The University's new $25 million Crown Center for Middle East Studies opened Monday with a panel discussion on the problems facing Middle East scholarship in the United States led by three distinguished scholars.
Professors from Harvard, Tufts and Tel Aviv University assessed the new center's mission to reshape study of the modern Middle East, which some critics have said has become highly politicized and stagnant.
The conference, which continues Tuesday with four more panel discussions, packed the Hassenfeld Conference Center Monday afternoon.
Titled, "Middle East Studies in the U.S.: What Is All The Debate About," the discussion centered around the criticism that there might be something fundamentally wrong with how the modern Middle East is discussed and researched in American universities.
In her opening remarks, Provost Marty Krauss said establishing this center has been a long-time vision of University President Jehuda Reinharz.
"The center will take on the toughest issues facing the Middle East [and] set a new standard for scholarly inquiry for the region," she said.
Reinharz was in attendance but he did not address the audience.
Shai Feldman, the director of the Crown Center, responded to what he said was a critical article in the Boston Globe which called him naïve about controversies which have roiled American Middle East studies departments.
"The debate about the Middle East [in the United States] has become more contentious than the debate in the Middle East itself," Feldman said.
Kramer, from Tel Aviv University's Dayan center for Middle East and African Studies, discussed the relationship between the U.S. government and academics in what the role of the Center should be in a "field ridden with controversy."
Kramer said since Sept. 11, 2001 the U.S. government has increased funding for Middle East study centers. He said that because the Bush Administration has been the "greatest material benefactor of Middle East studies," centers have tended to "conform to the established model and win acceptance."
Kramer posed the challenge to the Crown Center to embark on a different route and not accept the "standard answers in the Middle East debate."
"The Crown Center has the opportunity to make a difference at a crucial moment," Kramer said. Other leaders in Middle East studies express the same, unoriginal perspectives, he said.
Mufti, the director of Middle Eastern studies program at Tufts University, spoke about the "estrangement of Middle East Studies from politics" because of intimidation by the U.S. government to silence scholars in their engagement in the political discussion.
He said while scholars are tempted to tailor their academic agenda to national interests, they have the obligation to use their knowledge and research to "better convey our thoughts on those who impact U.S. policy [and] participate in the political debate."
Mufti addressed the necessity of being both "a good citizen and an honest scholar." He argued, "without civility, there can be no dialogue," therefore scholars have the duty to take an active role in politics as citizens and never "shy away from learning" and engaging in discussion with others.
Caton, an anthropologist and the director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard University, spoke about the duty of Middle Eastern studies departments and centers to provide more interdisciplinary research opportunities for resident scholars.
"Many disciplines are engaged in the study of the Middle East," he said.
He said "area centers" must educate students and the public through accessible formats to help people form educated positions.
Canton seemed to take issue with Kramer's assessment of the lack of originality in recent Middle East scholarship.
Yair Hirschfeld, a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Haifa, will be speaking Tuesday on a panel about the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts. Hirschfeld was in attendance at the opening session.
"The most important part of the discussion was getting heads of universities together to speak. It creates a community of interest, which is very useful," Hirschfeld said.