The rise and fall of the third-rate

The Jerusalem Post runs an article today about the new Middle East center at Brandeis University, with a choice quote on Middle Eastern studies from university president Jehuda Reinharz: “My problem is not the anti-Zionism or even that many of them are anti-American, but that they are third-rate. The quality of the people [in Middle Eastern studies] is unlike any of the qualities we expect in any other field.” The head of the new center, Shai Feldman, says that it will “provide objective which means credible scholarship on the region,” something which “does not exist in other places.”

The same article gives a word to Rashid Khalidi, Columbia University’s Edward Said Professor. He denounces what he calls “organized and systematic attacks on the entire field,” part of “an unending witch hunt against people who can be portrayed as ‘extreme’ through selective and out-of-context quotations, innuendo and outright falsification.” In the end, “the only people left in the field will be discredited Uncle Toms and people who never say anything of consequence.”

I wonder who Khalidi means when he speaks of “Uncle Toms.” Would that be Khalil Shikaki, the Ramallah-based analyst and pollster, or Abdel Monem Said Aly, head of Egypt’s Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies? They’ll be the first visiting senior fellows at the new Brandeis center. (I’ll join them, Kanan Makiya, and many others, at the new center’s inauguration in April.)

Or maybe he means Arab scholars who appear on the podium of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy which would include Malik Mufti, who heads Middle Eastern studies at Tufts, and Ibrahim Karawan, who directs the center at the University of Utah. Khalidi once denounced such Arabs (in Arabic) on Al-Jazeera, for collaborating with this “most important Zionist propaganda tool in the United States,” “this Israeli institute in Washington.” (That statement is both false and yes extreme.)

The truth is that when it comes to witch hunts, Khalidi’s crowd are the masters. They’ve been doing it for a quarter of a century, zeroing in on scholars suspected of “Zionist” leanings and denouncing Arab “Uncle Toms,” in a systematic campaign meant to purge all dissenters from the field. Their mistake at Columbia arose from hubris. Having purged the ranks of the faculty and the grad students, they thought they could intimidate the undergrads too. Big mistake: the undergrads are the most diverse part of any campus, they’re the most resistant to thought control, and they rebelled from below.

Khalidi, who is a chaired professor, the head of a Title VI-funded Middle East center (half a million taxpayer dollars annually), and a former president of the Middle East Studies Association, personifies the discredited establishment. Now it’s in decline, its image tarnished by shoddy advocacy “scholarship,” and no amount of Khalidian obfuscation can stop the slide. (He may even accelerate it.) Brandeis is the first challenger. There will be many more.