President Beinin’s Farewell Address

On November 24, Professor Joel Beinin, Stanford University historian, delivered his presidential address to an audience of 800 members of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) at their annual conference. On the face of it, it’s a tedious read. Beinin belongs to the far-left, blame-America-first, Zionism-is-colonialism school, and much of his address just rehashes its key dogmas: we’re hated in the Middle East for what we do, not what we are; our civil liberties have gone down the tube since 9/11; Ariel Sharon should be put on trial for Sabra and Shatila (and may have had someone killed to keep himself out of a Belgian court), etcetera. This is followed by a none-too-accurate sketch of the history of Middle Eastern studies in America, and expressions of indignation over “scurrilous attacks that have been leveled against MESA collectively and several of our members individually.” Beinin mentions no names, but since he’s described my own book, Ivory Towers on Sand, as a “lengthy screed…trashing the entire field of Middle East studies,” I guess I’m included.

But Beinin’s speech is more interesting than its agitprop style would suggest. There’s a compelling subtext here, and it has nothing to do with Arab or Muslim grievance against America. It’s about Beinin’s own grievance against an academic establishment that supposedly tried (and failed) to keep him down.

At three stages, Beinin tells us, he encountered “repress[ion].” “When I was an undergraduate at Princeton,” he says, “I was not permitted to write my senior honors thesis on the post-1948 Palestinian national movement on the grounds that the topic was less than fifty years old.” Princeton’s Middle East professors also refused to discuss or teach the Arab-Israeli conflict, an issue that fired his passion. Then, while pursuing an M.A. at Harvard, “I witnessed the misuse of academic power on matters relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict.” This is an oblique allusion, one duplicated in his MESA autobiographical statement, where he reports that after finishing his M.A., “I sought respite from Harvard by moving to Detroit.” In fact, it was Harvard that sought respite from Beinin: it rejected his application to its doctoral program. Beinin has attributed his rejection to his outspokenness during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war. Finally, at the University of Michigan, he was persuaded to do a thesis on Egypt rather than the Palestinian working class, for “fear that those who held the then dominant views in the field of Middle East studies would use their power” to ” impede [my] advancement.”

The real significance of the MESA 2002 presidential address, Beinin is telling us, is the simple fact that Beinin is the one delivering it. Beinin is offering himself—once scorned, now vindicated—as prime evidence for his crucial point: Middle Eastern studies are better today than they were under the ancien regime. These days, says Beinin, there is “free and open discussion” in MESA, “significantly expanding the range of what is considered a legitimate topic of inquiry and liberating some space for articulating previously repressed opinions.” And standing before you, he winks, is the living proof.

I have no idea whether the details in Beinin’s personal narrative of repression, perseverance, and vindication are true. (Three years after Beinin left Princeton, in 1973, its Near Eastern Studies department accepted a senior thesis on “The Palestinian Resistance Movement, 1964-1971,” so the Princeton profs must not have been that obtuse.) But the real issue is whether he is right: is there more “space” and “range” in Middle Eastern studies?

I can’t see any. The “space” and the “range” have shifted, there’s no doubt about that. But they haven’t been enlarged at all. If Palestine was excluded from the research agenda thirty years ago, then today it is radical Islamism and its tributaries that are off-limits. Just read accounts of recent MESA conferences, both last year’s and this year’s. I get missives from students all the time, complaining of how their professors have tried to dissuade them from the pursuit of these topics. The day after Beinin’s speech, his successor as MESA’s president, Lisa Anderson of Columbia University, stopped by The Washington Institute to appear with me on a breakfast panel entitled “Middle Eastern Studies: What Went Wrong?” In her remarks she allowed that some valid research topics had indeed been excluded from the scholarly agenda. Both Beinin and Anderson are right to note that the academic record of what they call “terrorology” has been less than distinguished. But this is precisely because Middle East experts have refused to develop the study of radical Islamism, and in many cases have actively discouraged it.

Have things begun to change? At our panel, Anderson said that I had been too pessimistic in assessing the impact of my book, and that many responses within the field had been “appreciative.” I myself quoted a few e-mail messages I’d gotten over the past year. In one, a graduate student from a major Middle East center wrote: “As a student of Middle East politics and a member of MESA, I am quite relieved that you have put pressure on the academy from the outside. It has made more intellectual space for a wider diversity of views.” Well, maybe. “I have been meaning to write to you for some time,” wrote the left-leaning head of a major center. “We don’t know one another but I wanted to let you know that I liked your book. (And thanks, too, for leaving me out.) I have enough of the old radical ethos in me to wish only that conditions were such that younger scholars-in-the-making were launching these polemics.”

Nothing will change those conditions faster than the kind of rigidity on display in the 2002 MESA presidential address. So Professor Beinin, take note: at this very moment, there are scholars-in-the-making who are experiencing precisely the “repression” you believed yourself to have experienced all those many years ago. They’re being told to stay away from certain topics, and they’re collecting letters of rejection—all because they wish to study and understand those forces that seized their imaginations on 9/11. I don’t doubt that one day, one of them will stand on MESA’s podium as its president, and make allusion to you. He or she will speak of the way an entire generation fabricated a scholarly agenda that had nothing to do with the Middle East, but was dictated by ideology and fad. He or she will wonder why the leaders of Middle Eastern studies failed to anticipate the changes that were about to unfold. And he or she will celebrate the end of illusion.

I can’t wait.

ADDENDUM: Word has it that the Stanford-Israel Alliance and the Stanford Hillel have declined to sponsor a lecture by Daniel Pipes on the Stanford campus, yielding to the pressure of Beinin’s student acolytes. I understand that Pipes even offered to forgo his customary lecture fee—to no avail. That doesn’t speak well for either organization, and I’d urge them to reconsider. Stanford’s students have had thousands of hours with Joel Beinin. Are a couple of hours with Daniel Pipes that threatening?