When it comes to the Middle East, Harvard needs some schooling

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Click photo to download. Caption: Harvard University. Credit: Jacob Rus.

On March 3-4, Harvard University will host a two-day conference on the “One State Solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Guests include veteran anti-Israel academics, the founder of Electronic Intifada and an ex-Palestinian official. No one sympathetic to Israel is identifiable.

This sort of anti-Israel activity, thinly disguised by a veneer of academic posing, has become commonplace at this venerable Ivy League institution. In recent years, Harvard has hosted Holocaust defamer Norman Finkelstein, accused serial fabricator professor Ilan Pappe and Naim Ateek, founder of the anti-Israel, anti-Jewish Sabeel ministry. The department sponsoring the upcoming conference is home to Stephen Walt, co-author of the error-prone The Israel Lobby.

Click photo to download. Caption: Stephen Walt, co-author of "The Israel Lobby." Credit: Maarten.

These anti-Zionist conclaves are an outward sign of a more insidious transformation of Harvard’s Middle Eastern studies. At the crux of this transformation is the school’s Center for Middle East Studies, which benefits from both taxpayer support and gifts from Gulf Arab donors. Harvard is one of 17 universities receiving federal Title VI funding for the purpose of increasing public knowledge about the Middle East and Islam. By targeting their donations to schools involved in the federally funded outreach effort, the Gulf Arab donors influence not only instructors at the university level but also, through them, those who will teach about the Middle East in primary and secondary schools.

The activities of the outreach center of Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies are instructive. The center’s stated mission is to promote “a critical understanding of the diversity of the Middle East region.” But its activities and programming reveal a dogmatic adherence to the polemical, often counter-factual Palestinian version of the Arab-Israeli conflict, rather than the presentation of authoritative and diverse scholarly viewpoints.

In 2003, Massachusetts education officials criticized Harvard for promoting a textbook called the Arab World Notebook, calling it “a piece of propaganda.” The book contained falsehoods like the claim that Islam was the “second largest religious group in America,” with six million members based on 1980s figures. Demographers put the current, expanded American Muslim population at just two or three million.

This is how the original published version of the Notebook described the Israeli War of Independence:

“As a result of Israel’s declaration of Independence and its subsequent continued attempts to force the Palestinian Arab inhabitants out of their land, the neighboring Arab states vowed to come to the rescue of the Palestinian civilian population.”

Professor Efraim Karsh’s archival research shows that Arab flight was primarily self-induced. The notion that the Arab states attacked Israel to “rescue” the Palestinians is refuted by their open intent to wipe out the nascent Jewish state.

The Notebook offered an exculpatory narrative to explain the Arab defeat, claiming,

“The Arab armed forces were outnumbered 3-1... against 65,000 well-trained Jewish troops.”

In fact, the entire Jewish population of Israel was 650,000; it was outnumbered at least 40 to 1 by the surrounding Arab states. In comparison to the well-armed Arab armies- including the British-led Arab Legion-the Jews initially possessed no aircraft or tanks and suffered from shortages of artillery, small arms and ammunition. The textbook has been updated, but as a new book—Saudi Arabia and the Global Islamic Terrorist Network—documents, its fundamental flaws remain.

The outreach center’s current director, Paul Beran, is an activist in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. The center’s recommended readings favor anti-Zionist writings, including works by the late Edward Said, a Palestinian polemicist, and the former Israeli professor Pappe, the driving force behind academic boycotts of Israel. The center also recommends the propaganda film Occupation 101, which features notorious defamers of Israel like Noam Chomsky and Richard Falk. Serious scholarship is abandoned to dumbed-down banal fictional works that recycle the theme of alleged Palestinian victimization.

The people who should be the most concerned with the degradation of Middle Eastern scholarship are parents, taxpayers and those associated with universities that tolerate and abet such propaganda. After the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks by al Qaeda, a broad consensus formed that the United States needed to understand the Middle East better, particularly to answer the question, “Why do they hate us?”

With the prominent role of Saudi and other Gulf Arabs in funding Middle Eastern studies, and the anti-Zionist ideology of many academics, state and local officials must assume responsibility for protecting their students and the field of Middle East studies itself from irresponsible university faculty and administrators. Parents and taxpayers must be vigilant and urge school officials to scrutinize educational material provided from universities like Harvard that have compromised their standards of scholarship.

The writer (pictured at left) is a senior researcher for the 65,000-member, Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). Any opinions expressed above are solely his own.

Posted on February 14, 2012 and filed under Opinion, U.S..