The decline of Palestine studies

Middle East Studies AssociationThis weekend, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is meeting in its annual conference in Boston, on the organization’s fiftieth anniversary. It was also exactly thirty years ago, at a Boston MESA conference, that Edward Said debated Bernard Lewis. This was the last substantive debate about the state of the field at a MESA conference—that is, a debate with two clearly opposing sides. The bearers of the tradition of scholarship represented by Lewis (and Fouad Ajami) subsequently seceded from MESA. Some of them eventually found a home in an alternative association of Middle Eastern studies, known as ASMEA—the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa. On October 28, I delivered the keynote address at its annual conference in Washington, on the state of Middle Eastern studies. (Watch it here, or read a transcript here.)

One of the points I made in my keynote was that the study of the Palestinians in American academe seemed to me to be in decline, at least quantitatively. I’ve since gone back to collect some data. Specifically, I’ve looked at the last program of a MESA conference convened in Boston (it was in 2009), and compared it to this year’s (2016) program. Why Boston? It’s a popular venue for MESA conferences, and it usually draws a larger number of participants than, say, Denver or New Orleans. The sample is correspondingly large. My interest is in the geographic skew of American scholarly interest across the Middle East. So I’ve looked for the names of countries in the titles of papers, a data field that provides a rough measure of what’s up and what’s down in Middle Eastern studies. (The MESA website also categorizes papers by geographic area, but I’m not certain about the criteria used, so I don’t rely on it. Still, I ran those numbers too, and the results were very similar.)

Below are the totals. After the name of each country, you’ll find the number of papers delivered at the 2009 conference, followed (after the slash) by the number of papers to be delivered at the 2016 conference. In the first set of parentheses is the absolute increase or decrease in numbers of papers between 2009 and 2016. In the second set of parentheses is the increase or decrease in percentages from 2009 to 2016. I’ve ordered the countries according to the percentage of increase/decrease. In 2009, there were 850 papers presented at MESA, and this year, 1,012, so you’d expect an average increase for each country of 19%. Anything below that points to underperformance of a country in inspiring new research. (I’m excluding the countries where the number of papers this year falls below twenty.)

Tunisia: 9/45 (+36) (400%)
Syria: 23/55 (+32) (140%)
Egypt: 48/83 (+35) (73%)
Lebanon: 31/38 (+7) (23%)
Iran: 43/50 (+9) (16%)
Turkey: 79/89 (+10) (13%)
Kurds: 27/26 (-1) (-4%)
Palestine/Gaza/West Bank: 56/48 (-8) (-14%)
Iraq: 31/22 (-9) (-29%)
Israel: 32/22 (-31%)

This is a very rough measure, and paper titles don’t capture everything. But the trend is obvious. The dramatic growth since 2009, which was before the “Arab Spring,” resides in researching the “Arab Spring” and its effects. (It would be even more obvious if I’d included the smaller clusters. Papers on Bahrain went from zero to eight; on Libya, from one to thirteen.)

So the upheavals since 2011 are stirring this generation of younger scholars. Palestine? Passé. (So is Iraq.) Papers on Israel have also dropped sharply, but the consequences, overall, are greater for Palestine than Israel studies. Why? MESA is still the largest clearinghouse for Palestine studies. It isn’t for Israel studies, which have their own association (the Association for Israel Studies) and a separate annual conference. And since, for the last couple of years, MESA has been formally debating the possibility of passing a BDS resolution, not a few Israel scholars have packed up and left the organization. Israel studies are expanding—just not at MESA.

Another factor contributing to the relative decline of Palestine studies is BDS. Because the old guard, such as Columbia’s Rashid Khalidi and Lila Abu-Lughod, have so totally immersed themselves in identity politics and BDS activism, Palestine studies are regarded as tainted by advocacy. Why would a promising young scholar enter such a field, when the first thing he or she must do is sign an ideological pledge of allegiance? And why enter it if you can make a bigger mark in a more visible, faster-growing, and less politicized area of study? BDS is driving ambitious young scholars away from Palestine studies, which have become a closed echo chamber.

This is the context for understanding the BDS drive in MESA. It’s a last-ditch effort to assert the primacy of Palestine, by insisting that Israel uniquely deserves condemnation (in a Middle East mired in gross human rights violations), and that the Palestinians uniquely deserve sympathy (in a Middle East awash in refugees and suffering). In the past, there was no need to run such a campaign. Back in 2005, I did a similar paper-count on MESA’s conferences, and found that papers on Palestine and the Palestinians outnumbered those on any other country. Edward Said had turned the Palestinians into MESA’s chosen people. But over the years, that special privilege has been eroded. BDS activism at MESA now functions as a substitute for the conference papers and panels, as a rear-guard tactic to keep the Palestinians from falling further down the scale.

I have no idea what will come out of MESA this year or next—probably nothing good, and possibly some sort of precursor to a BDS resolution. But the easy privileging of Palestine in Middle Eastern studies is over. That’s a good thing. The over-concentration of a whole branch of area studies in one highly politicized corner did inestimable damage to the field’s reputation. The Middle East keeps changing, so does America, and new realities generate new priorities. I can’t predict how Middle Eastern studies will be reconfigured as the ground shifts. But a quiet transformation is underway, even if no one has the courage to acknowledge it. Happy fiftieth, MESA.

The War on ErrorOrder your copy of my new book, The War on Error: Israel, Islam, and the Middle East from Amazon right here. Josef Joffe: “Martin Kramer exposes sloppy or mean-spirited thinking with an incisive mind and first-rate empirical research. This collection is required reading for anybody who prefers intellectual rigor to ideological obfuscation.”

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Israel, American Jews, and the gap

Moment Magazine runs a symposium in its November-December issue on “The Growing Gap Between Israel and American Jews.” Contributors include Elliott Abrams, Daniel Gordis, Yossi Klein Halevi, Aaron David Miller, Jonathan Sarna, Anita Shapira, Abe Sofaer, Dov Zakheim, and more. Here is my contribution.

It would be difficult to find two halves of one people who inhabit such totally different worlds. The blue-state suburbs of America, where most American Jews reside, are the most stable, secure and peaceful abodes known to humankind since the Garden of Eden (in one word: ever). In most of these places, no soldier has fired a shot in more than a century. American Jews are a minority of just under two percent of the population in an open society that embraces them. Having let their guard down, they’re being assimilated away.

Israeli Jews are just under two percent of the population of the Arab world, which adamantly refuses to “normalize” them in any way. They are subjected to barrages of threats in a region where people fulfill threats of violence every day. Arabs can be ruthless to one another: The death toll in nearby Iraq and Syria since 2003 is about equal to the massive death toll of the American Civil War. It doesn’t take much imagination to guess what would happen to Israel’s Jews were they to let their guard down. Is it any wonder, then, that American Jews and Israelis see the world differently?

Yet despite the perils, Israeli Jewry is thriving. When Israel was born, there were nine American Jews to every Israeli Jew. Now they are at parity, and the long-term trend is clear: Israel is destined to become the center of the Jewish world. Sovereignty is such a powerful elixir that Jews who enjoy it thrive even in the most troubled part of the world. In less than a century, the center of world Jewry will have moved from Europe to America, then from America to Israel. Alas, some American Jews are experiencing this as a loss. The negation of Israel is one (minority) response among those who can’t grasp the dilemmas of sovereignty in an often anarchic world. But the majority of American Jews are driven by a sincere desire to help Israel prosper. Where their expectations aren’t realistic, Israel must work to change them. But it must never ignore them, lest the Jews cease to be a people.

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The War on Error is underway…

The War on ErrorThe War on Error: Israel, Islam, and the Middle East is my new collection of twenty-five essays and articles, some of them published for the first time. Order the book from Amazon in paperback or Kindle.

In connection with publication, please watch or read the following:

• View my opening remarks at my book launch, held at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, here. That’ll take only thirteen minutes. If you have an hour and a half, you might watch the entire event, featuring responses from Benny Morris and Hussein Ibish. There’s also a rapporteur’s summary of the event.

• Read the first review of the book by Jonathan Marks, written for Scholars for Peace in the Middle East in The Algemeiner, here.

• Read a profile of me and my work by Shepard Barbash in The Federalist, here.

• Lee Smith interviewed me for the blog of The Weekly Standard, here.

I welcome comments, criticisms, and compliments. I invite you to post them here on Facebook, or (even better) at Amazon.com.

Description:

In The War on Error, historian and political analyst Martin Kramer presents a series of case studies, some based on pathfinding research and others on provocative analysis, that correct misinformation clouding the public’s understanding of the Middle East. He also offers a forensic exploration of how misinformation arises and becomes “fact.”

The book is divided into five themes: Orientalism and Middle Eastern studies, a prime casualty of the culture wars; Islamism, massively misrepresented by apologists; Arab politics, a generator of disappointing surprises; Israeli history, manipulated by reckless revisionists; and American Jews and Israel, the subject of irrational fantasies. Kramer shows how error permeates the debate over each of these themes, creating distorted images that cause policy failures.

Kramer approaches questions in the spirit of a relentless fact-checker. Did Israeli troops massacre Palestinian Arabs in Lydda in July 1948? Was the bestseller Exodus hatched by an advertising executive? Did Martin Luther King, Jr., describe anti-Zionism as antisemitism? Did a major post-9/11 documentary film deliberately distort the history of Islam? Did Israel push the United States into the Iraq War? Kramer also questions paradigms—the “Arab Spring,” the map of the Middle East, and linkage. Along the way, he amasses new evidence, exposes carelessness, and provides definitive answers.

Advance Praise:

• Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations:

The best antidote to academic assaults on Israel and false versions of Zionist history is Martin Kramer. These essays on Israel and on current Arab and Islamic politics show him at his best: a sharp, wise, and very funny guide. If you’ve read this all before, read it again; time has only made his analyses more telling. If you don’t know Kramer, you’re in for an intellectual feast.”

• Josef Joffe, fellow of the Hoover Institution and the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University:

“What is the Talmudic spirit? It is to poke, probe and provoke, never to let received notions stand. Today’s Middle East harbors more half-truths and willful misrepresentations than oil under its sands. Concepts like ‘Orientalism’ are ideologies posing as dispassionate scholarship. Islamism is a magnet for apologists blind to the region’s cultural pathologies. Terrorism is transfigured into legitimate anti-colonialism, even though the Arab world has been independent for two, three generations. Martin Kramer has done the ‘Talmudic’ thing, exposing sloppy or mean-spirited thinking with an incisive mind and first-rate empirical research. This collection is required reading for anybody who prefers intellectual rigor to ideological obfuscation.”

• Gilles Kepel, professor at the Institut d’études politiques de Paris (Sciences Po) and member of the Institut universitaire de France:

“Martin Kramer is a major scholarly contributor to the worldwide political debate about the contemporary Middle East. Not all will agree with his strong views, but they are always stimulating and challenging, and it is worth taking up such a challenge in the unprecedented chaos that the region has witnessed since 9/11, both within its ever-changing borders and in its complex relations with Europe and America.”

• Michael Mandelbaum, Christian A. Herter Professor of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies:

“In The War on Error, Martin Kramer, an eminent scholar of Middle Eastern affairs, fearlessly and eloquently exposes the myths, half-truths, and outright lies that pervade the public discussion, and so inhibit public understanding, of the region he knows so well.”

• Michael Oren, member of Knesset and former Israeli ambassador to the United States:

Martin Kramer, a preeminent and prolific scholar of the Middle East, provides expert and singularly clear-sighted insights into this crucial region. Whether writing about the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the West’s relations with Islam, or the global struggle against terror, Kramer is at once deeply informed, courageous, and engaging.”

• Itamar Rabinovich, president of the Israel Institute and former Israeli ambassador to the United States:

“Martin Kramer spans an unusual range. He is a first-rate historian of the modern Middle East who is as masterful with social media as he is with the traditional archive. This new collection of essays and papers deals with the most current issues in Middle Eastern politics and policies from a perspective that only a profound historian possesses. But Kramer is not encumbered by his academic baggage; he writes well and vividly. I sometimes disagree with him but I always read carefully and learn something new or different. I strongly recommend the book for the professional and the lay reader.”

• Ruth R. Wisse, former professor of Yiddish and comparative literature, Harvard University:

“Correcting error is the indispensable first step in stopping terror. No one writes better on the Middle East, its distorters and misinterpreters than Martin Kramer. He must be read—to be believed.”

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The revenge of the Sunnis

ISISWhy are Sunni Arabs generating waves of terror and zeal for the caliph? I argue that it’s a reaction to a century of steady erosion of Ottoman-era Sunni dominance, especially in the zone between the Mediterranean shore and the Persian Gulf. It’s not a sudden collapse, it’s a long-term unwinding that has taken Jerusalem, Damascus, Beirut and Baghdad out of Sunni hands. The Shiites (and Jews), once last, are now first—and Arab Sunnis blame the West. (I also have something to say about the Sunni-mania in Israel.) Read the entire piece here, at Mosaic Magazine.

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Bernard Lewis: master historian

Today I offer the last word in the exchange of tributes to Bernard Lewis, prompted by my June 1 essay on the occasion of his 100th birthday, and the four responses that followed (by Itamar Rabinovich, Robert Irwin, Eric Ormsby, and Amir Taheri). Highlights: I recall Bernard’s admission of an error, and reveal the secret of how he managed to belt out a book a year during “retirement.” Click here to read in full.

Books by Bernard Lewis

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