolutely nothing." But, he argues, "we should not be afraid to have students exposed to people with different ways of thinking, competing approaches and competing narratives."
Other topics at the conference include "Futures for Iraq, Iran and Syria" and "Political Transformation in the Region." Panelists include Osman Faruk Logoglu, Turkey's ambassador to the United States; Hillary Mann from the U.S. State Department; Geoffrey Kemp from the Nixon Center in Washington; Flynt Leverett from the Saban Center for Middle Eastern Policy; Moroccan scholar Assia Bensala Alaoui; and Harvard scholar Barbara Bodine.