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MAIRSON: Mideast Scholarship, A Canard

Published: April 1, 2005
Section: Opinions

The Crown Center for Middle East Studies opens at Brandeis on April 5 with a conference, Middle East Studies in the U.S.: What is the Debate About? An answer to that question was given by Brandeis President Jehuda Reinharz in his Solender Lecture at the United Jewish Appeal/Federation Meeting in 2003, entitled Israel in the Eyes of Americans, A Call to Action. It frames the environment surrounding the Crown Center:
[M]any of the dozens of centers for Middle East Studies in America are in sorry shape, and over the past 25 years these centers have been controlled by ideologically motivated forces or individuals, and very often produce biased and shoddy scholarship. These centers are located in dozens of institutions including many of the great universities in this country. Criteria of excellence must be applied to Middle East studies, as they are applied to other areas of study.

Criticizing shoddy scholarship is easy when you dont like someones ideology, and painful when you do. Because when faced with pervasive ideological, ethnic, and nationalistic pressures—whose truth? The ideology-transcending consensus on shoddy scholarship isnt there. Heres an outstanding case study.

A pro-Palestinian counterpoint to shoddy scholarship—they, too, worry about it!—is the book edited by Edward Said and Christopher Hitchens, Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship and the Palestinian Question. (Edward Said had credibility problems with his own memoir, Out Of Place.) Their ne plus ultra of spurious scholarship is Joan Peterss infamous book, From Time Immemorial: The Origins of the Arab-Jewish Conflict over Palestine (1984), which rolled for all the marbles: it claimed that the Zionist settlers of the 19th century found an empty land, and that expulsion of Arabs in the late 1940s was matched by expulsion of Jews from Arab countries. Saids book review was emotionally commensurate with Deborah Lipstadt reading about Holocaust denial—only the denial was that there were any Palestinian Arabs.

From Time Immemorial won the National Jewish Book Award, receiving effusive accolades from a Whos Who of American intellectual life: novelist Saul Bellow, Holocaust writer Lucy Dawidowicz, demographer Philip Hauser, jurist Arthur Goldberg, Nobelist Elie Wiesel, historians Barbara Tuchman and Theodore White. Distinguished historian Jehuda Reinharz wrote in a review that Peters provides us with a valuable synthesis and a new analysis… she convincingly demonstrates that many of those who today call themselves Palestinian refugees are former immigrants to Palestine or the children of such immigrants… they match in numbers those Jews who were forced to flee from Arab countries in the period around the establishment of the state of Israel. Peterss views were heavily borrowed in Alan Dershowitzs recent book, The Case for Israel.

Martin Kramer, an inaugural speaker at the Crown Center, wrote a book review (see confidently titled The New Case for Israel. While acknowledging Peterss rhetorical excesses and historical blunders (especially a 15th-century writer cited as having commented on a 19th-century event), and that she failed to dispel nagging doubts, Kramer wrote, her book raises overdue questions, and especially, on the central point of her book, the demographic argument, Peters is probably right. He still believes this.

Judgement that From Time Immemorial was spurious scholarship came, predictably, from the left. Norman Finkelstein wrote a Ph.D. thesis at Princeton refuting the book footnote by footnote, calling it hoax;

he accused Dershowitz of plagiarizing Peters. Princeton Orientalist Bernard Lewis, thanked by Peters for his personal and professional assistance, wouldnt speak to Finkelstein about his demographic rebuttal. (If Peters misrepresented Lewiss help as an endorsement, it didnt compel him to set her straight.)

Withering condemnations also came from irreproachable mainstream sources. In Britains Observer, Oxford Orientalist Albert Hourani wrote: Facts are selected or misunderstood;

tortuous and flimsy arguments are expressed in violent and repetitive language. This is a ludicrous and worthless book…

Hebrew Universitys Yehoshua Porath, historian of Palestinian Arabs, wrote in the New York Review of Books, I am reluctant to bore the reader and myself with further examples of Mrs. Peterss highly tendentious use—or neglect—of the available source material. Much more important is her misunderstanding of basic historical processes. He concluded, Everyone familiar with the writing of the extreme nationalists of Zeev Jabotinskys Revisionist party… would immediately recognize the tired and discredited arguments in Mrs. Peterss book. I had mistakenly thought them long forgotten. It is a pity that they have been given new life.

In an interview with Colin Campbell of the New York Times, Porath added, I think its a sheer forgery. In Israel, at least, the book was almost universally dismissed as sheer rubbish except maybe as a propaganda weapon. Anthony Lewiss summary in the Times was There Were No Indians. In the London Review of Books, Ian and David Gilmour called it proposterous. (Sir Ian was a Conservative member of Parliament.) Haaretz reported on a conference on Palestinian demography at Haifa University where Peterss demography was dismissed;

Yehoshua Ben-Arieh, Dean and then Rector of Hebrew University, condemned her enterprise as discrediting the Zionist cause.

Some held their ground. Renowned historian Barbara Tuchman responded to the Gilmours review: critics were committed PLO supporters guilty of the worst kind of anti-Semitism;

the Palestinians were a fairy tale. Neo-conservative Daniel Pipes backed off defending Peterss scholarship, but supported her thesis: Faulty presentation notwithstanding, he wrote, it is incumbent on her critics to cease the name-calling and make a serious effort to show her wrong. (Isnt it her job to show shes right?)

So when it comes to shoddy scholarship, is the enemy of my enemy my friend, or do we just forgive our friends for the spuriousness that wed condemn in our enemies? Do we merely elevate ideological differences to those of scholarship? If the jury is still out on From Time Immemorial, then surely we dont know what shoddy scholarship is. Too many scholars and chaired professors signed on, or stayed silent. What have we learned since then? What else might this Center be for? One possibility comes from a sympathetic 2002 Haaretz interview with Jehuda Reinharz on the subject.

The journalist, Benny Landau, cites Princetons Bernard Lewis, who calls existing Middle East research centers in the U.S. enemy-occupied territory. Most of them, writes Landau, are financed by Arab states, directed by Arabs and, according to Reinharz—whose opinion is shared by Prof. Martin Kramer of Tel Aviv University, who is now at Brandeis [in 2002] and who wrote an important book, Ivory Towers on Sand, on the subject—most of them are second-tier institutes that contributed, in their negligence over time, to the surprise and shock of September 11.

In becoming President of Brandeis, wrote Landau, Jehuda Reinharz recognized that he was being granted a rare opportunity not only to head an excellent academic institution, but also to be the president of a university whose mission in the life of the Jewish people is unique. Perhaps it sounds bombastic, Reinharz told the journalist, but that is how I think about it. Part of the responsibility of the university—and since I am the president, I am the one who determines such things—is to promote the Jewish agenda in the world. When I agreed to the offer, I decided to establish good centers and institutes of research, and to fill with them a certain void which, as I perceived it, was created within the Jewish People.

He later says, At the University of Michigan, I witnessed how the center for Middle East studies was influenced by Arab money. They worked cleverly and for the long run. I am not sure that there is someone in the Arab world who sits and plans these things, but the fact is, they did it. They decided to give money for defined purposes, never free. There were always strings attached. The Saudis contributed on the condition that a certain Muslim professor would teach. And the same thing holds for many other universities: `This one and that one will teach such and such subjects. And among the universities, always hungry for budgets, there are those who are willing to accept money at any cost, even one like this.

Yehoshua Porath observed of Joan Peterss book, [F]rom a position of apparently great learning and research, she attempts to refute the Arab myths merely by substituting the Jewish myths for them. Can scholarship really triumph over ideology? We, too, have strings attached. The simpler solution, already evident from the Centers initial speakers, is not a balanced view from any one individual, but a thermodynamic balance of individuals with conflicting views, in the hope that debate among them can generate light without too much heat.

A friend of mine, dean at a prominent university, observes academic culture. His anthropological discovery: departments resemble the fields they study. Economists solicit outside offers to measure their market value. Political scientists rewrite their bylaws, hoping for a more just department. Foreign language departments Balkanize. And Mideast studies—well, he said, its just like the Mideast. I gave up political history, wrote Albert Hourani, [because] it is very difficult not to direct it towards the future, towards your idea of what ought to happen. And that somehow distorts your view of what has happened.

When a university is an agent of advocacy to fill voids in the Jewish People and promote the Jewish agenda—Houranis what ought to happen—it similarly detracts from the primary mission of promoting learning, scholarship, and seeking truth to its innermost parts. To the Crown Center director, Shai Feldman: good luck.