Profs say the darndest things (about Columbia)

“Columbia has a lot of diversity in the professors teaching about the Middle East, even politically.” That’s Joel Migdal, president of the Association for Israel Studies and a political scientist at the University of Washington. It’s the most inane thing yet retailed about Columbia’s Middle East faculty, and it shows how incredibly fungible the notion of “diversity” is within academe. Migdal’s last name means “tower,” and he seems to inhabit one.

I’d be interested to hear Professor Migdal elaborate on his statement to explain, with his rigorous attention to detail, what distinguishes Joseph Massad’s concept of Israeli racism from Hamid Dabashi’s concept of Israeli racism, or why Massad’s one-state solution is different from Rashid Khalidi’s one-state solution. (To judge from their recent joint appearance, any difference between the two seems to have shrunk appreciably.) And I wonder what he would say to Richard Bulliet, who’s taught Islamic history at Columbia for thirty years, and who now describes the Middle East department as being “locked into a postmodernist, postcolonialist point of view.”

There’s a broader context here. Despite Migdal’s presidential title, he won’t be well-known to you if your sole interest is Israel studies. That’s because he’s best-known as the co-author (with Baruch Kimmerling) of the standard post-Zionist history of the Palestinians. The revised edition is titled The Palestinian People: A History, and it carries the endorsement of Rashid Khalidi (“a dispassionate and balanced analysis”). What all this says about the priorities of Israel studies in America is a subject for another posting.

There was another recent quote that doesn’t contribute to the discussion, this one from Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz in his Columbia speech on Monday. He got the essence of the problem just right: Columbia’s coverage of the Middle East is the most unbalanced of any university in America. But I don’t believe, as Dershowitz is reported to have said, that Edward Said was the “Palestinian Meir Kahane.” Said came to advocate the dissolution of Israel, but he never exalted violence, which is the mark of Kahanism. If Meir Kahane has a parallel, it’s the suicide-cult priests of Hamas (whose “moderation,” of course, is a matter of general consensus among America’s Middle East experts).

In my book Ivory Towers on Sand, I quoted the historian Maxime Rodinson, who said that Said employed a style that was “a bit Stalinist,” and the historian P.J. Vatikiotis, who wrote that “Said introduced McCarthyism into Middle Eastern studies.” Said wasn’t a Palestinian Stalin (there’s another candidate), but a Palestinian McCarthy? Absolutely. What we’ve seen at Columbia among Said’s acolytes is that same underlying McCarthyism, stripped of the veneer of learned respectability that Edward Said gave to everything he touched.