Bernard Lewis: master historian

Today I offer the last word in the exchange of tributes to Bernard Lewis, prompted by my June 1 essay on the occasion of his 100th birthday, and the four responses that followed (by Itamar Rabinovich, Robert Irwin, Eric Ormsby, and Amir Taheri). Highlights: I recall Bernard’s admission of an error, and reveal the secret of how he managed to belt out a book a year during “retirement.” Click here to read in full.

Books by Bernard Lewis

Me and My MESA

This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on November 23.

Over the coming days, I’ll be attending the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) annual conference in Washington. It’s time for me to catch up on the zeitgeist in my field, and there’s no better place to do that than at MESA. It’s been a long time—to be precise, sixteen years—since my last attendance at a MESA conference. MESA veterans might remember the occasion: Edward Said was being feted for his contribution (such as it was) to Middle Eastern studies. He was on the plenary podium, and I was in the audience. The British historian Robert Irwin hasn’t forgotten:

I well remember the 1998 Middle East studies association meeting held in the Chicago Hilton to mark the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Orientalism. Said appeared on a platform that was packed with his supporters. Critics from the floor were shouted down. I can still see and hear Homi Bhabha on the platform contemptuously booming out “Who are you? Who are you?” to one hapless member of the audience who was trying to make a point from the floor.

That “hapless member” was me. Irwin is accurate, except that there weren’t any other “critics from the floor” aside from me. Said, knowing I was in the audience, specifically invited me to stand up and challenge him, as though he were interested in a debate. That turned out to be a set-up. (Homi Bhabha, Said’s chivalrous defender on that occasion, is now alleged by the keepers of Said’s flame to have betrayed him by criticizing the departed Said through “Zionist argumentation.” Bhabha furthermore stands accused of being “popular in some leftist Israeli academic circles.” A falling out among post-colonialism’s thieves.)

The next time I figured in a MESA plenary, I wasn’t even there. It was in San Francisco in 2001, shortly after 9/11 and the publication of my book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Franklin Foer went out to cover the conference for The New Republic, and in his report I read this: “There was one universally acknowledged villain at the conference—it just wasn’t Osama bin Laden. No, the man everyone loved to hate was Martin Kramer.” When my name was mentioned by someone in the plenary, “some in the audience actually hissed.” I suppose that was better than “Who are you?”

So now I’m back, not as a participant but as an observer. I’ve registered for the conference as a non-member, and that non-membership is principled. Its specific origin is the failure of MESA to overcome its political instincts and confer on Bernard Lewis the title of honorary fellow, reserved for a select few who’ve made exceptional contributions to the field. Whatever one thinks of Lewis’s politics, only an ignoramus or hack would deny his massive contribution to the field. Writing of Lewis, one former MESA president has testified to

the extraordinary range of his scholarship, his capacity to command the totality of Islamic and Middle Eastern history from Muhammad down to the present day. This is not merely a matter of erudition; rather, it reflects an almost unparalleled ability to fit things together into a detailed and comprehensive synthesis. In this regard, it is hard to imagine that Lewis will have any true successors.

Yet not only did MESA deign not to confer the honor upon Lewis, it bestowed it upon Edward Said, who brought Middle Eastern studies to the brink of ruin. Lewis never needed any honors from MESA: it was MESA that needed to honor him, and MESA’s failure to do so is evidence that it isn’t a scholarly association in the pure sense. So why join it?

That brings me to this year’s conference. MESA meets once every three years in Washington, to demonstrate its relevance to the powers that be. University-based Middle East centers feed at the taxpayers’ trough, and so it’s important to show up every few years at the doorstep of Congress, in an effort to prove that academe is “relevant” to the national interest. Some aspect of the program is pitched just for that purpose. (This year, it’s a panel on ISIS.)

The problem is that the radicals’ hormones are raging in the wake the Israel-Hamas war, and many of the rank-and-file would like to add MESA to the list of associations that have passed resolutions calling for an academic boycott of Israel. This isn’t such a smart thing to propose in Washington, and MESA’s president, Nathan Brown, has already reminded the members that MESA is “a non-political association.” But some MESA members think otherwise, and they’re always looking for ways to shove MESA even deeper into politics than it already is. In short, the conference is bound to be contentious.

In my next post, I’ll share my impressions of the triumphal reception accorded by MESAns to Steven Salaita, the anti-Israel tweet artist who got canned at the University of Illinois, and who’s become a jobless martyr.

A smoke screen for Palestine-pushers

This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on November 3.

Whenever criticism is leveled at federal funding for area studies in universities—especially those bias-laden, error-prone Middle East centers—someone jumps up to claim that this funding is crucial to the national interest. Now it’s the turn of Nathan Brown, a political scientist at George Washington University and current president of the Middle East Studies Associations (MESA).

Brown claims that federally-funded area studies centers are “essential” for U.S. policy, a “vital national asset,” and “often the only sources of knowledge when crises erupt in unfamiliar places.” They’ve done an “outstanding job of training” Middle East experts, and “political” criticism of them “threatens the ability of the United States to understand the world and act effectively in it.” If you don’t like it that “an individual faculty member offends a supporter of a particular political position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, should students of Swahili and teachers of Tagalog be caught in the crossfire?” Should “programming that is critical of Israel on some campuses endanger all funding for international education?”

Those are valid questions, but they’re posed disingenuously. Here are Brown’s two main elisions:

1. The only people who think that these centers are a “vital national asset” are the professors who collect the money. Over the years, there have been a series of government-sponsored reviews of these Title VI programs (reference is to the authorizing title of the Higher Education Act), and not one review has concluded that the programs do anything resembling an “outstanding job,” especially on languages. (The last major review, by the National Academies, concluded there was “insufficient information to judge program performance.”)

The claim that these centers are “often the only sources of knowledge” on emerging trouble spots is just untrue. That’s rarely the case, and as regards the Middle East, it’s now never the case. Government has had to assemble the full range of capabilities, from area expertise to language training, in-house. That’s why the Obama administration—yes, the Obama administration!—cut the budget of this “vital national asset” by 40 percent back in 2011. The only lobbying for Title VI funding comes from within academe itself.

2. The “political” criticism of Title VI Middle East centers is a response to the rampant politicization of some of these centers by those who run them, and who’ve mobilized them against Israel. This isn’t a matter of “an individual faculty member” here or there. It’s a plague that arises from overall attitudes in the field. Brown knows the problem, which is why he recently issued a letter to MESA’s members effectively imploring them not to drag the organization into a BDS debate.

One obvious effect has been to drive the study of Israel almost completely out of these centers, into separately-funded and administered Israel studies programs. Some Title VI Middle East centers, thus relieved of the burden of fairly presenting Israel, have become even more blatant purveyors of pro-Palestinian agitprop. This fall, for the first time, half a dozen Title VI center directors openly pledged to boycott Israeli academe. How might that impact the centers they administer? No one really knows.

A case can be made for Title VI. Not every Middle East center is a shameful disaster, and most of the funding goes to centers specializing in other world areas. Brown alludes to some of these arguments. But his broader defense of the Middle Eastern end of Title VI is a misleading attempt to throw up a smoke screen for the very people who really threaten the program: radical professors who treat it as a slush fund to promote their political causes on campus. If Title VI gets rough treatment in the present reauthorization, students of Swahili and teachers of Tagalog should know who’s at fault: the Palestine-pushers who’ve fouled the academic nest with their relentless propagandizing.