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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Columbia's Center for Palestine Studies - Politics masked as academia

An illuminating article in The New Republic looks at the new Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia, and finds that it is not what it is supposed to be:

Given the highly sensitive subject matter of this dialogue, the CPS faces an important choice. It can host academics interested in serious Palestine-related scholarship, or it can advance political interests under the guise of Palestine studies. Should it move in the latter direction, it could make the boundary between politics and scholarship more meaningless than ever. And there are already troubling signs that this is exactly what is happening.

To be sure, the Center represents a crucial development in a nascent field. “Very simply, there’s never been a dedicated space … for this kind of research,”says CPS co-director and anthropologist Brinkley Messick. Rashid Khalidi,the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia and fellow CPS co-director, hopes that the Center will help broaden a “tiny, narrow, not well-established” field by building an archive, hosting events, and awarding doctoral fellowships to Palestinian scholars. By pursuing these admirable goals, the CPS has the potential to cast new light on the Palestinian people, who are too often only known within the context of their relationship with Israel. And the leaders of the Center are aware that they must ensure that the Center’s activities fall within a scholarly mandate. “The last thing you want is a Middle East Institute or a center for Israel or Palestine that isn’t within the university mission,” Khalidi says. “We’d avoid doing is anything that’s directly related to any political activism.”

But there are signs that politics have already infiltrated the CPS. Take, for example, the fact that Joseph Massad (the professor accused of bullying students in 2004) is associated with the center. Massad’s body of work is a postmodern mash-up of high-minded critical theory and base innuendo. His book Desiring Arabs theorizes that homosexuality is a western construct that imperial powers imposed upon the Middle East and that a “gay international” cabal (consisting of groups like Amnesty International and the Human Rights Campaign) uses the rhetoric of minority rights to unfairly vilify Muslim regimes.

More troubling than this vilification of human rights organizations is that much of Massad’s work is overtly political—exactly the type of scholarship that the CPS purportedly intends to avoid.

...[U]naccompanied by a dedication to real expertise, the CPS will be little more than a clique of like-minded academics whose defining commonality is hostility toward Israel. In its current form, it’s likely that the first Palestine Center at an American university will lead the way not in “a new era of civility,” but, rather, in politicizing Middle East studies further than ever before.
...[Legal scholar Katherine] Franke’s own work reveals the perils of such uncertainty in mission. She told us that she focuses on “gender and sexuality and how the rights of LGBT people in Israel are being used to punish Israel’s Arab neighbors.” For her, one of Israel’s greatest accomplishments (the creation of one of the most tolerant societies in the Middle East) is linked to the country’s ceaseless persecution of Palestinian Arabs. The association of Mahmood Mamdani—the former directorof Columbia’s Institute of African Studies—with the CPS further illustrates the dangers of mission-creep. Mamdani justifies his involvement by pointing to a conference he helped to organize titled “Post-Apartheid Reflections on Israel and Palestine,” which taught him “how a thematic focus [on Palestine] could bring African scholars … into the mainstream of intellectual discussions.” Mamdani associates with Palestine studies, it seems, to increase the profile of his primary field. Moreover, he has used his background as an Africanist to attack Israel. In a 2002 speech at a pro-divestment teach-in, Mamdani argued that Israel was an apartheid state and a settler-colonial enterprise comparable to Liberia.
Both Franke and Mamdani use hostility toward Israel as a jumping-off point for specific academic inquiries—issues of sexual identity politics for Franke and comparative colonialism for Mamdani. Their involvement with the CPS helps elevate this reductive and opportunistic treatment of Israel and Palestine to the cutting-edge of a new academic field, turning the CPS into a platform for niche interests that, together, share an anti-Israel agenda.
I am more skeptical than the authors are about the chances that the CPS could ever be anything but political and anti-Israel. The authors say that "the Palestinian people... are too often only known within the context of their relationship with Israel" - but this is how they define themselves to begin with! The very history of the Palestinian Arabs, as such, cannot be said to have started before the era of modern Zionism. They were never a cohesive people after the Arab nations collectively decided to treat them as such for their own political purposes. They never defined their "ancient homeland" in terms outside of whatever lands Jews have political control over.

Yes, there were costumes sewn in Bethlehem and soap made in Nablus but there was, simply, no specifically"Palestinian" Arab culture before the 20th century. Any institute that attempts to be a center for Palestine studies cannot avoid these facts - either it has to make up a new, older culture and history or it needs to start this "history" in terms of Zionism. Either way, it becomes an inherently political institution.

(h/t Jordan Hirsch, one of the authors.)