August 29, 2016
olitical activists who insist on establishing a Palestinian state, but either explicitly oppose or sidestep questions about the continued existence of a Jewish state, dominate the academic field of Middle East Studies. Its teachers, who routinely rationalize violence in the name of “liberating the oppressed,” are determined to making their viewpoint respectable in America and, ultimately, the only respectable view. They’re making real progress.
It was not ever thus in Middle East Studies, a discipline created by serious scholars. In 1966, roughly fifty such scholars, including Princeton historian Bernard Lewis, formed the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). At its outset, MESA encouraged fair-minded historical and ethnographic inquiry. The academic field and MESA have since thrived. MESA now has over 2,700 members, who teach Middle East Studies in many colleges and universities. Seventeen campus Middle East Studies “centers” are funded by Title VI grants—that is, as part of the federal government’s efforts to combat discrimination in higher education based on race, color, creed, or national origin.
But this success has produced little serious scholarship. The field was flooded in the late 1960s with radicalized academics—so much so that in 2007 Bernard Lewis was moved to found an alternative to MESA, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa.
Typically, wayward offspring don’t just disappoint their parents, but wreak other damage. Middle East Studies is no exception. Its principal gift has been to aggravate domestic ethnic tensions in the United States by turning essential ideas upside down.
“Aggressive” acts by oppressed peoples—properly understood, excused, and encouraged—are really acts of liberating fury. That conceit is a central axiom of Middle East Studies. Though applied primarily to Palestinians, whose decades of aggression against Israel are repackaged as the understandable behavior of a victimized people, the idea of aggressors as victims asserting their dignity goes back more than half a century. The “afro-Caribbean” Marxist Frantz Fanon provided its most celebrated expression in his 1961 call for revolutionary violence, The Wretched of the Earth. According to Lucia Volk, a teacher of Middle East and Islamic Studies at San Francisco State University, Fanon’s book, along with Gregory Massell’s The Surrogate Proletariat (1974) and Edward Said’s Orientalism (1978), form “the core works in [the Middle East Studies] canon.” All three focus on the psychological dynamics of colonized peoples seeking to liberate themselves from colonizers’ ideas and political control.
Thus, Middle East Studies today is based on a body of ideas about rationalizing violence and organizing aggression. Though most visible as an excuse for Palestinian violence, the field’s activist scholarship also justifies other Israeli enemies.
Furthermore, and despite its name, Middle East Studies is also about the United States. The “studies” it promotes are directed first of all to American collegians, and the faculty members who teach it are determined to capture those students’ hearts and minds. By applying the concept of victims’ liberating fury to American life, Middle East Studies has proven to be a deep reservoir for holding civilized norms in contempt, justifying lawlessness and violence undertaken in the name of liberation.
In its November 2014 membership meeting MESA passed a resolution, “Regarding Protection of Free Discussion on Academic Boycott of Israel.” It deftly excuses “victims’” aggressions by deploring “the measures of intimidation directed against the American Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, among other associations, and some of their individual members …” We MESA members, it continued, “uphold the principles of free speech that protect the expression of such views and actions.”
The resolution presents the American Studies Association (ASA) and other academic associations who favor Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) as victims of “intimidation.” ASA voted in December 2013 to endorse the BDS movement against Israel—an act of straightforward aggression against a nation that had done nothing to provoke or intimidate ASA.
The aggression by ASA is all the more striking because the field of American Studies has no obvious bearing on Israel’s relations with its Middle Eastern antagonists. Since “American Studies” concerns the peoples and cultures of the New World, how does ASA justify its foreign policy pronouncements? In the minds of its partisans spoiling for a fight with Israel, the reason was ASA’s “reflection on indigeneity and dispossession.”
Those words come from a 2013 statement by the editor of the ASA News, reflecting on ASA’s 2012 meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The full sentence refers to the “the location of the conference” as calling for “reflection on the course of US empire” and the “rich histories of resistance.” The United States has never had an empire or imperial ambitions, however. Its few ventures into colonialism (e.g., the Philippines and Puerto Rico) were limited, ambiguous, and domestically unpopular. The “histories of resistance” are themselves ambiguous: local support for a U.S. presence dwarfed the interest in seeing Americans sail home.
ASA, in other words, has a partisan view of American history, and its endorsement of the anti-Israeli BDS movement is of a piece with its disdain for the United States. “Indigeneity” refers to the people who originally lived somewhere. In this case, it is meant as a bridge between ASA’s interests in the native peoples of the New World and the Palestinians. Both are, in ASA’s scheme of things, “indigenous,” in a way in which European settlers in the New World and Jewish people in the Middle East are not.
“Indigeneity” is a slippery concept for anthropologists, however. People move. There are no truly indigenous human communities anywhere—although there are some very old ones, such as the descendants of the people who settled Australia about 40,000 years ago. The lengths of the leases held by descendants vary, but so do family trees. The Middle East on any time scale from the last 50,000 years to the last five days is a picture of tribes, cultures, and individuals staking claims, disputing borders, fleeing danger, and seeking refuge. Who counts as “indigenous” at any given moment is mostly a matter of self-assertion.
“Dispossession” is a no less contestable. It means to take away someone else’s land—which is the primary grievance of Palestinians against the Israelis. Dispossession in the eyes of ASA is bad—unless, of course, it is carried out by those who want to dispossess Israel.
In other words, the particular bridge that ASA built between the New World and the Middle East is constructed mostly out of thin air. Bad analogies don’t improve with repetition. The conflicts between Europeans and Native North Americans, with their own complicated history and cultural contours, have very little in common with the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians. But for those seeking a pretext for aggression, even a bad analogy is serviceable.
Middle East Studies swerves into domestic American discontents in other ways. There is no rational connection, for example, between discontents centered on the 2014 police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and demands for a Palestinian state. Yet in the words of Bassem Masri, an American of Palestinian ancestry who was active in the Ferguson protests, “The people of Palestine and Ferguson are reaching out to each other because they are fighting a common system of injustice, control, and racism.”
Some campus Middle East Studies programs are drawing the same picture. In February, the Center for Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at California State University-San Bernardino presented a conference, “From Ferguson to Palestine: Repression, Violence and Resistance.” The conference sought to “illustrate the ways in which minorities and indigenous people both undergo and resist repression,” and “to critique the dominant narratives about conflict and race relations.”
The parallel asserted at the San Bernardino conference is prominent at many protests and on radical blog sites. A set of photographs shows protestors marching across the Brooklyn Bridge behind signs, “From Ferguson to Gaza/Intifada/Intifada”; printed atop a Palestinian flag, “Ferguson and Palestine, Stop Apartheid”; and “We are FERGUSON, We are GAZA, because we are HUMAN.”
Elsewhere a split image blends pictures of police in Ferguson wearing heavy protective gear with Israeli soldiers carrying machine guns. In case the visual isn’t clear, the pictures are captioned “#FERGUSON” and “#GAZA” and festooned with a quotation from Ayatollah Khamenei, “The U.S. Government has subjugated a great country and nation with massive resources to a criminal regime like Israel.”
This comparison is the street-level expression of a theme that MESA and Middle East Studies Centers have been honing for years: violence in opposition to an oppressive regime is legitimate and welcome. Ferguson provided an opportunity to switch from “indigenous” Native Americans oppressed by colonizing Westerners, to indigenous African-Americans oppressed by white police, but it was a minor course correction.
Stanford professor of comparative literature David Palumbo-Liu took to the website Salon on August 22 to explain how Ferguson and Gaza “Are and Are Not Similar.” While endorsing the parallel between “the long and constantly replenished history of police assaults on black bodies, and the images of Israel’s murderous rampage in Gaza, an assault continuous with Israel’s history of oppression and persecution of an entire people,” Palumbo-Liu wants to keep this “congruence” from blurring the need for “different strategies and tactics in response.”
He never specifies those strategic and tactical differences. Perhaps he is considering that the Palestinians can plausibly dream of driving Israelis into the sea, but African-Americans aggrieved with the enforcement of laws by local police may have to accept less sanguinary justice. “Yet one should not discount the moral and indeed inspirational value of gestures that reach across those differences to claim solidarity.”
What starts in today’s Middle East Studies doesn’t stay in Middle East Studies. Its valorization of victimhood and liberating violence has strengthened deplorable trends elsewhere in American higher education. From the Brooklyn Bridge to the streets of Ferguson, it has aggravated growing urban unrest across the United States.
I am grateful to the Middle East Studies Forum for encouraging my research on this topic and sponsoring this essay.