December 23, 2004

Battle lines drawn in Mideast studies depts.


When it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict, it seems, everything's a war.

With charges of anti-Israel bias and abuse roiling Columbia University, the positions on either side of the political divide quickly have hardened, leaving little room for middle ground or sober reflection on what, exactly, constitutes prejudice when it comes to the study of Israel.

This has happened not only at Columbia, many say, but at universities, in newspapers and, to some degree, in public debate across the United States.

Right wingers say academics and editorialists long ago decided that Israel is at fault in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, facts be damned. And left wingers say any criticism of Israeli government policies quickly is derided as anti-Semitism or silenced by groups labeling such talk as a call for Israel's destruction.

"The Middle East is an area of enormous ignorance in American public life, an area of great misinformation," said Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Arab Studies at Columbia. "People in essence are trying to shut down the flow of information about an important part of the world. This ignorance only reinforces the status quo."

Though spoken by a figure who has been labeled by some critics as a supporter of violence against Israeli soldiers, Khalidi's remarks could just as easily have been made by someone like Daniel Pipes, who stands squarely on the opposite end of the political divide when it comes to Israel and the Middle East.

Khalidi's remarks also point to why the battle over Middle East studies in university curricula has been so intense: Universities are one of the few places where ignorance about the Middle East actually can be addressed in a substantive, scholarly way.

That means that professors must be very careful about how they teach the subject, says Steven Spiegel, a professor of political science at UCLA.

"It's very hard to be purely neutral," he said. "It's the obligation of the university to provide a variety of perspectives."

UCLA, which not long ago suffered from some of the same criticisms now being directed at Columbia's Middle East studies department, has developed a "smorgasbord" of course offerings to ensure a more "balanced menu" on Middle East studies, Spiegel said. It has helped silence the critics, Spiegel suggested, and Columbia might do well to follow suit.

Stephen P. Cohen, a national scholar at the Israel Policy Forum who teaches courses at Pennsylvania's Lehigh University, said students who come to class with preconceived notions about the conflict-particularly if they are from parochial schools that emphasized study of Israel, as are many of the accusing students at Columbia-can be part of the problem.

"Kids who have gone to parochial schools have been systematically made unprepared for the variety of perspectives on this issue that is part of the public marketplace of ideas," Cohen said. "That, in fact, has been the purpose of many of these private schools: to impart not so much knowledge of the issue as an impenetrable template on which they understand everything they hear about the issue."

"A good teacher is going to be able to help the student walk from a rigid template that he brought to the course to a more complex perspective on the subject," Cohen said. "But a teacher who comes with his own rigid template is going to create a huge clash with that rigid template the student has brought, and it's not so much learning that's going to take place as a kind of eruption of emotions."

If there's one thing the two sides at Columbia can agree on, it's that the issue has become not only politically charged, but emotional.