Thursday, April 07, 2005


Pushing the Center

There is an article by Richard Asniof of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency about the opening of the new Middle East studies center at Brandeis that is very revealing about where pro-Israel lobbies/advocates are trying to push academia. The article is very praising of the Brandeis center for its "non-partisan" approach, an image that the center itself is trying its best to push forward. However, the reporter, Asinof, is very uncritical in accepting this at face value. He writes:
With its inaugural conference April 4-5, Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle East Studies will launch its quest to create a first-rate center of Middle East scholarship that avoids polemics, eschews advocacy and disavows political agendas.
However, its director, Shai Feldman, expresses (if one reads what he actually says) that there is going to be a very clear political agenda at the center:
“The center will seek to produce a discourse on the Middle East as dispassionate, objective and centrist as possible,” Feldman told JTA in a recent interview. [emphasis is mine]
It's clear that the unspoken message here is that there is going to be a conscious attempt to steer clear of any leftists (since that is the prevailing criticism of academia, especially Middle East studies). "Leftists need not apply." And as for the "centrist" nature of Brandeis, let's take a look at where that "center" is going to fall, shall we.
The inaugural conference will feature the kind of “open, high-level discussion and debate” among scholars that Feldman advocates.

One session, “Israel’s Disengagement Plan: The Internal Debate,” features Israel Harel, a former chairman of the Yesha council of Israeli settlers.

The next session, “Palestinian-Israeli Relations: The Next Steps,” features Yair Hirschfeld, one of the principal architects of the Oslo accords and a professor of Middle Eastern history at the University of Haifa.

As Feldman notes, Harel and Hirschfeld “agree about absolutely nothing.” But, he argues, “we should not be afraid to have students exposed to people with different ways of thinking, competing approaches and competing narratives.”
So here we have the two extremes presented: on the one hand, the extreme-right Israeli settler movement; on the other, an Israeli architect of Oslo. Thus, one might imagine, the "center" falls somewhere in between. Which would be, oh I don't know, right about where Ariel Sharon stands now.

It seems to me that this effort to re-define Middle East studies is going to backfire. Have the allegedly liberal non-centrist Middle East study programs been particularly effective in altering the course of Israeli politics? I can't see it. But let's suppose that the Horowitzian agenda is fulfilled. Then, I think, more and more people outside of the academy will begin to feel that the 'centrism' proposed by these folks is really quite quite radically reactionary.

This isn't an argument to be passive or accepting about Brandeis or Horowitz. Or Columbia, for that matter. I think we must keep speaking out clearly against that sort of anti-intellectual, anti-progressive mindset. But I also think that these folks are very seriously misunderstanding the attitudes of Mr. and Mrs. Front Porch on the question of Israel and American support of Israel.
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