Searching for Israel in all the wrong places

Last month, Columbia University announced with much fanfare that it would establish a chair of Israel studies. Four generous trustees threw in $3 million to make it happen—and to help extricate the university from its crisis. Michael Stanislawski, a professor of Jewish history, will conduct the search. The New York Sun reported today that the search committee has been formed. When the reporter read me the names, I burst out laughing.

The committee includes Ira Katznelson, chair of the ad hoc (a.k.a. “whitewash”) committee that investigated student grievances; Dan Miron, a long-suffering Hebrew lit professor in the Middle East department; and Karen Barkey, an authority on the Ottoman empire. So far, reasonable. But then add this to the mix: Rashid Khalidi, the ubiquitous Edward Said Professor; and lesser-known Lila Abu-Lughod, a Palestinian American anthropologist and signer and supporter of Columbia’s divestment petition. Abu-Lughod, who’s writing a book on the Palestinian experience in 1948, has just published a longing letter to the departed Professor Said. “I sit here on the earthen terrace with the sunset warming the pharaonic temple across the field, wondering how to carry on your work. The first step, I know, is to keep talking about Palestine.”

The inclusion of Khalidi and Abu-Lughod on the search committee is perverse. Edward Said used to complain that the Palestinians needed “permission to narrate” their story. At Columbia, the situation is reversed: Israel can’t be narrated without the permission of the great Palestinian mandarins. They must be appeased, satisfied, propitiated.

And we know what price they will exact. The incumbent of the new chair must be someone who freely acknowledges Israel’s sins, perhaps even its original sin. It must be someone at home in the self-excoriating world of post-Zionism. It must be someone willing to consider, in all seriousness, whether the “one-state solution” is the only one left—what is called in the code “Israel/Palestine.” (Perhaps that should be the designation of the chair: Israel/Palestine studies.)

There will be plenty of willing and able candidates. Israeli universities are teeming with academics who fit the bill, and who’ve taken their oaths to Saint Edward. The search hasn’t formally begun, but some hopefuls have already floated their names to friends at Columbia. Did you really believe that the great mafia on Morningside Heights would cede any of its home turf without a fight? These people are militants, and they fight for every inch as though the world depended on it. I’m not going to guess how the battle for the Israel chair will end, but it will leave bloodstains on the upholstery, and it will perpetuate Columbia’s crisis right through the next academic year.

The affair also raises the larger question of whether Israel studies are the answer to the problems at Columbia or anywhere. Last month, the Forward did a piece on the drive for Israel studies on campuses, quoting its various boosters. I was the sole dissenter. “The answer to flawed Middle Eastern studies,” I was quoted as saying, “isn’t Israel studies, it’s better Middle Eastern studies.”

Without broader change, the malaise of Middle Eastern studies is bound to infect Israel studies. Last year I showed how Berkeley’s Said-set took funds given by pro-Israel donors for visiting Israeli professors, and hijacked them to serve post-Zionist purposes. They did it by rigging the selection committee. (“Anyone with experience in academic administration,” I wrote back then, “will tell you that most battles are won or lost by the selection of committee members.” Memorize that sentence.) Here and there, it may be possible to protect an Israel studies position, by burying it deep in an isolated Jewish studies program. But who wants to go down there? That really is “fortress Israel,” and it doesn’t do anything to improve the lot of students with broader interests, who are left with holy rollers like Joseph Massad and Hamid Dabashi.

So I don’t rejoice every time some heavily padded chair in Israel studies gets planted in the sand. I will rejoice when the entire public begins to understand that America (and not just Israel) deserves better. Low Library isn’t home to the kind of courage it takes to change the big context. The U.S. Capitol just might be.

Back at Columbia, I do look forward to the adventures of Professor Stanislawski, skipper of the search committee, as he tries to steer his boat while members of the crew row furiously in different directions. Of course, he’s busy giving assurances that only “academic qualities” will determine the outcome of the search. (He’s a precedent-setter.) Speaking to the Columbia Spectator on who might fit the chair, he promised an international search, and added: “It could be an American, Israeli, Australian, Austrian, Swede, a Palestinian.” I think he should be taken literally.

Then there are Bollinger’s trustees, whose money pads the chair. Let’s name them: David Stern, Mark Kingdon, Richard Witten, and Philip Milstein. However this ends up, the composition of the committee leaves them looking like cuckolds for the next year—and, possibly, forever. It’s an open question whether their current plight is tragic or comic. But whenever guys in master-tailored suits get taken for a ride by the tweed jacket gang, you’ve gotta chuckle. I do. It’s best to end where I ended my exposé of Berkeley last year: In academe, as in real estate, buyer beware.

• 2008 update: The chair has been filled. And guess what?