Bonfire of the Vulgarians: Middle East Studies in Decline

Earlier this year, a firestorm erupted when Connecticut College philosophy professor Andrew Pessin’s 2014 Facebook comments, in which he compared Hamas in Gaza to a “wild pit bull . . . chained in a cage, regularly making mass efforts to escape,” were deemed “racist” and “dehumanizing” by student activists, colleagues, and administrators alike. Meanwhile, Middle East studies academics regularly emit commentary that is unambiguous in its bigotry, tastelessness, and vulgarity, to nary a peep. Not coincidentally, the vitriol is directed at targets academe finds politically unpopular: Israel, pro-Israel Jews, and anti-Islamists.

A glaring example occurred in late 2014, when UC Irvine history professor Mark LeVine posted an expletive-laden, unhinged rant on Facebook calling for the destruction of Israel:

F— you. Call me uncivil, but still, f— you. F— all of you who want to make arguments about civility and how Israel wants peace. . . . There is only one criticism of Israel that is relevant: It is a state grown, funded, and feeding off the destruction of another people. It is not legitimate. It must be dismantled, the same way that the other racist, psychopathic states across the region must be dismantled.

In this age of selective campus hypersensitivity, it’s difficult to imagine correspondingly genocidal language being directed at any other country. Given that he’s the author of Heavy Metal Islam, LeVine’s juvenile language might be chalked up to his rock ‘n’ roll persona, but it is hardly befitting the temperament of a scholar.

University of California, Riverside (UCR) creative writing professor Reza Aslan displays a similar penchant for profanity. During an April lecture at UCR, Aslan, responding to the obviously true statement that it’s erroneous to accuse “anyone who criticizes Islam of being Islamophobic,” retorted: “That’s bulls—!”

Aslan displays the same wit on Twitter, where he’s hurled epithets at political opponents, such as “f—ing idiot” and “f—ing liar,” while asking, “Are you f—ing joking?” and concluding, “Shut the f— up!” When asked on a May, 2014 Reddit thread what he would do if “stuck on an island” with American Freedom Defense Initiative founder Pamela Geller, Aslan, alluding to the ugly term “hate sex,” answered, “I guess it’s time to make some hate babies, Pam.”

Yet the poster child for vitriolic, profanity-laden social media outbursts is Steven Salaita, the former Virginia Tech professor who is suing the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and unnamed donors after his offer of a tenured professorship in American Indian studies was withdrawn due to his hateful, anti-Semitic tweets.

A sampling includes such gems as, “I wish all the f—ing West Bank settlers would go missing”; “The @IDFSpokesperson is a lying motherf—er”; “Israel’s message to Obama and Kerry: we’ll kill as many Palestinians as we want, when we want. p.s.: f— you, pay me”; “By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say antisemitic sh— in response to Israeli terror”; and “If Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?”

While Salaita’s is one of the few cases of boorishness that resulted in consequences, the fact that so many of his peers rushed to his defense, going so far as to boycott UIUC, reveals the level of discourse that these “scholarly” organizations and individuals find acceptable. No doubt, Salaita’s targeting of Israel inspired their protectiveness. 

Georgetown University history professor Abdullah Al-Arian got into the act in 2014 by drawing a crude comparison between Israel and the Islamic State (ISIS) on Twitter:

Israel and ISIS sitting in a tree, K-I-L-L-I-N-G, First come the bombs, then come the savages, then come the U.N. to survey the damages.

California State University, Stanislaus political science professor As'ad AbuKhalil combines crudeness with a lust for violence. Happily anticipating Israel’s destruction, AbuKhalil wrote in 2012:

I have often fantasized about my feelings as I board the plane to Palestine after the demise of Israel. How I would relish looking at all Israeli terrorist leaders behind bars. Hell, I would volunteer to serve as judge, jury, and guardsman.

Speaking at the University of California, Berkeley in 2011, AbuKhalil reveled in the attacks on Israeli embassies in Egypt and throughout the region during the “Arab Spring”:

I am in favor of chaos because I’m really enjoying what’s happening in Egypt, especially what’s happening against Israel. I’ve played these scenes on YouTube more times than I’ve played songs.

That such statements are accepted as scholarship demonstrates the decadence of contemporary academic culture.    

Descending into outright bigotry towards Israelis and Jews, In 2014, University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole decried the “undemocratic and cult-like” behavior of “Zionist organizations” and “Jewish nationalists . . .  who misuse their public position[s] . . . to protect Israel from criticism or to punish its critics.”

In 2004, Columbia University Iranian studies professor Hamid Dabashi, echoing classic anti-Semitism, said of “Israeli Jews,” “the way they talk, walk, the way they greet each other, there is a vulgarity of character that is bone deep and structural to the skeletal vertebrae of its culture.” Engaging in Holocaust inversion, Dabashi proclaimed in 2014 that, “From now on, every time any Israeli, every time any Jew, anywhere in the world, utters the word ‘Auschwitz,’ or the word ‘Holocaust,’ the world will hear ‘Gaza.’"

Not to be outdone, Joseph Massad, professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, in 2009, compared what he called the “Gaza Ghetto Uprising” to the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and, in 2014, described Israel as “the European Jewish-supremacist settler-colony” and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) as “international Zionist Jewish brigades of baby-killers.”

That such intellectual vulgarians fill the ranks of Middle East studies and educate students and the public on the intricacies of the region is a disgrace. The preponderance of these voices reflects the decline in academic discourse and the general coarsening of scholarship, a degeneration that shows no sign of abating. How much worse can it get? Sadly, we’re likely to find out.

Cinnamon Stillwell is the West Coast Representative for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum. She can be reached at

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