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

Is Zionism Colonialism? The Root Lie

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

No. 35

Remarks delivered to a closed forum of New York-area students, convened by CAMERA at Columbia University on 3 April 2005.

  • The tragedy of academy is that it has become home to countless people whose mission is to prove the lie that Zionism is colonialism. Thus research is undertaken, books are written, and lectures delivered to establish a falsehood.
  • The investigation at Columbia University has shown that in some cases, students are more credible than professors, even in the eyes of the university itself. Columbia owes its students the truth, and the freedom to assert it.


Strategies to Combat Bias against Israel?

I have been asked to speak about strategies to combat bias against Israel among professors. This is Jewish organization-speak. Advocacy organizations have strategies, and I am not an advocacy organization. I am an academic and an intellectual. My strategy, if you want to call it that, is simple: it is to identify and speak truth. It is also to acknowledge when truth is elusive, as it sometimes is, and to try to uncover it. So I will leave it to the pro-Israel professionals to give you strategies, if they have any. I don’t have any, unless it is telling the truth.

Edward Said, who was a professor at this university, always used to say that the role of the intellectual is to “speak truth to power.” I could never understand what that addition of “to power” meant. It placed an obvious reservation on the truth-speaking obligation of intellectuals: they should tell the truth, but this truth-speaking should be selective. The powerful deserve the truth, and the powerless … well, what do they get? For Said, the powerful meant the United States, Israel, the West, Arab governments. But the truth is indivisible, and to withhold it from those who have less power, such as the Palestinians, is not only a disservice to them, it places them in jeopardy.

There is one lie that has been told to the Palestinians by a variety of people, and that has done them an immense amount of harm. The failure of intellectuals, and especially of academics supportive of the Palestinians, is that they have become disseminators of this lie. On some campuses, like this one, it has been taught. I would call it the root lie – a lie from which grow many other lies.

It is this: Zionism is a form of colonialism. It was not the national movement of the Jewish people to create a state. It was a foreign-backed colonial project, by which settler-colonizers dispossessed an indigenous people. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a tragic clash of nationalisms between peoples who have comparable or even equal claims. This is not a contest between two nations, with national identities and narratives. It is a straightforward case of nineteenth century style colonialist dispossession, committed by a non-nation – a collection of land robbers – against a nation from time immemorial, the Palestinian people.

Zionism and its progeny, Israel, are therefore inherently unjust. They are not the rebirth of a long-suppressed and oppressed people. They are the last breath of a dying colonialism, sustained not by hope, but by hatred. Zionism has created the myth of Jewish nationhood. But the Jews are not a nation, and as such they cannot have nationalism. They have only racism: a false sense of their own supremacy and the inferiority of others, above all the Palestinians.

This is a very great lie, and it is a self-serving lie. Those who believe it can sustain in their hearts the hope that in any given span of a few years, Israel will disappear. America will decide to dismantle it, or the Jews will decide that it is too costly to maintain, and so will go to other countries that are safer and more comfortable. For colonialism is something that is transient and lasts only so long as it is cost-effective. But authentic nations are forever, the ties of nations to their land are never really severed, and nations are bound by ties of solidarity that cross the generations.

This lie, told to the Palestinians by others and by themselves, explains why they have repeatedly underestimated Zionism, Israel, and Israelis. By now it should be self-evident to any objective observer that Zionism and Israel are driven by nationalism as deep as any other nationalism. Their aspirations and contradictions are comparable to aspirations and contradictions in all nationalisms. But to acknowledge this is to accept Israel’s permanence, and even its de facto legitimacy.


A Haven for Falsehood

The tragedy of the academy is that it has become home to countless people whose mission is to prove this lie. They do research, write books, and deliver lectures, all with the same purpose: to establish the truth of a falsehood. Who does this? They include Palestinians, who have paid a price for Israel’s creation and who would like to believe that Israel is a transient affair, destined to end in the state’s demise. They include Jews who do not want to belong to a Jewish nation because they believe they belong to another nation, or to no nation, and feel the need to demonstrate their other loyalty by denying Jewish nationhood not only for themselves but for others. And the list goes on.

For reasons that have to do with the political history of the American academy, these people are represented disproportionately in universities, where they reinforce one another by making a cult of the lie. In an Orwellian way, one earns membership in the cult by declaring black to be white, day to be night – and with feeling. At this university, a faculty member has even gone so far as to declare Zionism a form of anti-Semitism against Palestinians. The more far-fetched the lie, the more its inventor is lionized for his courage.

So lie begets lie. Israel, like any state, is not immune to error. The more power a state has, the more consequential its errors, and Israel has succeeded in amassing more power than its neighbors. But for believers in the lie, Israel’s power on any scale is illegitimate, and therefore its every use must serve nefarious ends. Its exercise for any purpose, at any time, is disproportionate by definition. It is not that the Palestinians can do no wrong; believers in the lie will sometimes criticize Palestinians, and some of them enjoyed criticizing Arafat. It is that Israel can do no right. Its very power is a crime against humanity, however it is used.

I have no unique strategies about telling the truth, except to tell it. In a classroom setting, it is not always easy to tell a specific truth in response to a specific lie. Evidence must be investigated and substantiated. I would urge all of you to master as much history as you can from reliable sources. No strategy can substitute for knowledge.

But even without detailed knowledge, you are in a position to challenge the root lie. The root lie is not about details. It is not about precisely what happened in Jenin. It is about starting propositions. If you challenge and puncture this lie from the outset, you have prevailed, even if you are unable to counter lesser lies in real time.


Challenging the Lie at Columbia

This brings me to the case of Columbia. It is not always easy to tell what the controversy is about. Is it about harassment? Bias? Academic freedom? Or is it just another Middle East squabble? Perhaps it is about all these things: after all, there are so many players involved.

At a profound level though, I think it is also about speaking truth. Who speaks it reliably? Who twists it, and even lies?

This is the significance of the ad hoc committee report. This is a flawed document by a flawed committee. Even so, it reached a striking conclusion. An encounter took place in the classroom between a professor and a student. The student alleged that the professor threatened her: if she denied Israeli atrocities, she must leave the classroom. The professor denied the exchange ever took place. The student stood by her account and other students corroborated it. Weighing the evidence, the committee found the student’s claim to be credible.

This is an official finding by academic peers that the professor in question lied. By finding the student credible, the committee has determined that the professor is incredible. In a university where truth is so elastic and where lies can be purveyed under the protections of academic freedom, this determination is of no mean significance. When students are more credible than professors, even in the eyes of the university itself, and when students are deemed to have told the truth, and professors are deemed to have lied, this is a world turned upside down.

The university does not manufacture widgets. Its product is supposed to be the truth. When someone plagiarizes, cheats, or lies in an academic setting, these are the equivalent of theft. An act of theft is not always an isolated act. Often it forms part of a pattern, even part of a culture.

The point that students should press at Columbia is this: we are tired of being lied to, even in a postmodern environment where truth is fungible. There is a pattern and a culture, and it does not just relate to classroom conduct. Much more consequential lies are in evidence in the works of the professors in question. They are no longer deserving of trust. This is not a demand for balance or diversity. This is a demand for truth, and this is what Columbia owes us.

Resolving Columbia’s crisis is a matter of practicalities. But these practicalities must be subordinate to principles. Advocacy teaching is antithetical to the truth-speaking mission of the university. Columbia has been compromised; it must now redeem itself. And it must do so not only by reaffirming its commitment to academic freedom, but by reaffirming its commitment to truth.


Columbia University:
The Future Of Middle Eastern Studies At Stake

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.

*     *     *

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.