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.

The Transregional Institute, ever so diverse

Today’s New York Sun reports that Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor at Columbia, who’s only just sat down in the chair, has tossed his name in the hopper for a chair at Princeton. This one would put him in the driver’s seat of something called the Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia. (Website here.) I’ll probably have more to say about this interesting twist, but for now I’ve unearthed what I wrote about the Transregional Institute in 2002, just to put it back on the record. It conveys the flavor of the place, and suggests why Khalidi might be just the right man. This is what I wrote:

When Israelis and Palestinians clash, the academic tribes rally. It’s happening once more across America. Activist organizations spring into action. Faculty members speak out. All of this is legitimate. What is illegitimate is when the very institutions of a university–academic units such as departments, centers, and institutes–turn themselves into blatant partisans of one side or the other. This is just what happened at Princeton in the spring of 2001.

Background: in 1994, Prince Moulay Hicham Benabdallah of Morocco, a Princeton alumnus, bestowed a hefty gift on the university to establish something called the Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, North Africa, and Central Asia. Princeton, of course, has a renowned department of Near Eastern studies, the oldest in the country. But the prince wanted something all his own and was prepared to pay for it. A Moroccan anthropologist, Abdellah Hammoudi, directs the vanity institute. It organizes conferences, many of them outside the country, and passes out a couple of fellowships each year.

This past spring, the Institute for Transregional Study announced a lecture series on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When genuine academic units organize lecture series, the usual approach is to recruit speakers who will represent diverse views. After all, diversity is the mantra of the American university. In fact, what one often gets are identical views expressed by people of diverse backgrounds. Call it false diversity. The Institute for Transregional Study, in its spring lecture series, produced what must be regarded as the textbook case, the purest form, the ideal type, of false diversity.

The nine-lecture series brought together a truly broad collection of supporters, sympathizers, and apologists for the Palestinian cause. Celebrities? Edward Said and Richard Falk addressed the “end,” the “collapse” of the peace process, and who could doubt where they would lay the blame? Journalists? Inveterate Israel-basher Robert Fisk, of the London Independent, delivered his usual indictment. Sylvain Cypel, international correspondent of Le Monde, analyzed the approach of the French press, with its predictable sympathies. (Notice: no American journalists.) Academic experts? Palestinian professor Salim Tamari and Lebanese writer and militant Elias Khoury demanded the “right of return.” Sara Roy, perpetual “research associate” at Harvard University, once again explained Israel’s “political economy of dispossession.”

Israelis? Of course there were Israelis. After all: diversity rules the university. There were two. Ilan Pappe, the zealous anti-Zionist at Haifa University, a man for whom even the post-Zionists are Nakba-deniers, described what he thought would be a “fair settlement.” (Pappe thinks it must be based on Israel’s total and abject acceptance of all responsibility for the conflict and all of its consequences.) Amira Hass, the very engagé Palestinian affairs correspondent of Haaretz, now a resident of Ramallah, lectured on “The Israeli Policy of Closure: A Means of Domination and a Form of Neo-Occupation.”

And that was it. This was the entire line-up of the institute’s semester-long lecture series on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

No doubt this would pass for diversity at the Mohammed V University in Rabat, former home to Professor Hammoudi. Perhaps it would pass for diversity in Moulay Hicham’s palace. It shouldn’t pass for diversity at Princeton. The question is whether Princeton will continue to ignore the abuse of its name for blatantly political purposes or will affirm the basic neutrality of its academic units–even a cash cow like the Institute for Transregional Study.

Well, it’s three years later, and although Hammoudi has stepped down, the mission is the same. The Transregional Institute is now recruiting fellows for next year, to work on this: “Society under Occupation: Contemporary Palestinian Politics, Culture and Identity.” The details of this exercise are here. According to the acting director, Miguel Centeno, the purpose of the fellowships is to “bring people onto campus to expand intellectual diversity.” Sure.