Middle East Studies: a surreal weekend

By Vic Rosenthal

I attended the California State University Fresno [CSUF] “Conference on Middle East Studies” this weekend. I can only hit some high and low spots. Where to begin?

With the good parts: One of the first papers presented was by Neda Maghbouleh, a Ph.D student at UC Santa Barbara, about the effect of Iranian popular music of the  ’70’s and ’80’s on first and second generation Iranian-Americans. It was like discovering a parallel universe, inhabited by Googoosh, among others. Ms. Maghbouleh obviously enjoyed her research a great deal and showed it.

There were a few other bright spots, like when Mary Husain, who was pilloried here (“Scholarship or Rubbish?“) for publishing a striking example of postmodernist academic boondoggling at its worst, actually mentioned this site as an example of “The post-9/11 Assault on Higher Education and Academic Freedom”! “I don’t even know who these people are”, she wailed.

Ms. Husain, please know that 1) I chose to focus “Scholarship or Rubbish?” on you rather than your co-author because you are a member of the CSUF Middle East Studies Program [MESP] and he is not, and not because of your Muslim-sounding name; 2) I chose to write about you rather than a non-Muslim member of your department because of the availability and staggering badness of your published article; and 3) I fail to see how my critique limits academic freedom. I am however, guilty as charged of “stealing” your photo from the CSUF academic website.

From here on, though, things went rapidly downhill. My original fear that the MESP would become a platform for anti-Israel political agitation because the initiators, Dr. Vida Samiian and Dr. Sasan Fayazmanesh have expressed extreme anti-Israel positions in the past, appears to have been justified.

Dr. Lawrence Davidson of West Chester University (Pennsylvania) presented two papers. The first, on “forced migration” of Palestinians was a 20-minute polemical recitation of charges against Israel, including “purposeful impovershment” of the Palestinians, “equivalent to genocide” by such means as the “apartheid wall” because “Israel covets Palestinian land”. The Palestinians live in constant insecurity, Davidson said, from incursions, air attacks, etc. Israel claims that this is in self-defense, but in fact “over the past 60 years Israeli policy has been motivated by racism”, a desire to have all the land “Palestinian-rien”.

Davidson presented ‘facts’ and figures more rapidly than I could write, but I would be interested in knowing how he documents such highly dubious statements as “Israel expropriated 50% of the land in the West Bank” and “40% of Israelis favor ‘transfer’ of Palestinians”. This was anything but a scholarly paper; it was at best a political speech, and at worst — incitement of hatred.

Davidson gave an interesting answer when asked how he could discuss all of the above without even mentioning Palestinian terrorism, or decisions such as the rejection of partition, etc.  Israel is the dominant power, he said, and therefore controls everything that happens. The Palestinians are by definition powerless, so their ‘resistance’ is simply a reaction to Israeli oppression. Hence, surprisingly enough, violent actions on both sides are Israel’s fault. This argument needs no further refutation!

He was also asked how he could leave out of the equation the historical backing of extremists by the Arab nations, and, recently, the Iranian proxy war against Israel being prosecuted by Hamas and Hezbollah.  He responded that Israel was offensively powerful enough to counter any imaginable military threat — ignoring tiny Israel’s unique home-front vulnerability. He further suggested that Israel should simply ‘take a chance’ and agree to the Saudi initiative — which I think I have shown is equivalent to national suicide for the Jewish state.

Davidson presented a second paper, this one on teaching about the Middle East. He believes that students arrive with an anti-Muslim and pro-Israel orientation which is created by overwhelming bias in the American media. I suppose he has had students who only watch Fox News, but I hardly think that NPR, CNN, the NY Times, Reuters, the AP, Pacifica Radio, etc. can be called pro-Zionist!

Nevertheless, he faces the problem of how to break down the students’ ’emotional’ cleavage to Zionism and get them to understand the Palestinian viewpoint.  One of his most effective techniques is to have the students read various sources, including pro-Palestinian material written by Israelis — he even mentioned renegade Israeli academic Ilan Pappé as a good choice! He also likes the early Benny Morris — with its doctored quotations from Ben-Gurion and other Zionists.

The class then takes the form of a discussion, in which he presents his own position, all the while reassuring the students that disagreement will not affect their grades. Some students have difficulty overwhelming their ’emotional’ attachment to Zionism, and those, he admits, often drop his class. The possibility that there might be a student who — though employing logical thinking and careful research — might nevertheless fail to agree with him was not mentioned.

Davidson was less a scholar than a polemicist and less a teacher than an indoctrinator. I can’t imagine that such a person could have held an academic position when I was in school, but I suppose that was a long time ago.

One of the sessions that I most looked forward to was one on “What the future has in store?” This was to be, unfortunately, my last, as you will see.

Dr. Eric Hooglund blamed Israel and settlements for everything. Why bother to repeat it yet again? He also did not mention terrorism or Hamas, but he claimed that the failure of Camp David, the Roadmap and the Annapolis negotiations to lead to peace were all because of Israel insistence on expanding settlements and building new ones.

He also said that friends and former students of his in the US State Department felt that US policy would change significantly — I understood him to mean in the direction of the Palestinians — if Barack Obama is elected.

Dr. Sasan Fayazmanesh spoke about American policy toward Iran, as determined by the power relationships between various groups in the US administration (and the administration to come). At one point I actually began to empathize with him. After all, he thinks that American policy is to wage war against his homeland — if not by armies, then by economics; and I think that American policy may lead to the destruction of Israel by its enemies. We both see little difference between the parties in this respect.

However, all good things come to an end. In this case someone asked a question about Ahmadinejad’s famous remark that is often translated “Israel will be wiped off the face of the earth”.  Fayazmanesh said that the translation was incorrect — a not unreasonable point, although it is quite clear from Ahmadinejad’s support of Hezbollah and Hamas, his financing of the Syrian missile buildup, etc., that he is at least aiming for what might be called ‘regime change’ in Israel, from Jews to Arabs.

“You see, he said, Ahmadinejad is not anti-Semitic.” And he displayed a Powerpoint presentation entitled “Ahmadinijad: is he an anti-Semite?”

The first slide showed the Iranian President sitting down at a table — perhaps at the notorious Holocaust denial conference of 2006 — with representatives of a radical Neturei Karta faction, a tiny sect — possibly less than one hundred members — of the favorite Jews of every anti-Semite, previously paid to perform by Yasser Arafat and now most likely by Ahmadinejad.

“You see,” said Fayazmanesh, “he cannot be an anti-Semite. These are Jews. They are his friends.”

All of us have character weaknesses and one of mine is that the level of crap that sets me off is not all that high. I stood up, and said quite loudly, and maybe without making enough sense: what about the Holocaust denial conference? What about the Holocaust denial conference? Then either I walked out, was asked to leave, or both. Really, it was the cumulative effect of some of the other speakers — particularly, but not exclusively, Davidson — with the surrealism provided by Neturei Karta taken seriously that did me in.

Several times an Israeli participant in the conference asked something like “Look, this is supposed to be an academic meeting, why is only one point of view presented?” The response from one moderator was that constant discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was — his word — “tedious”.  Apparently anti-Israel rants by Lawrence Davidson, Eric Hooglund and others were not “tedious” — only attempts to respond from the audience were.

Update [23 Oct. 1509 PDT]: Upon rereading my notes, I realize that I had wrongly attributed the statement about the State Department sources saying that Obama would lead to ‘big changes’ to Sasan Fayazmanesh. It was actually made by Eric Hooglund.

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2 Responses to “Middle East Studies: a surreal weekend”

  1. Shalom Freedman says:

    I commend Vic Rosenthal for his courage in standing alone against the ignorant army of bigoted Israel haters. It is very difficult to speak truth when one is alone in doing so.
    I think he is right when he points to a decline in academic standards, certainly in departments of Middle Eastern studies. The propagandists whose work Rosenthal cites do not even deserve the title ‘hacks’.
    The one disturbing note for me in all this is the one lecturer reporting that his friends tell him with Obama it will be different. This in fact does worry me especially as I see who Obama’s foreign policy people are likely to be. On the other hand I saw a report in Debka file which said that he will be reluctant to enter into Israel- Arab negotiations knowing how much time and presitge it cost Clinton and even the Bush Administration. My own concern is also that an Administration may come into being in Israel which will take unilateral withdrawal actions in order to please the Americans.
    One more small point. I cannot help feeling these academic distorters of Israel’s position and history are motivated more by anti- Semitism than by anything else.

  2. Vic Rosenthal says:

    I ended up quite depressed after the weekend. I doubt that my outburst had any positive effect, and I could even describe it as ‘making a fool of myself’. The audience was — with a handful of exceptions, most of whom were Israelis — almost 100% in line with the speakers.

    Davidson was frightening in his single-minded hatred and cynical use of any (rhetorical) means necessary to recruit for his cause. As I said, I started out almost sympathetic to Fayazmanesh, who really is worried about the fate of Iran.

    As far as Obama is concerned, there is little evidence of understanding the situation in either political camp. Obama’s choice of advisors hasn’t been encouraging, although Dennis Ross is a slight improvement over Rob Malley.

    If Obama wins, one hopes that like JFK he will begin to understand that at some point he has to ignore the ‘experts’ and analyze situations for himself. He seems to be smart enough to see through the lies that pass for wisdom in academic circles.