Will Princeton Intercept the Palestine Football?

On March 31, Rashid Khalidi, Columbia’s Edward Said Professor, will deliver what the New York Sun has called a “job talk” at Princeton. Earlier this month, the paper reported that “Khalidi has thrown his hat into the ring for the Niehaus chair in contemporary Muslim studies at Princeton and to take charge of that university’s Transregional Institute, according to the sources, who are at the New Jersey school.”

At Columbia, Khalidi directs the Middle East Institute, and its scope is fairly obvious from its name. But what is the Transregional Institute? It’s short for the Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia—the most pretentious and overblown name in the field. It’s also quite meaningless. The Transregional Institute has rather narrower interests, and it devotes an inordinate amount of time to one country: Palestine.

I first wrote about the Transregional Institute’s Palestine obsession back in 2002, when it sponsored a lopsided lecture series on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This past winter, the Institute caused yet another stir, in announcing that its theme for the next academic year would be “Society under Occupation: Contemporary Palestinian Politics, Culture and Identity.” The announcement had a propagandistic tone, and complaints began to reach Nassau Hall. On February 4, the Transregional Institute and the university issued a joint statement, claiming that “our focus will be on the society and culture, not on the politics. We will be approaching our study from a variety of perspectives, aided by speakers who will represent a variety of viewpoints.”

Maybe, maybe not. It remains to be seen. But beyond this indication of intent, the statement also made an assertion of fact. It sought to justify the choice of the Palestinians as a theme of study, by making this claim:

There are close relationships between the United States and Israel and there is considerable study in this country of Israeli society and culture, but little is known about contemporary Palestinian culture, society, political thinking, and identity.

This immediately rang false to me. I have a pretty good sense of what’s being done, and in what quantities, and it has long seemed to me that the study of the Palestinians is a virtual industry in American academe. To provide some empirical evidence for this anecdotal impression, I consulted the members’ directory of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA).

Members of MESA are asked to indicate their “areas of interest” by country when they join the organization, and with a click you can bring up all the members who’ve declared an interest in a particular country. These are the results for some of the more important countries:

  • Egypt: 504
  • Iran: 429
  • Turkey: 338
  • Palestine: 297
  • Israel: 181
  • Iraq: 122
  • Morocco: 105
  • Saudi Arabia: 57

Now look at these numbers, and tell me that the Palestinians are neglected. To judge from MESA’s membership rolls, the opposite is true: there are more American academics per Palestinian than there are for any other nationality in the region. Even if you could somehow rustle up another one hundred academics specializing in Israel—people who’ve forgone the pleasures of MESA membership—the score would only be even. The Palestinians are right up there behind Egypt, Iran, and Turkey, the cultural and strategic heavyweights of the Middle East, each of which has a population of close to 70 million. And the fact that so many more people work on the Palestinians than on Iraq and Saudi Arabia combined leaves one wondering (again) just what taxpayers are getting for their subsidies to the field.

All this is evidence of a simple truth. For at least twenty years, the Palestinians have been the chosen people of Middle Eastern studies. Start with institutions. You’ve got the Institute for Palestine Studies (with offices in Beirut, London, and Washington), and the Palestinian American Research Center (PARC). There’s the Journal of Palestine Studies, a highly partisan periodical nevertheless published by the University of California Press. There’s even an Encyclopedia of the Palestinians, 700 pages in two columns, already in a revised edition. And there’s a never-ending parade of books, articles, conferences, and film festivals.

Academe offers powerful incentives and reinforcements for academic recruits into Palestinian studies. If you want to make a name for yourself and get published by a top university press, one of the surest routes is to produce work on the Palestinians. (Even the current president of the Association of Israel Studies is best known not for his work on Israel, but for a book on the Palestinians.) And if you’re a Palestinian working on the Palestinians, you’ll have plenty of allies in building your academic future. The situation at Columbia, where almost every department feels it must have someone in the Edward Said mold, is only the most extreme case.

I’m not blaming Palestinian academics and their sympathizers for this state of affairs—to the contrary. They’ve operated with admirable unity of purpose in their collective self-interest. It’s not just that they’re talented, it’s that they promote one another generously and shamelessly. For a bit of the flavor, read the obituary of Ibrahim Abu-Lughod by Edward Said, or the obituary of Edward Said by Joseph Massad. This is how the Palestinians built an academic empire: by lending one another a hand. Hats off to them.

So knowing all this, I’m genuinely offended when Princeton University, my alma mater, insults my intelligence with the line that “little is known about contemporary Palestinian culture, society, political thinking, and identity,” as if the Palestinians were a remote hill tribe. It’s simply false, and I’m left wondering whether the statement’s authors are just ignorant of reality, or somehow intend to throw the public off the scent.

So let me make it that much harder for Nassau Hall to profess ignorance or practice denial. The Transregional Institute is an outpost of Palestinian advocacy, the Princeton retail outlet of the solidarity industry. Its function is to sew the Princeton label on the Palestinian cause. If the university decides to make the Institute more visible by recruiting a high-profile Palestinian polemicist to run it, let it not be surprised when lightning repeatedly strikes the rod.

I’d hate to see Princeton reduced to the state of Columbia, especially since a righteous few over in Near Eastern Studies have managed to buck the wider trend. And I’m still sentimental about the place. But my pastime is chasing academic tornados, and if one crosses the Hudson and races down the Turnpike—well, I’ll be right behind it.