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UCLA's Politicized Middle East Studies Professors

by Cinnamon Stillwell [political columnist] 11/14/07

Earlier this year, the Center for Near Eastern Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. It was founded in 1957 by Gustave E. Von Grunebaum, a scholar at the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute and the first president of the Middle East Studies Association. Grunebaum sought to establish at UCLA a groundbreaking Middle East and Islamic Studies program featuring an array of experts in languages, culture, and history.

Unfortunately, the best-known UCLA professors specializing in the region today, far from embodying the classical approach to the discipline in which knowledge is the overriding goal, exemplify the highly politicized world of modern Middle East studies. Ignoring the vast majority of the region and myriad pressing issues, including terrorism, the need for religious reform, women's rights, resistance to modernity, and the prevalence of tyranny, this cadre of Middle East studies professors is fixated instead on post-colonialism, the Arab/Israeli conflict, U.S. foreign policy, and shielding themselves from outside criticism. As pointed out by journalist Rachel Neuwirth, what passes for education at UCLA's Center for Near Eastern studies is, all too often, "sustained academic indoctrination."


Cinnamon Stillwell is a columnist for SFGate.com, the online arm of the San Francisco Chronicle and the Northern California Representative for Campus Watch. She can be reached at stillwell@meforum.org. Her website is CinnamonStillwell.com and her blog is at http://www.cinnamonstillwell.blogspot.com [go to Stillwell CRO Index]


No professor better exemplifies this politicized approach than historian Gabriel Piterberg. A devoted disciple of Orientalism author Edward Said, Piterberg's course on the subject, "The Last Conscious Pariah: The Life and Work of Edward Said," features the sort of post-colonialist jargon of which his hero would have been proud. In the section titled, "Culture, Imperialism and Resistance," readings include post-colonialist Franz Fanon, Michel Foucault, the grandfather of today's brand of academic moral relativism, and Antonio Gramsci, the Italian communist theoretician who devised a series of strategies to subvert Western democratic societies from within – a process some would argue is well underway in academia.

As did Said, Piterberg takes a relentlessly anti-American and anti-Israel stance, with which he buttresses his career of political activism. He appears regularly at anti-war protests and teach-ins organized by various leftist groups and the Islamist Muslim Student Association, and is a signatory to a 2002 petition urging the University of California to divest from Israel. On one occasion, he even canceled a class to attend a student-led anti-war protest.

In the Arab/Israeli conflict, Piterberg blames Israel exclusively, and romanticizes the Palestinian "resistance." He distorts the conflict's history by employing terms such as "ethnic cleansing" and "atrocities" to describe Israel's founding in 1948. Born in Argentina, Piterberg was raised in Israel and fought with the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) against the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) in southern Lebanon in the early 1980s. Nevertheless, he later charged that the campaign was not "necessary for national defense."

Following academic fashion, Piterberg opposes a two-state solution to the Arab/Israeli conflict, and favors instead the formation of a single bi-national state, despite a paucity of evidence that such a proposal is either tenable, humanitarian, or favored by a majority of Israeli citizens. He has made clear his hostility towards Israel's Jewish foundations, most notably at a speak-out held by the Muslim Student Association in 2000, when he stated, "You can't have a Palestinian state with its own rights, when you have 150,000 Jewish extremists sitting in the middle."

In April, Piterberg spoke at a UCLA conference titled, "Covering Lebanon: Media and the 2006 War," which came to the preposterous conclusion that Western media coverage of the conflict was biased in favor of Israel. He fit in perfectly with the roster of one-sided participants.

Piterburg is fond of portraying himself as a victim of discrimination for his political views. In 2003, he blamed Campus Watch for an inadvertent error made by UCLA's Center for Jewish Studies that omitted his history seminar, "Myths, Politics, and Scholarship in Israel," from a list of Israel-related courses. At the time Piterberg made this claim to the Daily Bruin, Campus Watch had yet to feature any material on Piterberg, a fact that was parodied by Middle East scholar Martin Kramer. Subscribing to the belief, common among Middle East studies professors, that criticism equals censorship, Piterberg stated, "There is an atmosphere since Sept. 11 (2001), there's an attempt to silence views that are not palatable to certain other views." No doubt Piterberg will chalk up this very article to the "attempt to silence" his views, even as he continues to enjoy a prominent platform from which to express them.

Piterberg's colleague Sondra Hale, UCLA professor of anthropology and co-editor of the Journal of Middle East Women's Studies, also spoke at the "Covering Lebanon" conference. Hale was one of the signatories to a 2002 open letter warning that Israel would use the Iraq war to perpetrate "ethnic cleansing" against the Palestinians. In addition, she was a scheduled participant in the canceled American Association of University Professors (AAUP) conference on academic boycotts (focusing solely on Israel).

In January 2007, Hale helped organize a two-day workshop co-sponsored by UCLA's Center for Near Eastern Studies and the Center for the Study of Women titled, "Linking Middle East and Arab American Gender Studies." Antioch University liberal studies professor and Association of Middle East Women's Studies president Nada Elia participated. Last month, Elia was as a panelist at a UC Berkeley screening of the Palestinian terrorist-glorifying documentary, Leila Khaled: Hijacker. The event came under the dubious title, "Women, Resistance, and Political Participation." Apparently, equal opportunity for female terrorists is a pressing "feminist" issue these days. If these are the sorts of associations Sondra Hale and UCLA's Center for Near Eastern Studies are cultivating, a panelist celebrating Osama bin Laden isn't far off.

Next we come to Saree Makdisi, a UCLA professor of English with a focus, as described in his bio, on "British literature and imperial culture." But it's his interest in "the cultural politics of the contemporary Arab world" that has proven to be problematic. Makdisi reaches a broad, non-academic audience by publishing regularly in the Los Angeles Times, the London Review of Books, and the Nation.

Makdisi is Edward Said's nephew, and anti-Israel politics seem to run in the family. His biases on the Israeli/Arab conflict are clear in the title of his forthcoming book, Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation. Makdisi rarely lets truth stand in the way of effective propaganda: Middle East scholar Martin Kramer labeled Makdisi an "anti-Israel agitator," and noted his fantastical claim that Israel has "actualized all the logics, apparatuses, discourses, and practices associated with the worst, the ugliest, the most violent and draconian forms of European racism."

Writing at his blog earlier this year, Makdisi condemned the requirement that Palestinians simply recognize Israel's right to exist. As he put it, "[Israel's] demand that its 'right to exist' be recognized reflects its own anxiety, not about its existence but about its failure to successfully eliminate the Palestinians' presence inside their homeland — a failure for which verbal recognition would serve merely a palliative and therapeutic function." With "peacemakers" like Makdisi, who needs war?

Makdisi is equally preoccupied with critics of Middle East studies, a field long unused to the rigors of accountability. In a 2006 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times titled, "Neocons Lay Siege to the Ivory Towers," Makdisi accuses his imagined arch nemesis Martin Kramer, along with Middle East Forum director Daniel Pipes, of being members of "pressure groups" who are also "failed academics driven by crassly political motivations" – charges easily dismissed by a cursory glance at either man's C.V.

Makdisi was a signatory to a 2002 letter addressed to the Chicago Maroon, the student newspaper at the University of Chicago, objecting to "irresponsible allegations of anti-Semitism and 'abuse of power' against faculty of the University" allegedly made by Campus Watch and other organizations against then-Chicago (now-Columbia) Arab studies professor Rashid Khalidi and various Middle East studies professors. The letter objected most strenuously to the rise in student complaints, calling them "a perversion of the classroom." Students having a say in their education would seem to constitute one of the foundations of higher education, not a perversion of the classroom. But not, it seems, for Makdisi and his cohorts.

In another example of Ivory Tower-driven paranoia, Makdisi declared in the Seattle Post Intelligencer earlier this month that "academic freedom [is] at risk on campus" by none other than "Israel's American supporters." In his op-ed, Makdisi decried the "outside interference" of scholars such Martin Kramer and organizations such as Stand With Us, the David Project, the Israel on Campus Coalition, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, and, of course, Campus Watch, for somehow "severely disrupt[ing] academic processes." It seems that academic freedom is a one-way street for self-described "champions of freedom" such as Makdisi – and a dead-end one at that.

UCLA Near East history professor James Gelvin, another signatory to the 2002 University of California divestment petition directed at Israel, presents challenges of his own. His students have taken note, describing him, in one case, as "more of an advocate for the Palestinian cause" than a historian. In response to rising criticism, especially that perceived as emanating from Campus Watch, Gelvin told the Daily Bruin, "What really irks those guys is that I don't use my classroom for political purposes, and thus my lectures don't advance their political agenda." Would that Gelvin's claim were true, for it is certainly not the agenda of Campus Watch to further the politicization of the field of Middle East studies, but, rather, the opposite.

Gelvin implies that U.S. foreign policy was to blame for the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and, in a larger sense, the rise of Islamism. Accordingly, in a course titled, "The History of the Near and Middle East," Gelvin assigns students the book, Islam in Transition: Muslim Perspectives, which is co-edited by Georgetown Islamic studies professor John Esposito. Esposito is a celebrated recipient of Saudi financial largesse at Georgetown University and, perhaps not coincidentally, one of the prime apologists for Islamism in the field of Middle East studies. One reading assignment from the book is Sayyid Muhammad Husaid Fadlallah's, "We Must Think Before We Act; September 11 Was a Gift to the U.S. Administration," whose title alone suggests a decidedly subjective view of the matter. Similarly, Gelvin's subtitle under a discussion section on the war on terrorism for the same course is, "The Mess That We're In." To be fair, Gelvin's course readings include offerings from all sides of the political spectrum, not to mention the oft-ignored words of al-Qaeda leaders, but one wonders in what context it's being presented?

Gelvin's role as the organizer of a conference to be held at UCLA's Center for Near Eastern Studies this month titled, "Jihadi Islam Conference/Workshop," would seem to answer this question. While the conference's subject matter is laudable, especially in light of the dearth of attention paid to terrorism in the field of Middle East studies, its conclusions may prove debatable. According to Gelvin's description, the conference seeks to "propose alternative approaches" to the "underlying assumption of Islamic or Middle Eastern exceptionalism." Appearing on a panel alongside UC Irvine professor Mark LeVine, whose own forays into delusion are well-known (he once declared, "It is time for the United States to declare a truce with the Muslim world, and radical Islam in particular,") Gelvin will provide what he calls "A Historian's Reply to Terrorology." Applying the lessons of history to the present is praiseworthy, but doing so while ignoring the specific nature of today's threats is little more than willful blindness.

Between the politicized polemics, the blatant biases, and the naïve approach to foreign policy proffered by UCLA's Middle East studies professors, there is certainly room for improvement at the Center for Near Eastern studies. This is isn't to say that no professors are rising to the occasion, but those in the public eye are conveying a consistently biased impression that is fostering distrust in Middle East studies at UCLA. One might question whether the Center for Near Eastern studies' fiftieth anniversary is a cause for celebration, or an opportunity to reexamine its future course.

One thing's for sure, Gustave Von Grunebaum must be turning in his grave. CRO

first appeared at FrontPage Magazine

copyright 2007 Cinnamon Stillwell





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