Jan 2 2008

Ideology over Integrity in Academe
By James R. Russell
The Current (Columbia University)
Fall, 2007

http://www.columbia.edu/cu/current/article s/fall2007/ideology-over-integrity-in-academe.html


Is this Columbia University? A professor of anthropology calls for a
million Mogadishus, a professor of Arabic and Islamic Science tells a
girl she isn't a Semite because her eyes are green, and a professor
of Persian hails the destruction of the World Trade Center as the
castrating of a double phallus. The most recent tenured addition to
this rogues' gallery is to be an anthropologist, the principal thrust
of whose magnum opus is the suggestion that archaeology in Israel is
a sort of con game meant to persuade the unwary that Jews lived there
in antiquity.

I could refute the claims that Nadia Abu El-Haj makes in her book,
but respected specialists have done so already in Isis, the Journal
of Near Eastern Studies, and elsewhere. Facts on the Ground fits
firmly into the postmodern academic genre, in which facts and
evidence are subordinate to, and mediated by, a "discourse." There is
no right or wrong answer, just competitive discourses. It does not
come as news that people employ the data of archaeology to prove
points of interest to them - information in any discipline used by
human beings does not exist in a vacuum. But, as reviewers noted,
Facts on the Ground expands upon this insight, quite unremarkable in
itself, to propose that Israeli archaeologists use altered or
falsified data and do so to a single ideological end. That purpose is
to demonstrate a previous Jewish sovereignty and long historical
presence that did not in fact exist, thereby to cloak the "colonial"
essence of Zionism. This aspect of the book is malign fantasy.

Though alumnae of Barnard have declared they will stop giving money
to Alma Mater if El-Haj is tenured, it is unlikely their protests
will have any effect. She is fully supported by other ideologues in
positions of power at Columbia and by outspokenly anti-Israel
academics around the globe. Most of the good lack all conviction, as

How did we come to this? Anti-Zionism has a long, diverse history,
and the moral horror of the Nazi Holocaust in the 1940s did not
diminish its appeal. In the early days of Zionism, in the early 20th
century, many Jewish leftists rejected the idea of mass emigration to
a historical national homeland and opted instead for the Bundist
programme of a Yiddish-based Jewish polity in a Diaspora environment.
The Soviets opposed the Bund but Zionism and Hebrew even more,
supporting Israel only briefly on tactical grounds in the late
1940's. Stalin drew away from Israel and began the anti-Semitic
campaign against "rootless cosmopolitans." The word translated as
"rootless" is Russian bezrodnyi, a far more potent term composed of
the negating prefix bez-, "without," plus the root rod-, which means
anything from "birth" to "deeply-felt intimacy" (the adjective
rodnoi) to "the Motherland" (Rodina) itself. Stalinist policies
re-institutionalized in Russia an anti-Semitism in which Jews were
shunned as homeless - barely human - by their very nature. In this way,
the very qualities of selfless internationalism that Jewish leftists
had assiduously cultivated in the cause of world revolution were
turned against them.

The Soviet posture strengthened anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist trends
in the Western Left; and when Israel, a democratic state, became
increasingly alienated from the Eastern bloc and joined in alliance
with France, Britain, and, later, the United States, Leftists saw
this as confirmation of its imperialist nature. Winning the Six Day
War in 1967 did not help: if only the Jews could be cuddly victims
again. But it was hard for the New Left to remain loyal to the
imbecilic Soviets, and the flirtation with Mao could not last long.
The Third World became the cause du jour, and especially the Arab
world and the Palestinian terrorist movement.

Further help came from Columbia, from Edward Said's 1978 book
Orientalism, which proposed a vague socialist agenda, a conspiracy
theory, and a new set of victims of imperialism quite unlike the
Soviets. These were of course the Arabs - and it was even better that
the proximal villain was the ever-sinister, colonizing, comprador
Jew. But there is a problem. Said dealt with the 18th and 19th
centuries, for the most part, but the Arabs were not the political
player in the region then: Ottoman Turkey, a powerful empire and seat
of the Muslim Caliphate, ruled them. Millions of Christian Greeks,
Romanians, Bulgarians, Serbs, and Armenians labored under Ottoman
misrule too. The first four broke away, but the Armenian homeland was
in Anatolia itself. So in 1915, during World War I, the Turks decided
upon genocide, and carried it out.

Said did not mention the Armenians even once in his book, for it
would have made his passive, victimized Islamic world look rather
less passive and not at all the victim. It is a glaring omission.
Said's book was properly dismissed by many prominent reviewers as
amateurish and dishonest - though on other grounds. They did not even
notice the Turkish and Armenian aspect. The book might have been
consigned to well-deserved oblivion.

But a year after its publication, revolution erupted in Iran. And
Orientalism would become the guidebook and intellectual primer for a
new wave of "anti-imperialism." Following the overthrow of the Shah,
Khomeini's radical Islamic followers proclaimed an Islamic
revolutionary ideology with many of the same romantic and apocalyptic
features that had attracted the masses - and armchair revolutionaries
here - to Communism. (An amusing aside: Harvard held an exhibition and
symposium in May 2007, partially funded by our Provost's Office, on
posters of the Iranian revolution. I was asked to present a paper on
Soviet propaganda art, then hurriedly disinvited when the organizers
realized, as they said to me, that comparing the Iranian masterpieces
to those of an atheist régime might offend President Ahmadinejad. One
is touched that Harvard is so alert to the sensitivities of a
Holocaust denier who murders gay people and routinely calls for the
incineration of Israel. So much for academic integrity on the banks
of the Charles.)

Gradually, Middle East studies as we knew it at Columbia disappeared,
to be replaced by what you have now. As it seems to me, Middle East
studies at Columbia and elsewhere has become politicized; and other
branches of the humanities have also fallen prey to ideology. Where
university administrators do not actually share such extreme views
and methods, they are anxious to preserve the appearance of
tranquility and due process in the interests of the institutional
image, even if that appearance is utterly superficial. I therefore
doubt that any challenge to El-Haj can succeed; and perhaps efforts
within universities like Columbia waste energy that might more
effectively be channeled elsewhere. Jewish kids will keep on taking
Lit Hum and enjoying convivial Shabbat dinners, but in a real sense
the battle at Columbia may be lost.

What is to be done? When Berlin was divided and the Communists seized
the Humboldt University in their half of town, refugee scholars
founded the Free University in West Berlin. What have you in New York
City? NYU is not much different from Columbia. But there are two fine
institutions of learning in Manhattan where genuine Near Eastern
studies, untainted by Jew-baiting, apologia for terrorism, and
unscholarly chicanery, might find a home, aided perhaps by the
donations of alumnae and alumni of Barnard and Columbia. The nearer
one to Columbia is the Jewish Theological Seminary on 122nd Street
and Broadway. The farther one (in Arabic, al aqsa - and with its noble
neo-Moorish dome and minaret the appellation almost fits) is uptown,
in Washington Heights: Yeshiva University. Instead of writing angry
letters to Lee Bollinger, alumni can pool their resources to help
create rival MEALAC departments; and Columbia students desirous of an
authentic education in subjects like Middle Eastern history can earn
their transferable credits there.

But, one might say, Jews have fought so hard to get into the Ivy
League. Yes, and Jews in Europe fought hard for emancipation, too:
some learnt skills and lessons along the way that proved useful when
they realized it was time to go and rebuild our own country. Others
held on and wouldn't leave. There is an old story about people who
wandered and came to a plain, where they settled and built a village.
But the place turned out to be the back of a great fish: it dived,
and they drowned. So, there is another great university, actually a
number, but a bit farther away. I have in mind the Hebrew University
of Jerusalem and the other universities of Israel. It is particularly
appropriate to support them now, when they are threatened by boycott.

The Free University of Berlin is a historical example of how one can
cultivate an alternate research center of higher quality than ones
that have been corrupted, where efforts at reform yield diminishing
returns. But there is an example closer to home. I was graduated from
Columbia College in 1974 and delivered the Salutatory address on a
medieval Armenian mystic. Professor Nina Garsoian had developed in
the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department (MEALAC)
a great program in Armenian Studies, and I was the first
undergraduate joint major in the subject. But the subject has
languished since her retirement in 1993. (I was denied tenure at
Columbia in 1992 and shortly thereafter was appointed to America's
oldest chair in the field, here at Harvard.)

After a series of farcical "searches," MEALAC last semester offered
the Armenian position, at only a junior level, to a former pupil of
mine. Carefully considering the character of the search process
itself and the state of the subject and of Near Eastern studies at
Columbia overall, she declined the post, accepting instead a job as
director of the Zohrab Center, a library and research and cultural
institute at the Armenian Diocese in Manhattan. The Zohrab Center and
Harvard's Armenian Studies program have already begun our first joint
project, bypassing Columbia altogether - leaving it behind its
ideological Berlin Wall.

This latest scandal leads me finally, though, to grimmer reflections.
In nazified Dresden,the Jewish professor Victor Klemperer - not Otto,
the conductor, but the academic whose book LTI (Lingua Tertii
Imperii) was the first study of the jargon to which the Third Reich
reduced German - noted that people of every class and profession except
his own had helped him now and then through the Hitler years. His
fellow academics, though, were fascist enthusiasts, unwilling to
help. Nothing of equivalent horror is going on today, but perhaps the
amorality of Klemperer's colleagues should be a warning against
expecting that because men are learned, they must also be right.

When I wrote "What is to be done?" I had in mind Nikolai
Chernyshevsky's Chto delat'; so let me close with a marvelous verse
of the Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel. I think of it when I walk
down 116th & Broadway, and see all that ivy concealing all that rot.
Tvorchestvo vo dvortsakh ne vodvoritsya. "Creativity will not take up
residence in palaces." Or in plain American, "Include me out."

James R. Russell
Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies, Harvard University

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