The Transregional Institute, ever so diverse

Today’s New York Sun reports that Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor at Columbia, who’s only just sat down in the chair, has tossed his name in the hopper for a chair at Princeton. This one would put him in the driver’s seat of something called the Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia. (Website here.) I’ll probably have more to say about this interesting twist, but for now I’ve unearthed what I wrote about the Transregional Institute in 2002, just to put it back on the record. It conveys the flavor of the place, and suggests why Khalidi might be just the right man. This is what I wrote:

When Israelis and Palestinians clash, the academic tribes rally. It’s happening once more across America. Activist organizations spring into action. Faculty members speak out. All of this is legitimate. What is illegitimate is when the very institutions of a university–academic units such as departments, centers, and institutes–turn themselves into blatant partisans of one side or the other. This is just what happened at Princeton in the spring of 2001.

Background: in 1994, Prince Moulay Hicham Benabdallah of Morocco, a Princeton alumnus, bestowed a hefty gift on the university to establish something called the Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia. Princeton, of course, has a renowned department of Near Eastern studies, the oldest in the country. But the prince wanted something all his own and was prepared to pay for it. A Moroccan anthropologist, Abdellah Hammoudi, directs the vanity institute. It organizes conferences, many of them outside the country, and passes out a couple of fellowships each year.

This past spring, the Institute for Transregional Study announced a lecture series on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When genuine academic units organize lecture series, the usual approach is to recruit speakers who will represent diverse views. After all, diversity is the mantra of the American university. In fact, what one often gets are identical views expressed by people of diverse backgrounds. Call it false diversity. The Institute for Transregional Study, in its spring lecture series, produced what must be regarded as the textbook case, the purest form, the ideal type, of false diversity.

The nine-lecture series brought together a truly broad collection of supporters, sympathizers, and apologists for the Palestinian cause. Celebrities? Edward Said and Richard Falk addressed the “end,” the “collapse” of the peace process, and who could doubt where they would lay the blame? Journalists? Inveterate Israel-basher Robert Fisk, of the London Independent, delivered his usual indictment. Sylvain Cypel, international correspondent of Le Monde, analyzed the approach of the French press, with its predictable sympathies. (Notice: no American journalists.) Academic experts? Palestinian professor Salim Tamari and Lebanese writer and militant Elias Khoury demanded the “right of return.” Sara Roy, perpetual “research associate” at Harvard University, once again explained Israel’s “political economy of dispossession.”

Israelis? Of course there were Israelis. After all: diversity rules the university. There were two. Ilan Pappe, the zealous anti-Zionist at Haifa University, a man for whom even the post-Zionists are Nakba-deniers, described what he thought would be a “fair settlement.” (Pappe thinks it must be based on Israel’s total and abject acceptance of all responsibility for the conflict and all of its consequences.) Amira Hass, the very engagé Palestinian affairs correspondent of Haaretz, now a resident of Ramallah, lectured on “The Israeli Policy of Closure: A Means of Domination and a Form of Neo-Occupation.”

And that was it. This was the entire line-up of the institute’s semester-long lecture series on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

No doubt this would pass for diversity at the Mohammed V University in Rabat, former home to Professor Hammoudi. Perhaps it would pass for diversity in Moulay Hicham’s palace. It shouldn’t pass for diversity at Princeton. The question is whether Princeton will continue to ignore the abuse of its name for blatantly political purposes or will affirm the basic neutrality of its academic units–even a cash cow like the Institute for Transregional Study.

Well, it’s three years later, and although Hammoudi has stepped down, the mission is the same. The Transregional Institute is now recruiting fellows for next year, to work on this: “Society under Occupation: Contemporary Palestinian Politics, Culture and Identity.” The details of this exercise are here. According to the acting director, Miguel Centeno, the purpose of the fellowships is to “bring people onto campus to expand intellectual diversity.” Sure.