A Tarnished Golden Anniversary

An academic golden anniversary should be celebrated with pride. Pride in past achievements; pride in the excellence of faculty; pride in the quality of their work. It is also the opportunity to reflect on possible shortcomings since critical self-evaluation is the best guarantor of future progress.

Of the many areas of research conducted by the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies, celebrating its golden anniversary this year, contemporary history -- and especially recent events in the Israeli-Arab conflict -- has been most controversial in the past few years.

Perusing a number of articles authored by faculty at the CNES, it is difficult to escape the obvious: there is hardly any instance where Israel is depicted favorably. We are constantly reminded of the "racist Zionist ideology," the "apartheid state of Israel," the "illegal occupation of Palestinian lands," the "brutal oppression of the Arab population" and many other similarly unconvincing statements. Is this the striking consensus of in-depth, impartial research-which all self-respecting academics should pursue-or is it rather what some enlightened French intellectuals would condemn as la pensée unique?

One may argue that the broad consensus reached by the CNES faculty on these issues corroborates the validity of the presented positions. But isn't the university's role to challenge received ideas even when they are wrapped in collective "expert" agreement? Could there be any Galileo emerging today in the CNES without being pilloried by the faculty?

There is, however, an unspoken consensus on a reality so striking that the most vituperative academics cannot dispute. The reality of Israel, a country that after sixty years of relentless attempts at its annihilation has seen its population grow tenfold; a country whose GNP per capita is comparable to Europe's; a country that enjoys a vibrant academic elite, an efficient judicial system, a rich diversity of respected ethnic and religious minorities; a country where peace demonstrators march by the tens of thousands and where dissent is allowed and encouraged; a democratic country that is governed by the rule of law; in a word, a country that stands in sharp contrast to its Arab neighbors who simmer in envy and resentment against what they disparagingly call the "Zionist entity."

But this reality never appears in the work produced by CNES faculty. An examination of the work of a small sample of this faculty, three representative CNES scholar-teachers, is quite telling with respect to the Center's anti-Israel bias.

Saree Makdisi, a professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA, for instance, would make us believe that "racism is, and has always been, at the heart of what Israel stands for as a state." He condones Palestinian Arabs suicide bombers and calls Israel "a fantasy of the Jews." The idea of a Jewish people entitled to have a sovereign nation in their own ancestral land is anathema to him, while he never questions either the national rights of those Arab countries created by the same mandatory process as Israel or the national aspirations of the Palestinian Arabs-a "people" of whom no one ever heard prior to the late 1960s. Such a blinkered vision of reality is unbecoming of a professor at a prestigious university.

James Gelvin, a full professor at UCLA's History department, who teaches a course in the history and origins of the Israeli-Arab conflict, signed a petition in 2002 calling for the University of California to sell its investments in all companies that do business in the state of Israel. Gelvin was only one of 165 University of California professors, including twelve at UCLA, who signed this infamous petition. It reads in part, "We, the undersigned are appalled by the human rights abuses against Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government, the continual military occupation and colonization of Palestinian territory by Israeli armed forces and settlers, and the forcible eviction from and demolition of Palestinian homes, towns and cities" (In reality, no "Palestinian towns and cities" have been demolished by Israel). Gelvin told the UCLA student newspaper The Daily Bruin that he had signed the petition because "(Israel) is a government that is now committing an invasion")  At the time, Israel was being subjected to a fierce Palestinian terrorist campaign that took over 400 lives in 2002 alone.

When in March 2004, UCLA's law school invited an Israeli diplomat and legal advisor to Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Alan Baker, to give a brief talk in the Faculty Room of UCLA's law school, Gelvin protested. He wrote to law school dean Norm Abrams that "Many of us in the UCLA community regard the Palestine question as one of the great moral issues of our time and the quest for Palestinian rights equivalent to the American civil rights struggle of the 1960s or the anti-apartheid struggle of the 1980s as a moral imperative. At a time when most of the international community has condemned the separation fence, particularly with respect to the suffering inflicted on over 700,000 residents of the West Bank, the illegal annexation of land by the Israeli government, and the Israeli government's attempt to impose a unilateral solution to a problem which our own government maintains can only be resolved through negotiations, feting an apologist for Israeli actions can only undermine the reputation of UCLA."  The murderous rampages of the Palestinian terrorists that have killed over a thousand Israelis since 2000, and which were the sole reason Israel was forced to build the fence, go unmentioned by Gelvin

How could a teacher with such strong prejudices be fair and objective when teaching a course about the history and origins of the Arab-Israel conflict? A number of his former students have complained in their evaluations of his course that Gelvin's teaching of the history of the conflict has not, in fact, been objective or fair. One student has described Gelvin as "not a historian but rather an advocate of the Palestinian cause." Another relates that Gelvin attempted to blame the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980's on Israel (in reality, Israel played no role whatsoever in this conflict). Still another recalled that Gelvin's only reference to "terrorism" in the course was to the activities of what he called the "Stern Gang" (whose actual name was Lehi, or "Fighters for the Freedom of Israel,"), an underground group that fought for Israel's independence from Britain prior to 1948. According to this student evaluator, when Gelvin was asked why he only discussed Israeli violence against Palestinians, he replied to the effect "that none of the Palestinian terrorism was on as grand a scale as the Stern Gang attack" (not true). 

Gabriel Piterberg , an  associate professor in  UCLA's History department, also signed the 2002 divestment petition. He justified his action by telling the UCLA student newspaper Daily Bruin" that Israel was the "principal culprit" in the conflict.  He claims that Israel was created by means of "ethnic cleansing," "massacres," "atrocities" and "rape" of the Palestinians" at its birth in 1948, even though many Palestinians, including Palestinian National Authority leader  Mahmoud Abbas,  have acknowledged that the primary responsibility for the displacement of Arabs during the 1948-49 war lies with Arab leaders and governments. Piterberg says his  "facts" about the founding of Israel are derived the writings of such Israeli "scholars" as Benny Morris and Meron Benvenisti, whose work has been shown to be hopelessly biased against Israel by the University of London professor Efraim Karsh, in his groundbreaking study "Fabricating Israel History: The New Historians. According to Piterberg, 150,000 Jewish "extremists"   living in Judea and Samaria must be expelled from their homes in order to create the Palestinian state he desires. The Daily Bruin writes that Piterberg "openly voices his anti-Israeli views,." and  "virulently [i.e., poisonously] opposes Israel's government. He is open with his message - going on the radio, appearing on local news and speaking out at campus rallies - that if the suicide bomber is a terrorist, then so is the Israeli pilot who attacks Palestinian civilians" (actually Israeli pilots go to great lengths to avoid harming civilians). According to the Bruin, Piterberg has placed on his office door "a poster of four or five Israeli officials dragging a young Palestinian through the streets with the caption ‘End the Occupation.' " When the Palestinian terrorist organizations launched a massive "Intifada" against Israel in September and October of 2000, killing several Israelis in cold blood, Piterberg's reaction was "the killing of Palestinians will continue." He characterizes the late Yasser Arafat as  "a 'founding father" figure' and ‘the person who brought back the Palestinian cause'  - certainly not the man who was responsible for the violence in Israel"(Bruin, January 11, 2005).

The extremes to which Piterberg carries his anti-Israel prejudice are revealed in "Erasures," a lengthy article that he published in the July-August issue of New Left Review:

"The best-known Zionist slogan, ‘a land without a people to a people without a land', expressed a twofold denial: of the historical experience both of the Jews
in exile, and of Palestine without Jewish sovereignty. Of course, since
the land was not literally empty, its recovery required the establishment
of the equivalent of a colonial hierarchy-sanctioned by Biblical authority-
of its historic custodians over such intruders as might remain
after the return. Jewish settlers were to be accorded exclusive privileges
deriving from the Pentateuch, and Palestinian Arabs treated as part
of the natural environment. In the macho Hebrew culture of modern
times, to know a woman, in the Biblical sense, and to know the land
became virtually interchangeable as terms of possession. The Zionist
settlers were collective subjects who acted, and the native Palestinians
became objects acted upon."
What utter balderdash! The phrase "a land without a people to a people without a land" was never a "Zionist slogan" and was never said (except to disagree with it) by any Zionist or Israeli leader. Rather it was a phrase used by three nineteenth Christian proponents of a Jewish return to the land of Israel, who wrote before the (Jewish) Zionist movement was even begun by Theodore Herzl (see Adam M. Garfinkle, "On the Origin, Meaning, Use and Abuse of a Phrase," Middle East Studies, October 1991, for a thorough debunking of the anti-Zionist myth of this supposed "slogan").  Nor did any Zionist or Israeli with any power or influence ever suggest that "Jewish settlers were to be accorded exclusive privileges deriving from the Penteteuch," or advocate "the establishment of the equivalent of a colonial hierarchy-sanctioned by Biblical authority." Most Zionist leaders were, are still are, secularists who opposed any fundamentalist reading of the Jewish Bible. But even religious Zionists, such as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazic chief rabbi of mandatory Palestine, opposed any discrimination against, or hostility to, Arabs. As for the claim that Zionists regarded women as objects of "possession" (an obvious play for feminist support of the anti-Israel cause), it has no historical or factual basis whatsoever.

Once again we must ask: how could an instructor with such an extreme pris partis for one side and against the other in a conflict possibly teach this subject to his students in a fair, balanced, and accurate way?

What is wrong with the CNES faculty, if not la pensée unique, a sclerotic ideological consensus that rejects factual truths when they run against the cherished "theories" to which the professors subscribe? What should be proscribed in academic circles seems to have turned into the norm in Near East Studies. This pensée unique has a name: it is called "Palestinianism"-a fig leaf that might be convenient for some to hide darker prejudices against anything Jewish or Zionist.

Is there anything to celebrate in this 50th anniversary? Surely, the CNES can celebrate consistency as the pre-Renaissance Church celebrated the immutability of its dogmatic teachings on science. But this time, the CNES will not have 350 years to finally acknowledge its error as did the church. Many of CNES graduate students will soon be aware of crucial Middle East facts they were never told and they will be incensed for having been subjected to this kind of sustained academic indoctrination. 

Thanks to John Landau and Salomon Benzimra for contributing to this article.