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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Columbia University: The Future Of Middle Eastern Studies At Stake

Filed under: Anti-Semitism
Publication: Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism


From Manfred Gerstenfeld ( ed.)
Academics against Israel and the Jews

Address delivered to a conference on “The Middle East and Academic Integrity on the American Campus,” convened at Columbia University on 6 March 2005.

  • The crisis at Columbia University is a battle for the future of Middle Eastern studies. This is an academic field where scholarship has taken a backseat to advocacy, a few biases became the highest credentials, and dissenting views became thought-crimes.
  • The transformation of the field of Middle Eastern studies is due to the late Professor Edward Said of Columbia University. For him no understanding of the Middle East had validity unless joined with political sympathy for the empowerment of Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims.
  • While the Columbia University case is so extreme that it is almost a parody, there are dozens of Middle East programs and departments in the United States that are potentially like it.

A Battle in a Larger War

In the midst of claims and counterclaims at Columbia, it is perhaps easy to lose sight of the larger picture. The larger stakes are the future of Middle Eastern studies in America. The Columbia crisis is many things, but it is also a battle in the struggle for the future of a field that is growing, and that has become vital to the well-being of the United States. The Columbia crisis may even be a turning point. Let me explain why.

I won’t dwell here on the problems that have plagued Middle Eastern studies over the last twenty-five years. You will find them discussed in some detail in my book Ivory Towers on Sand. There I show how Middle Eastern studies became a field where scholarship took a backseat to advocacy, where a few biases became the highest credentials, where dissenting views became thought-crimes.

This transformation I attributed to the influence of the late Professor Edward Said of Columbia University. For Professor Said, no understanding of the Middle East had validity unless it was joined at the hip with political sympathy for the cause and the struggle. The cause was the empowerment of Palestinians, Arabs, and Muslims. The struggle was against an axis of evil comprised of Western Orientalism, American imperialism, and Israeli Zionism.


The Corruption of Middle Eastern Studies

In the 1980s and 1990s, this new orthodoxy swept through Middle Eastern studies, carried on the shoulders of radicals who made their way through graduate schools and into faculty positions. These radicals, once tenured and vested with academic power, began a systematic purge of Middle Eastern studies. They promoted one another, and they shut out alternative views. Middle Eastern studies, under their domination, became very much like Middle Eastern regimes: full of rhetoric about liberation, but dead-set against all expressions of dissent. And like Professor Said, the Middle East academics showed less interest in the actual Middle East than in exposing the West’s so-called “stereotypes.”

More than any other university, Columbia stood at the very forefront of this transformation. Each and every department became the target of a takeover attempt, and none more so than the Middle East department, MEALAC. But Columbia was simply the most egregious example of a process that took place in Middle Eastern studies programs across the United States. By the late 1990s, the radicals could look smugly up and down their hallways and see only like-minded colleagues. They understood perfectly how best to play the politics of American academe, to conform to its fashionable orthodoxies.

But while their trendy theories may have won them tenure, they also became ever more detached from the realities of the Middle East. Nowhere was this more so than in regard to the character of Islamism. Professor Said himself, not long before 9/11, mocked what he called “speculations about the latest conspiracy to blow up buildings, sabotage commercial airliners and poison water supplies.” Such talk, he wrote, was based on “highly exaggerated stereotyping.”


Post-9/11 Opportunism

9/11 should have been the turning point for Middle Eastern studies. Columbia’s Professor Richard Bulliet, speaking to a student forum in the week after the attack, made this quip: “Does this mean I’m throwing my copy of [Edward Said’s] Orientalism out the window? Maybe it does.” Some people in the field may have felt the same doubts in their hearts – that they had been wrong about the Middle East, and that the errors had their origins in the biases that permeated the field.

But they wouldn’t express those doubts openly, and for a reason: thanks to 9/11, they hoped that Washington would lavish new subsidies on them. Despite my book, which appeared only a month after 9/11, there wasn’t sufficient awareness in Washington of the problems in Middle Eastern studies. And so in December 2001, while the ruins of the Trade Center still smoldered, Congress authorized the greatest onetime increase in federal subsidies for area studies in history. The subsidy program is called Title VI, and Congress and the administration of George W. Bush increased it by 26 percent in one swoop, most of it going to Middle Eastern studies.


The Fate of Title VI

That was a setback to the cause of change. But a second chance presented itself a year and a half ago when the Higher Education Act came up for reauthorization. Title VI is part of that act and the chair of the House Subcommittee, with jurisdiction over Title VI, introduced a bill to reform the program. The International Studies in Higher Education Act would have established an International Advisory Board to advise Congress and the Department of Education on how best to match the priorities of Title VI to the rapidly expanding needs of the United States.

After the bill passed the House and went to the Senate, forces in academe launched a campaign of disinformation against it, deliberately obscuring both the bill’s language and its intent. I speak personally when I say that the nature of this campaign persuaded me, more than anything else, that academics have no more respect for the truth than any other lobby when they perceive the slightest risk to their subsidies and entitlements. Columbia University, as an institution, deployed its own lobbyists in this campaign of deceit.

People often ask me what happened to the Title VI reform bill. It was never defeated. It expired because for the first time in history, Congress failed to reauthorize the Higher Education Act on time. But there is a new Congress, the reauthorization has begun anew, and the Title VI reform measure is back in play. Nevertheless, passage and implementation are well down the road.

In short, until this past fall, the cause of reform in Middle Eastern studies remained stuck. It was at this moment of impasse that the film Columbia Unbecoming cast a spotlight on a dark corner of Middle Eastern studies.


The Case of Columbia and Its Implications

What did Columbia Unbecoming achieve? It put a human face on the dysfunction of Middle Eastern studies. I and others had been talking for years about bias and suggesting that this bias had victims. You cannot establish total control over a field, and you cannot eliminate dissent, without frustrating the careers of countless aspiring scholars. But this is always hard to prove and it is obscured by layers of bureaucracy, the workings of committees, and the secrecy by which universities make their choices.

Columbia Unbecoming demonstrated how the same mechanisms that had purged the field were at work in the classroom and it found victims prepared to speak out. The fact that it happened at Columbia, the birthplace of Saidian doctrine, and the fact that Professor Said’s direct disciples committed the alleged offenses, added to the effect.

Now some will say that the crisis at Columbia has nothing to do with Middle Eastern studies more broadly, but reflects conditions unique to Morningside Heights. This is perhaps why, beyond Columbia, leading figures of Middle Eastern studies have hesitated to come forward and take a stand in defense of MEALAC. With a few exceptions, they have not rallied to MEALAC and for a good reason: they don’t want the Columbia case to be regarded as typical of the field as a whole.


Are they right?
Is Columbia an exceptional case?

There is no doubt that the Columbia case has unique features. It is so extreme that it is almost a parody. And yet, as any careful student of this field knows, there are dozens of Middle East programs and departments that are potential MEALACs. They developed in the same way at the same time, with similar biases and the same disdain for diversity. Of course, not every biased professor is abusive. Like dysfunctional families, each such program is miserable in its own way. But the potential for similar blowups is ever-present on many other campuses. As the author of a book on Middle Eastern studies, I get constant reports of MEALACs-in-the-making. Columbia is an extreme case of a general problem.

There is another way in which the Columbia case connects to the very mainstream of Middle Eastern studies. The doyens of Middle Eastern studies are always quick to claim that the field is capable of regulating itself. But two former presidents of the Middle East Studies Association are on the faculty of Columbia. They preside over a Title VI National Resource Center for the Middle East, yet they have both been complicit in the promotion of the most radical element in MEALAC. Neither came forward before the crisis to provide a check or balance to MEALAC’s excesses.

Now they have both been assigned corrective roles: one sits on the ad hoc committee, the other has been detailed to the MEALAC advisory committee. I will not prejudge the outcome of these committees, but where were these leaders of the field before the crisis? The Columbia case is proof positive that the mainstream leaders of Middle Eastern studies are unwilling or incapable of checking the extremists whom they themselves have promoted and who flourish alongside them.

This isn’t a problem unique to Columbia; it is endemic throughout Middle Eastern studies. There are reasonable and thoughtful people in the field, who know intellectual and professional excesses when they see them. But they are too indifferent or timid or intimidated to provide a balance.


Incestuous Academe

And that brings me to another way in which Columbia’s crisis exemplifies a larger problem. Middle Eastern studies are a small field. The professional association includes only 2,500 members. Everyone knows everyone else, and there is a serious problem of intellectual inbreeding, compounded by the relentless efforts of radicals to fill every slot with their own protégés and acolytes.

At Columbia, this inbreeding reached unprecedented proportions. The member of MEALAC at the center of the controversy did his Ph.D. at Columbia, had it published by Columbia University Press, and received his tenure-track teaching appointment at Columbia. He is the ultimate Columbia product; to deny him now would throw into question the entire quality control mechanism of the university.

But it is precisely that mechanism that failed at Columbia, just as it has failed across Middle Eastern studies. In small and incestuous fields, higher administration cannot allow Middle East departments to run themselves without close supervision and occasional intervention. Academic freedom does not include the right to bring in one’s own allies and friends and promote them shamelessly without reference to the standards and priorities of the university as a whole.

In a new interview, President Bollinger suggests he intends to restructure and re-form MEALAC, even as he expands the study of the Middle East at Columbia. This is precisely what is needed in dozens of other departments across the country: expansion, to meet growing demand; and thorough restructuring, to break up monopolies and promote diversity. A university president needs tremendous courage to face down the vested interests of Middle East departments. I believe that President Bollinger’s tenure will be judged by his success or failure in doing just that. Other university presidents, whose programs are ticking away, will be watching.


A Student Revolt?

I have made it clear that the Columbia case has tremendous significance beyond the campus, for Middle Eastern studies as a whole. I will go further. I expect the kind of student revolt we have seen at Columbia to spread to other campuses and to spread beyond Jewish students. In one of the most-quoted instances of intimidation at Columbia, a MEALAC professor allegedly asked an Israeli student: “How many Palestinians did you kill?” Middle Eastern studies programs are going to fill with veterans of American military service in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are going to fill with beneficiaries of new government scholarship programs, offered in return for a service obligation in the military and intelligence agencies.

Given the predilections of the faculty in this field, the danger of widespread intimidation of students by faculty is very real. How long will it be before a student is asked how many Iraqis he killed, or is accused of being a spy in training for the evil American empire? That is why the outcome of the Columbia case, in regard to students’ grievances, has a significance that goes way beyond the pro-Israel community. It is of crucial importance to the U.S. effort to recruit the best intellectual capital and train it in American universities, both for the war on terror and for the challenges arising from the coming transformation of the Middle East.

I conclude. Up close, this looks like a story about Columbia and Israel. In proper perspective, it is a test case for Middle Eastern studies and American preparation for its enhanced role in the Middle East. It will affect the way all universities manage and regulate their expanding Middle East programs, and it has implications for an entire generation of students who are already streaming to Middle East programs because they want to serve the nation. My message to the students and supportive faculty of Columbia is this: remain steadfast. You are the turning point for Middle Eastern studies in America, and to that extent, for America in the Middle East.

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Dr. Martin Kramer is senior research associate at the Moshe Dayan Center, Tel Aviv University. His book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies (Washington: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 2001) provided a thorough critique of Middle Eastern studies in the United States, documenting academe’s failure to explain or predict major developments in the Middle East.