Brandeis is Crowned

The second stop on my spring tour, now concluded, brought me to Brandeis University, for the inaugural conference of the new Crown Center for Middle East Studies.

It takes chutzpah to establish yet another center for Middle Eastern studies. There are seventeen Title VI-supported National Resource Centers for the Middle East at American universities, and that’s just the elite group. The field is crowded. But many of these centers simply replicate one another in different markets. They aren’t identical, but there’s an ideal, and if you want that Title VI money, you’d better conform to it. The Brandeis center, at least as envisioned by President Jehuda Reinharz (who raised private money for it), is supposed to live by a different standard.

A week before the conference, the Boston Globe ran a piece on the Crown Center. Reinharz earlier had knocked established Middle Eastern studies as “third-rate.” The president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), Ali Banuazizi, did his duty with this quote: “What does it mean for a new center to start out by being so derisive toward the other centers? Let them come and put down their suitcase and start their work, and hopefully they will achieve the highest standards of scholarship.” Fair enough. Juan Cole, president-elect of MESA, hit a foul (as usual), by attacking Kanan Makiya, who’s a pillar of Middle Eastern studies at Brandeis. “He is not a scholar,” Cole blurted. “Last time I checked he was an architect.” Makiya has published two books on modern Iraq with a leading university press. The last time I checked, Cole, who poses as an Iraq expert on his blog, hadn’t published any.

The local leaders of the field came to the inauguration, joining me on a panel entitled “Middle East Studies in the U.S.: What is the Debate About?” I shared the podium with Steven Caton, director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Harvard, and Malik Mufti, director of the Middle Eastern Studies Program at Tufts. It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to characterize their talks, except to say that we broadly agreed on the proper public role of Middle Eastern studies. Caton and I did differ over research priorities. Here are my remarks.

Shai Feldman, former director of the Jaffee Center at Tel Aviv University, is the new director of the Crown Center. His field is strategic, not Middle Eastern studies, but his instincts seem to be sound, and he put together a well-crafted conference. In his own remarks over a dinner, Feldman noted the challenge: there are people who think that Brandeis is the least likely place to base an objective center on the Middle East. There are several possible approaches to dealing with that perception, and it will be interesting to see which one Feldman chooses. I wish him well.