Martin Kramer: Columbia University Compounds Its Errors

Roundup: Historians' Take

Martin Kramer, at his blog (1-31-05):

Fiascos at Columbia University follow one another in a dizzying succession. This week's episode opens tonight at the Law School, where four academics will solemnly consider a burning question. No, it's not how to jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, which is the present mission of armies of diplomats and statesmen. It's this: "Is the two-state solution still the best hope for Palestinians and Israelis, or is time to begin working toward a one-state option?" On Morningside Heights, some people ponder this over their cornflakes.

The correct answer, in case you were wondering, is that the right time isn't now or ever. The binational "one-state option" is a thin euphemism for the elimination of Israel and its total replacement by Palestine, which would invite "back" several million Palestinians eager to realize their "right of return." Those few Israelis who have heard of the idea shrug it off as a joke, and no responsible Palestinian faction advocates it, because it defies common sense and popular will on both sides. It's a bit of secular messianism, which if it were ever made operational would produce a few more generations of blood and fire. It properly belongs on the same shelf of "solutions" as the "transfer" of Palestinians across the Jordan River or the Hamas vision of a Jew-free Islamic state. It's crackpot.

So the idea would consign millions of people to endless bloodshed. Is that a reason for intellectuals not to champion it? In Edward Said's declining years, when he took on the aura of a prophet, he veered toward the "one-state solution." Unfortunately, he never really thought through its implications for the Jews. "The Jews are a minority everywhere," he told an Israeli interviewer. "They are a minority in America. They can certainly be a minority in Israel." When the interviewer asked him whether a Jewish minority would be treated fairly, given the region's past history, Said offered this bit of rigorous thought:

I worry about that. The history of minorities in the Middle East has not been as bad as in Europe, but I wonder what would happen. It worries me a great deal. The question of what is going to be the fate of the Jews is very difficult for me. I really don't know. It worries me.

It worried him? He wondered what would happen? How many Israeli Jews would sign on to that? Said never managed to persuade even his one Israeli soulmate, Daniel Barenboim, that his messianic fantasy was workable.

But academe has never lacked for people willing to follow Edward Said off a cliff, and assorted acolytes have since cogitated, speculated, and elaborated upon his half-baked idea. Palestinian intellectuals living abroad have flocked to it because it makes their impassioned hope for the demolition of Israel look fashionably progressive: The Israeli Jews don't have to leave, they can live comfortably as a minority among us. (I have the uneasy feeling that they don't worry as much as Said did about whether that would really work.) A handful of Jewish and Israeli intellectuals have also taken up the idea, because... well, go figure. It gets them written up in the Haaretz Friday supplement, for a weekend of fame.

The mission of this cult is to establish that the "one-state option" wasn't simply the hallucination of the Morningside messiah, but that it's a genuine program (unlike, say, "transfer" or an Islamic republic), deserving of inclusion on any panel devoted to "alternative proposals for Middle East peace." That's the sub-title of tonight's Columbia panel, and to judge from its co-sponsors, the cult members have achieved their initial goal. The prime mover behind the panel is Qanun, a group of Arab students at the Law School, but co-sponsors include the School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA; Lisa Anderson, dean), the Middle East Institute (Rashid Khalidi, director), and the office of the chaplain. That's the backing of social science and God right there.

But there's another goal, more immediate in the Columbia context, and I think it's this: to save the besieged Joseph Massad, assistant professor in the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures, and the prime target of Columbia's investigation into faculty abuse of students over Israel.

Since coming to Columbia, Massad has modeled himself on Said. But the result has been a crude parody of Said: Massad's extremism is unmitigated by finesse or nuance. He once denounced Israel as racist twenty-two times in a single mind-numbing op-ed. His forthcoming book, for which he hopes to get tenure, is an attempt to redefine Zionism as "an anti-Semitic project." He has compared Ariel Sharon to Goebbels. He has written that Christian fundamentalist supporters of Israel are "the most powerful anti-Semitic group worldwide." (All references here.) The student charges against him are plausible precisely because he reads like a man who has lost all control of his rage.

When Said was around, he could shelter Massad and see to his needs under one roof—a Columbia doctorate, publication by the university press, and a first appointment in a Columbia department. Were Said still around, he would have quashed the present controversy with one sharply-worded essay in the Ahram Weekly, sending everyone at Columbia scurrying back into their burrows. But Said is gone, the students and some faculty have gotten their courage back, and it's now a level played field. So how is Massad to be saved?

By including him, as the announcement of tonight's panel does, among a group of "eminent" scholars in an event co-sponsored by reasonable people. By framing the event in a way that seems to locate Israel's elimination within the field of mainstream debate. By positioning him alongside an Israeli of comparable extremism (Haifa University's Ilan Pappe, en route to participate in "Israel Apartheid Week" in Toronto). And by putting him up there with Rashid Khalidi, who will say that Massad's vision could become the only option if Israel doesn't concede, concede, concede. (The Princeton medievalist Mark Cohen also appears on the panel. He's window-dressing.)

So SIPA and the Middle East Institute have affixed their names to an exercise in quasi-academic extremism, which legitimizes the case for dismantling Israel and throws a lifeline to the professor who champions it. There's no surprise in any of this: it's Columbia. What did surprise me was the news that Columbia wants to raise millions of dollars for a chair and a visiting professorship in Israel studies.

My question to Columbia's President Lee Bollinger is this: do you mean the two-state-solution Israel, or the one-state-solution Israel/Palestine? And if it's the latter, or something in between, are you going to use that money to sponsor events like this evening's timely discussion? Or bring over more Israelis in Maestro Barenboim's wake, to pay tribute to "my dear Edward" in the Said Memorial Lecture? Or bring Joseph Massad and Ilan Pappe together to co-teach Massad's course on "Palestinian and Israeli Politics and Society"? (You know, the one with the blunt disclaimer: "The purpose of the course is not to provide a 'balanced' coverage of the views of both sides.") Or develop new trendy courses like the one being offered this semester by another Said acolyte (an Israeli Arab) on "Cultures of Colonialism: Palestine/Israel"?

Sorry to ask all these pesky questions, but like Edward Said, I tend worry a great deal about the Jews.

Morning-after update: Here's a report on the panel proceedings from the Columbia Spectator. Only one of the four panelists (Cohen) is reported to have supported a two-state solution, and he spoke off-topic. The Spectator:"Khalidi and Massad agreed with Pappe's assessment that a two-state solution is a 'utopian vision'." A two-state solution is utopian! If the report is true, then Khalidi has abandoned his past position in favor of Said's folly. Otherwise, everyone was perfectly true to form:"The panelists attacked Israeli racism as the root of conflict." Of course. It's Columbia.

Further update: Mark Cohen corrects the Spectator:"I in no way and in no words associated myself with that view ['the reality is defined by Israeli racism'], which was most vociferously presented by Professor Massad." Glad to learn it.

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More Comments:

Simon Philip David - 10/9/2005

Inany case I think when you get into the detail of a 2 state solution it will end up having aspects of a OSS grafted onto it in order to make it viable, and will end up looking alot like the European Union.

Americans are not in a good position to judge this as their concept of sovereignty is absolute - certainly the US is a federal state, yet since the cival war at least there has been no dispute as to where ultimate power lies.

Practical problems with a two state solution :

1) No real solution to the Palestinian refugee problem. There is realistically little economic capacity in Palestine to support the return of a significant number of the 4 million registered refugees, which would affect the political stabilty of the entire region.

2) For a Palestinian state to be geographically viable roughly 100,000 settlers would need to be moved - unlikely to be attempted and may lead to civil war if it were tried.

3) Massive duplication of infrastructure - for example Bethlehem is potentially a half hour cab ride from Ben Gurion airport. Under a strict two state solution that infrastructure would be unavailable for Palestinian use and would have to be rebuilt in the West Bank at a cost of billions (not to mention the damage to an increasingly fragile environment).

4) Shared natural resources - Israel sources 25% of its water from the occupied territories, Palestine receives all its electricity from Israel.
Managing/sharing these resources would require coordination so close that it would in practice be a joint ministry.

5) A shared capital city. It is impossible to build a national border through the centre of Jerusalem - where would you clear customs?

6) Neither Israelis nor Palestinians have demonstrated any desire to dissolve the currency union and the customs union, which works to their mutual benefit. ditto above - if two countries share the same currency and the same external customs border then they are in a confederation, whether they like it or not.

and lastly -
Under a two state solution there is no guarantee that Israel will remain a Jewish state anyway, due to the rapid growth of its Arab minority (projected 30% of Israeli citizens in 20 years).

My idea of the best solution : a two state confederation.

- Two states (not cantons) with a clear border between them based on 1967
- One currency
- One customs union (therefore joint Israeli / Palestinian control of the Jordan Valley customs checkpoints)
- Free movement for all citizens of either Israel or Palestine within the Union
- No sovereign Federal government, but a standing intergovernmental coordinating institution
- Most importantly - a mutual treaty on rights of extra-territorial citizens. So returning refugees become Palestinian citizens, but are allowed to physically live in Israel (where the jobs are likely to be) under Israeli authority, and the settlers (now know as "extra-territorial Israelis") get the same status.
Importantly for Israel the status of "extraterritorial Palestinian" may be attractive to the people currently known as Arab Israelis.

Most federations have emerged in response to war and are in themselves part of the solution to a lack of trust - Belgium, Canada, and one could argue the UK are all the product of long wars between French and English, Walloons and Flemish, English and Scots respectively.

And of course the EU is effectively a German / French confederation - if the children of Charlemagne can unite, then surely the sons of Abraham can do the same.

Simon Philip David - 10/9/2005

In my experience Palestinians are really not very enthusiastic about a one state solution - which is why they have been fighting the settlement movement for the last 30 years.
In reality they would not seeking a One State Solution at all - but seeking political equality withing the binational reality that Israel has imposed on them.

Christopher Osborne - 2/5/2005

Historian Tony Judt in the New York Review of Books did indeed make note of the evolution of Edward Said's thinking towards a one-state solution--Israel--of the Mideast crisis, ponderings on his part which were still incomplete at the time of his death in 2003. Said thought that Israel must realistically be the only state in the region of Palestine because the West Bank and Gaza Strip have become so undesirable as the result of overcrowding, poverty, and the destruction wrought by violence between the Israeli Defense Force/Israeli Air Force and a different array of Palestinians (protestors, rioters, terrorists). Indeed a one-state solution would render Right of Return a moot point. (Judt also argued that Said's musings were intellectally deeper and transcended not just rightists who reflexively condemned him but also leftists who are always accused of blindly worshipping him.)
Although recent census figures indicate there are 5 million Israelis and 4 million Palestinians at this time, the Palestinians have a higher birthrate. Thus if a one-state solution was hypothetically adopted now, a mixed Israel would retain a continued Jewish majority for one more generation, followed by a permanent Palestinian majority. Said probably knew this.
The ugly questions which have to be asked about a one-state solution, however, include whether or not the Jews would even survive in an Arab-majority state or be treated as first-class citizens. Said was hoping for democratic, secular governments in the Arab world--but this does not reflect reality in a region of religious or Baathist dictatorships. Thus Said may have been "in touch" with his fellow Arabs to the same degree as leftist university professors in America are in touch with the actual U.S. working class.
Jews are correct to worry about whether the Arabs would indeed grant them first-class citizenship and minority rights against the tyranny of the majority in an Arab-majority state. (Benny Morris does mention in his survey history "Righteous Victims" that although the pre-Zionist Middle East didn't have nearly the same number of pogroms as did Christian Europe, it nonetheless had a few and Jews were subject to discriminatory laws.)Additionally, Israel was founded in 1948 as an explicitly Jewish state and won its independence in war against an Arab coalition with this understanding. The idea of an "Arab Israel" has something of a strange resonance.