The Clash Over Middle East Studies

Roundup: Talking About History

Jennifer Jacobson, writing in the Chronicle of Higher Education (subscribers only) (Feb. 6, 2004):

Brandeis University plans to open a Center for Middle East Studies this fall that, officials there say, will be free of bias.

It will not be solely focused on the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is what most centers pay attention to, says Jehuda Reinharz, the university's president. And it will be"ideologically free," he says,"to the extent we can make that possible."

But offering a program in Middle East studies whose ideology offends no one may prove to be no less difficult than dividing an ancient homeland between two warring peoples.

Scholars of Middle East studies today find themselves in the middle of a war of ideas as politically charged as the region they study. The discipline's critics, often conservative supporters of the Bush administration, have denounced the programs as anti-American and anti-Israeli and have called for the creation of an advisory board to review them. The U.S. House of Representatives has already passed a bill to create such a board; the Senate will consider the measure within the next few months. Many faculty members and administrators, however, argue that such a board would curtail their academic freedom.

At the center of the debate is what the centers actually do, whom they are training, and what they are training them for.

Legislating Cultural Diversity

The first stone was cast in June, when Stanley Kurtz, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, told a House subcommittee that many academics in Middle East studies were biased against U.S. foreign policy and discouraged students from entering government service.

The influential postcolonial theory of Edward Said, the late Columbia University professor of English, promotes the idea that"it is immoral for a scholar to put his knowledge of foreign languages and cultures at the service of American power," Mr. Kurtz told the subcommittee. The centers, many of which receive funds under Title VI of the Higher Education Act -- generally three-year grants of no more than $500,000 -- rarely balance Mr. Said's work with that of scholars who disagree with him, Mr. Kurtz said.

The centers should correct that imbalance, he said, or else risk losing federal money."Unless steps are taken to balance university faculties with members who both support and oppose American foreign policy, the very purpose of free speech and academic freedom will have been defeated," Mr. Kurtz told the panel.

His testimony helped persuade the House last fall to pass HR 3077 unanimously. The bill would create an advisory board to ensure that foreign-language and area-studies programs that accept federal funds"reflect diverse perspectives and the full range of views on world regions, foreign languages, and international affairs." ...

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