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Sunday, April 2, 2006
Michael Oren on Israel lobby "working paper"

TINFOIL HATS IN HARVARD YARD.
Quiet Riot
by Michael B. Oren New Republic,
Post date: 03.31.06
Issue date: 04.10.06

What does Jerry Falwell have in common with Paul Wolfowitz and Howard Dean?
What links columnist George Will with The New Republic? All, according to a
recently issued "working paper," a shortened version of which appeared in
the London Review of Books, are agents of an amorphous but incalculably
powerful "Israel Lobby." That same inscrutable organization, the paper
alleges, has dictated the decisions of politicians from George W. Bush to
Jimmy Carter and determined the content of The New York Times and The Wall
Street Journal. The goal of the lobby? Quite simply, it wants to impose the
will of a racist, colonialist, antidemocratic state on the unsuspecting
American people, to provoke conflict between the United States and the
world, and to endanger American lives for its own sake.

Exposes of Jewish conspiracies have long been the bailiwick of white
supremacists and Islamic radicals. Indeed, the former Klan leader David Duke
has lauded this document for "validat[ing] every major point" he had ever
made, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has also praised it. But "The
Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," as the paper is titled, was written
not by lunatics, but rather by Stephen Walt, the academic dean of Harvard's
John F. Kennedy School of Government, and by University of Chicago political
scientist John Mearsheimer--two of America's most reputable scholars. Well,
scholars in most regards--but not in this case. To prove their argument, the
professors don't rely on such banal sources as declassified records,
presidential memoirs, or State Department documents. These would
unimpeachably show that Arab oil (and not Israel) was America's persistent
focus in the Middle East--and that presidents have supported Israel for
strategic and moral reasons, not political ones. But, instead of citing
archival sources, Walt and Mearsheimer pack their footnotes with newspaper
articles and references to the polemical writings of Noam Chomsky and Norman
Finklestein, as well as the unreservedly pro-Arab Washington Report on
Middle East Affairs. The paper's slipshod quality was so evident that the
Kennedy School removed its official seal from the treatise. Criticisms have
rained down upon on it from across the political spectrum, with one notable
exception--the field most pertinent to their paper: Middle Eastern studies.

The refusal of this faculty to distance itself from a report that fails to
meet rudimentary research standards, posits unsubstantiated conspiracies,
and, if directed against any other ethnic group, would surely be renounced
as racist, raises serious questions about the state of today's academy. It
should compel all those outside of academia to ask: Why?

The answer can quickly be discerned from a tour of recent writings by the
leaders of Middle Eastern studies. One eminence, Juan Cole of the University
of Michigan, has argued, "[K]nee-jerk US support for Israeli expansionism is
at the root of anti-Americanism in the Arab world." According to Cole,
"pro-Likud intellectuals" have plotted "to use the Pentagon as Israel's
Gurkha regiment, fighting elective wars on behalf of Tel-Aviv." At Columbia,
the political scientist Joseph Massad has proclaimed that Israel is "a
racist Jewish state." Indeed, the contention that support for Israel is the
primary cause of Arab rage against America has long been regarded as
unassailable doctrine among American scholars of the Middle East, along with
a grossly inflated estimation of the Israel lobby's potency.

The radical politicization of Middle Eastern studies stems from one
generation's romance with an idea. The generation was that of the 1960s New
Left, which briefly succeeded in seizing many campuses but failed to capture
the society surrounding them. Retreating into the safety of their
universities, these rebels set about institutionalizing their postmodernist
creed, which denied the existence of objective truths and treated all
narratives as equally valid. "I don't pretend to write history," Avi Shlaim,
an anti-Zionist professor extensively cited by Walt and Mearsheimer, once
proclaimed. "I write my history." Infused with the nihilism of postmodern
French philosophers, this coterie was also deeply skeptical of its own
country's virtue and of Western civilization in general.

Ten years after the student revolts of 1968, those students had become
junior professors, but they still needed a galvanizing idea, an
all-encompassing manifesto that encapsulated their relativist approach to
history and cynicism about the West. That credo was just then furnished by a
charismatic and gifted scholar who, though a professor of English and
comparative literature at Columbia, wrote as a Palestinian attacking the
venerable discipline of Middle Eastern studies.

The academic impact of Edward Said's Orientalism, first published in 1978,
was seismic. That's because its core argument was so powerful: "[E]very
European, in what he could say about the Orient, was ... a racist, an
imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric," Said maintained. He accused
the old "Orientalist" professors, who once dominated the discipline, of
"essentializing" the Middle East into a primitive "other," thus rendering it
conquerable by the West. To cleanse themselves of these impurities, Said
implied, scholars would have to identify "wholeheartedly with the Arabs,"
and, as he later explained, become "genuinely engaged and sympathetic ... to
the Islamic world."

As a work of history, Orientalism is patently unsound. (For instance,
Germany and Hungary, which produced the greatest Orientalists, never coveted
a granule of Middle Eastern territory.) Yet, by condemning laudable
curiosity about other cultures as a symptom of imperialism, by planting this
sequoia of self-doubt in the innermost courtyard of academic inquiry, Said
provided the New Left academics with a road map for their intellectual
assault.

Said's thesis swept through Middle Eastern studies departments, which, in
large measure, were transformed into platforms for advocating the Arab
worldview. Scholars who challenged this dictum were branded Orientalists,
and students who rejected the regnant canon were unable to publish their
work or obtain tenure. Special enmity was reserved for those who portrayed
the United States as anything other than a force for oppression in the
Middle East or who defended Israel against charges of racism and
colonialism. All narratives were valid, suddenly, except those of
unapologetic Americans and Zionists.

But the idea behind Orientalism did not remain within the confines of Middle
Eastern studies. Inexorably, it spread to the emergent fields of gender and
postcolonial studies, and, in time, it grew to dominate the humanities
departments. (One Harvard junior recently told me that she has already been
assigned to read Orientalism twice--once for a course on French colonial
literature and another for an Italian-language class on Africa.) It's
precisely this triumph that makes Walt and Mearsheimer's complaints about
the Lobby's efforts "to stifle criticism of Israel by professors and
students" ring so hollow. Organizations like the Israel on Campus Coalition,
which the working paper specifically targets, emerged because real academic
debate over the Middle East has become virtually impossible. Consider the
case of Michael Doran, the promising former Princeton professor who, after
venturing to suggest, in Foreign Affairs and elsewhere, that the Arabs--not
Israel, not the United States--bore primary responsibility for their
malaise, was publicly excoriated and never granted tenure. Indeed, it seems
the only real disputation among scholars today is over which is the more
sinister, Zionism or U.S. imperialism. Massad, for example, reproved Walt
and Mearsheimer for fixating on the Lobby's power rather than on U.S. crimes
in the region. "[T]he very centrality of Israel to U.S. strategy in the
Middle East ... accounts, in part, for the strength of the proIsrael Lobby
and not the other way around," he argued.

"The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" in fact reveals little about the
conduct of U.S. foreign affairs. It does, however, afford a disquieting look
into just how far the pernicious ideology of Middle Eastern studies has
penetrated the humanities and helped render the academy irrelevant. Gripped
by absolutist theories that quash all opposition, some of America's finest
universities provide environments in which partisan and shoddily documented
screeds like the working paper can pass as serious research.

Michael B. Oren is a senior fellow at The Shalem Center in Jerusalem and the
author most recently of Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the
Modern Middle East (Oxford University Press).

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