MESA comes under attack for bias

Historians in the News

[Pierre M. Atlas is assistant professor of political science and director of the Franciscan Center for Global Studies at Marian College. Contact him at]

When discussing a controversial issue, what does it mean to be "fair and balanced"?

This question confounds not only journalists but academics as well. What does it mean to bring "balance" into the classroom or into scholarly discourse? Should all perspectives be given equal weight? Do all perspectives deserve equal weight?

As I write this I am attending the 40th annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association. MESA is the premier international academic society for those who study all aspects of the Middle East, its history, peoples, languages and cultures. More than 2,000 scholars are here from around the world, professors and graduate students representing numerous academic disciplines.

Walking through the halls of the conference hotel one hears numerous languages, including French, Arabic, Farsi, Turkish and Hebrew. MESA is a dynamic and multi-voice organization, and its conference aims at providing a safe space to discuss controversial issues in a scholarly manner.

At least, that's the goal. Given the enormous diversity of its membership and the intensity of the crises in the Middle East today, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the quest for academic "balance" can get lost in the shuffle. And that, of course, begs the question: How do we define academic balance?

At a roundtable discussion on last summer's Israel-Lebanon war, the five panelists, some from Lebanon and some not, expressed nuanced differences when discussing Lebanon's internal politics. But they uniformly condemned Israel's actions in the war as "aggression," and repeatedly referred to Hezbollah's actions as "resistance." Supporters of Israel argue that Hezbollah started the conflict, and thus it bears ultimate blame for the war's costs. But the panelists expressed a view held by many in the Arab world that Israel has a long history of aggression against Lebanon, that it was looking for any excuse to start the war last summer, and that the United States gave it the green light.

One panelist showed pictures of the war's massive destruction: numerous shots of Lebanese neighborhoods flattened like pancakes, bridges blown apart beyond all recognition, and weeping mothers at funerals of civilian Lebanese killed by Israeli bombs. There were no pictures -- or even any mention -- of the hundreds of Hezbollah rocket attacks on Israeli cities. Lebanon suffered the bulk of the war's destruction, and more than 10 Lebanese were killed for every one Israeli. But does that mean that Israeli suffering should be ignored completely?

Most of the audience's questions were sympathetic to the panelists' point of view, but not all. One MESA member asked why there was no Israeli perspective on the panel, and if this disparity was appropriate at an academic conference. He was told that they did not see the need to have an "Israeli apologist" sitting beside them.

I asked why the speakers labeled Israel's attacks on Lebanese cities "aggression," but called Hezbollah's attacks on Israeli cities "resistance." Doesn't that suggest that some civilian deaths are valued less than others? Although I didn't get a direct answer, one panelist made the morally problematic assertion that the quantity of deaths made Israel's actions "worse" than those of Hezbollah.

The five panelists flatly rejected the notion that they should seek "balance" on this issue. They said that, as scholars, what mattered was that they "speak the truth," rather than give equal time to all sides.

But whose truth? Conservative pundits often accuse academia of the "crime" of postmodern thinking -- of denying that basic facts and certainties exist. This, they say, leads to moral relativism.

But "truth" is often multi-faceted, consisting of different and sometimes incompatible perspectives. All of history's totalitarian movements, secular and religious, have begun with people believing that they possessed "the Truth" with a capital T. Scholarly discourse, at its best, articulates and acknowledges different understandings of the truth, and thus serves as an antidote to such absolutist thinking.

I sat stunned as the panelists asserted that there was only "one truth" to the Lebanon conflict. In that moment, my MESA colleagues sounded more like the conservative attackers of academia than the progressive, postmodern thinkers they thought themselves to be.

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Stephen Sheehi - 11/30/2006

I was in attendance at the panel discussion on Israel’s war on Lebanon at the Middle Eastern Studies Conference in Boston to which Pierre Atlas refers (“Middle East Academics Disregard Quest for Balance”, Nov. 23). Mr. Atlas implies that the panel was biased because they offered five differing, alternative views on what was termed the “Sixth [Arab-Israeli] War without regurgitating the Israeli and/or American “renditions” of the summer’s violence. As scholars, the panelist offered empirical evidence to support their own theoretical readings. Upon being asked about “balance”, the panelists acknowledged the abhorrent tragedy of civilian deaths regardless of borders.

The panelists were too tactful to mention that the American public is inundate every day with the “other side”. As someone who was in Beirut with my two children under Israeli bombing and evacuated by the American military, I could not stomach watching mainstream American news channels from Fox to MSNBC to CNN, the best of which pretended that the violence was some how between two equal sides. The panel members were far too tactful in sparing the audience and Mr. Atlas the litany of statistics that proves that this “war” was hardly “balanced” in terms of violence or news coverage.

More than a million of Lebanon’s four million inhabitants were displaced. Israeli munitions killed more than 1300 innocent civilians, at least one third of which were under the age of 12. An estimated 15,000 homes were destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of tons of munitions fell within 34 days including phosphorous weapons (considered illegal chemical weapons), thermobaric bombs, and tens of thousands of pounds of depleted uranium shells and missiles causing long-term health problems for the Lebanese. In violation of US Arms Export Control Act, the Israelis dropped a massive amount of cluster bombs on Lebanon, the majority of which were launched in the final 72 hours of the hostilities when the Israeli Army knew a cease-fire was at hand. 1,200,000 of these cluster bomblets pepper Lebanon, resulting in more than 35 deaths in rural Lebanon and wounding of more than a 150 since the cease-fire. The disproportional level of force used by Israel was targeted at civilians according to the UN, Human Rights Watch, and other independent Western observers,

The long-term effects of Israel’s aggression on Lebanon this summer is astounding. Tens of thousands of gallons of oil spilled into the Mediterranean with unknown effects to marine wildlife and the ecosystem. Lebanon incurred $3.6 billion in direct losses and $5 billion in indirect loses of revenue. The monies pledged at the Stockholm conference are, in fact, renewed promises of funds that were never delivered to Lebanon.

Mr. Atlas recklessly, if not sophomorically, invokes the specter of “authoritarianism”. Not only have the Israeli victims of Hizbullah’s rockets received more coverage in the news media (which neglected that half of these victims were Palestinian Israelis) but the over-coverage of the “Israeli side” compels scholars to stress the facts that were left out of mainstream discourse. If one were to counterpose an equally simplistic and pedantic question, one could but should not ask Mr. Atlas whether the Holocaust, Armenian genocide, the invasion of Poland, the crack down in Czechoslovakia and Hungry, or tragedy of 9/11 have two sides that should be presented in a “balanced” manner?