Columbia’s Israelis

On Friday, Amnon Rubinstein, the distinguished Israeli jurist and professor, published a column in the Israeli daily Maariv (in Hebrew), summarizing his stint as a visiting professor at Columbia University. A grim story it is: Ahmadinejad’s visit to campus stirred all the muck back up again.

Rubinstein discovered that the only truly active friends of Israel on campus were orthodox Jewish students. For him, a self-avowed secular humanist, it came as crushing disappointment that like-minded Israelis weren’t standing up. At the demonstration against Ahmadinejad, he could “count the Israelis on a hand that’s missing fingers.” At the faculty level, it was worse. He tells of being present in a meeting attended by two Israeli professors. One proposed the screening of the film Jenin, Jenin, a cinematic slander of Israel, and the other proposed inviting Israel-demonizing Norman Finkelstein to campus. Rubinstein doesn’t name the two, but the sad thing about Columbia is that their identities aren’t obvious. More than two Israeli professors there could have made these sorts of proposals.

That aside, it reminded me of some unfinished Columbia business. Avid readers of this blog will recall that Columbia president Lee Bollinger, back in 2005, tried to calm the raging waters by announcing the establishment of a chair of Israel studies. Four trustees quickly anted up $3 million. The university then appointed a search committee that included Palestinian agitprofs Rashid Khalidi and Lila Abu-Lughod. At the time, I wrote this:

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.

So were they? The chair has been filled by Yinon Cohen, a former Tel Aviv University sociologist who works mostly on labor markets and migration. Cohen isn’t a hard-left post-Zionist, but he’s far enough left to have signed a May 2002 open letter by some Israeli faculty. At the time, Israel was wrapping up Operation Defensive Shield, its response to the wave of suicide bombings inside Israel that had killed Israelis in the hundreds. The letter’s signatories announced their “wish to express our appreciation and support for those of our students and lecturers who refuse to serve as soldiers in the occupied territories… [T]he present war is not being fought for our home but for the settlements beyond the green line and for the continued oppression of another people.”

I don’t think Khalidi and Abu-Lughod have much to worry about.

Update, February 28: The New York Sun has followed up this post, and collected some responses at Columbia. And Amnon Rubinstein has published an English version of his Maariv article, which discretely omits the most interesting bits about Columbia’s Israeli faculty. (He simply says they “added more fuel to the fire of hatred against Israel.”)

Update, February 29: Here is another letter (in Spanish) by Israeli academics and signed by Yinon Cohen, directed toward Palestinian students. There’s no indication of the date, but all the surrounding items are from late 2001. It begins thus: “We, faculty and students of Israeli universities, extend our arms in solidarity with your just cause, against repression of the popular uprising by the Israeli military forces…. Academic faculty in the occupied territories! We wish to cooperate with you in opposing the brutal policy of siege, closure and curfew of the IDF.”

And it’s Yinon Cohen who earlier this month brought fellow petition-signer Neve Gordon to Columbia. (Alan Dershowitz has called Gordon “one of the world’s most extreme anti-Israel academics.”) Gordon’s subject: “From Colonization to Separation: Exploring the Structure of Israel’s Occupation.” The lecture was co-sponsored by Khalidi’s Middle East Institute, and constituted a class in Cohen’s course on “Special Topics in Israeli Society.”

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?

How Not to Promote Israel Studies

For a very long time now, supporters of Israel have been unhappy with its treatment in American academe, and understandably so. The sympathies of those academics who actually teach the Middle East run in the opposite direction. The solution, according to some, is in the promotion of Israel studies. In a recent issue of the Forward, my old friend, Michael Kotzin, has made a plea for philanthropic support of these studies. His conclusion:

It is increasingly clear that serious steps must be taken to provide funding for courses in Israel studies. University officials—who should care about their institutions’ academic credibility as well as their image in the community—need to know that when they solicit Jewish donors for large gifts, this is an area that should be offered as waiting for support. Members of the Jewish community who are already prepared to make substantial gifts to colleges and universities need to be urged to support Israel studies on campus. And all community members with an abiding concern about the fate of the Jewish people need to be encouraged to add this area of giving to their philanthropic portfolios.

Indeed. But when donors come to add Israel studies to their philathropic porfolios, they should know that academic administrators can be pretty sharp dealers on their own turf. Indeed, some programs on offer are as close as academe gets to a scam.

This thought is prompted by the inauguration, this spring semester, of a visiting Israeli professorship at Berkeley. It was established with the support of Helen Diller, a Berkeley alumna whose fortune (and that of her husband, Sanford) was made in real estate (Prometheus Real Estate Group). The two of them have given generously to a wide range of enlightened causes. (Parallel to the Berkeley gift, she gave Ben-Gurion University an equal sum to construct a new humanities building.)

In an interview, Helen Diller said she had been motivated by the pro-Palestinian activism on campus: “You know what’s going on over there. With the protesting and this and that, we need to get a real strong Jewish studies program in there….Hopefully, it will be enlightening to have a visiting professor and it’ll calm down over there more.” An official of the local Jewish federation echoed the sentiment: “Israel has become, somehow, the politically correct whipping boy of academia on this campus….Having an Israeli professor as a permanent fixture on the U.C. [Berkeley] campus provides Jewish students and faculty with a sense of validation.” The local Jewish paper ran a celebratory editorial: “What makes [the Diller] family’s $5 million grant to establish a permanent visiting professor from Israel even more significant is that the professor will not only be a presence on campus. The professor will also be a resource to the entire community.” Diller again: “I feel, through education, both sides will come out with a more positive approach to the situation. I’m hoping to even get the (pro-Palestinian) students to take the courses.”

Well, that’s not likely to be a problem, because Berkeley’s academic committee chose Professor Oren Yiftachel as the first Diller Visiting Professor. Yiftachel is a professor of geography at Ben-Gurion University. He’s also a shining light in the post-Zionist pantheon, a “critical scholar” whose criticism runs overwhelmingly in one direction: against Israel.

I’ll let you judge for yourself. Start with his article “‘Ethnocracy’: The Politics of Judaizing Israel/Palestine,” where he makes the argument that Israel, far from being a democracy, is an ethnocracy—a state predicated on an ethnic preference that cannot be reconciled with democracy. (This is also the title of his next book.) Continue to his article “From Fragile ‘Peace’ to Creeping Apartheid,” where he argues that Ehud Barak’s peace offers were humiliating to the Palestinians, and that Israel is heading down the road of apartheid South Africa. This quote pretty much summarizes Yiftachel’s position:

The failed Oslo process, the violent intifada and—most acutely—Israel’s renewed aggression and brutality toward the Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, have cast a dark shadow over the joint future of the state’s Palestinian and Jewish citizens….The actual existence of an Israeli state (and hence citizenship) can be viewed as an illusion. Israel has ruptured, by its own actions, the geography of statehood, and maintained a caste-like system of ethnic-religious-class stratification. Without an inclusive geography and universal citizenship, Israel has created a colonial setting, held through violent control….Occupation and settlement, which necessitate ever intensifying oppression of Palestinians with or without Israeli citizenship, have clear potential to make Israel gradually cave from within.

Yiftachel has called for “a conceptual shift, from Jewishness to Israeliness as the core of the country’s national identity.” To that end, he advocates the cancellation of Israel’s Law of Return, and the effective abolition of the Jewish Agency and the Jewish National Fund. In a presentation at Stanford, he said that while he now supports a two-state solution, he thought that Israelis and Palestinians would eventually form one state.

In the overheated year of 2002, Yiftachel spent several weeks speaking on U.S. campuses with a Palestinian professor from Bir Zeit University. One witness to Yiftachel’s campus roadshow (at U.C. Irvine) described him and his Palestinian cohort as “a far greater threat to the image of Israel in this country then their more rowdy compatriots, because they understand the art of propaganda. They scrupulously avoid the code words that tend to turn off all but the most committed Israel-haters…[Yet] they proceed to lay out the ‘facts’, for those who are unfamiliar with the facts, in a such way that any reasonable person would conclude that Israel is a monstrous obstacle to peace in the Middle East.” Yiftachel would disagree that he’s a threat, believing that Jewish organizations are the real problem. After his lecture tour, he reached this conclusion: “A well-organized system of Jewish and right-wing Christian organizations (actively supported by right-wing Israeli elements) is working on American campuses, exerting heavy pressure on media outlets, and operating dozens of Internet sites.” They had “hijacked the agenda.”

This is the person summoned to Berkeley, supposedly to validate Israel for its Jewish students and faculty. (His course title: “Nationalism, Territory and Identity: Ethnic Relations in Israel/Palestine.”) Now I don’t question Yiftachel’s qualifications to be a visiting professor at Berkeley. In fact, there are enough qualified Israeli post-Zionists and “critical scholars” to fill the Diller Visiting Professorship for the next fifty years, if not longer. But is that what the Dillers had in mind when they made their gift? Bringing to Berkeley a caravan of critics of Israel, who just happen to be Israeli professors?

Yet what is to prevent Berkeley from doing just that? Nothing. Indeed, the visitorship was planned so haphazardly that it emboldened Berkeley to defy the donor’s intent from the very first appointment. It did that, in part, by admitting the head of Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies into the three-person selection committee for the visitorship. Anyone with experience in academic administration will tell you that most battles are won or lost by the selection of committee members. The director of Berkeley’s Middle East center is bound to be someone hostile or indifferent to the aims of a Zionist donor, and this is certainly so in the case of the present director. It’s a novice’s mistake to situate an academic program or project in such a way that your adversaries can influence or hijack it.

The committee’s composition gave the Middle East center the inside track. Yiftachel had spoken at a conference at the center in 2001, and he brought his Israeli-Palestinian roadshow to the center in 2002. (An account appears as a cover story in the center’s newsletter.) Yiftachel was the kind of Israeli that an Edward Said-boosting, Saudi-connected Middle East center could not only tolerate, but embrace.

Now I don’t fault the director of the center, Professor Nezar AlSayyad. I was an academic administrator, and I know the drill. You take the money, you cut the donor’s strings by invoking academic freedom, and you turn the resources to what you think is worthy. The fault here lies with the ineptitude or inexperience of the donor’s negotiator. Foundations have lawyers and advisers to make sure their gifts do what they’re supposed to do. And they’ve got to stay sharp even on a disarmingly peaceful, leafy campus, because it’s very hard to beat an academic player at his own game, and on his own court.

Which is why, all things being equal, it’s better to work with institutions you trust, and that already have a record of doing your thing with their own resources. Outside money is wasted in an attempt to cut across the political grain of a department, program, or center. It works best at reinforcing a priority that the professors have already set for themselves. By these standards, Berkeley’s Middle East center wasn’t a candidate for Israel studies or a visiting Israeli professorship, and it still isn’t.

Someone might say that I’ve judged the Diller Visiting Professorship too hastily, on the basis of only one appointment. I don’t doubt that there will be future appointments more in tune with the donor’s intent and the community’s expectations. But I think the structure of the thing assures that the vast majority of appointments will fall between the far left and the not-quite-as-far left. Whether, on balance, these Israeli professors will validate or invalidate Israel for Berkeley’s students is an open question. But until the question can be answered, the lesson of the Berkeley case for Jewish philanthropists is self-evident. In academe, as in real estate, buyer beware.