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by James R. Russell


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  usual.

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 [Socialist] polity  in 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, [Albanians] 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  is Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at  Harvard University.

This essay appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of The Current (Columbia University) It is archived at Campus Watch


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