Pundit, Shmundit: Juan Cole on Zionism

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You know how it happens. You go onto the Internet looking for something specific but soon your eye catches a referenced site that leads to something slightly different but promising and before long you’re clicking away on other slightly different promising sites until you’re more than six degrees of separation from your original search. You’re now staring at a blog you had no intention of ever reading. That’s how I got onto Juan Cole’s “Informed Comment.”

I had never seen his blog before. I do, however, know he’s a chaired professor of history at Michigan and an outspoken critic of everything Israel. In fact, Juan Cole is a capo among a rather large set of academics who bash Israel’s policies if not its very existence. So I stopped to read what makes him — he refers to himself as a public intellectual — tick. What I saw surprised me.

Running down the left column of his blog is a list of topics to access, among them maps, on-line works, Islam web links, books on the Middle East and topping them all, his biography. The bio is over 20 pages and when you get to the end, it tells you it’s only part one. Its detail of minutia rivals any you may read, including Chernow’s Andrew Hamilton. You learn about his family lineage, about his intellectual accomplishment even as a young lad, his learning French and Arabic — his father served in the US military in places like Ethiopia — and as a young teenager was selected valedictorian at his high school. He also tells you about his brilliant college career and in the many pages later, you are treated to glowing lengthy comments made about him by the mandarins of Middle East history. It’s a biography of accomplishment and self-applause that others might find a wee bit embarrassing.

The blog’s daily entries run the gambit, like why Cheney is a traitor, or of Russia’s assurance that Iran will cease enriching uranium at 20 percent, or a reproduction of an interview he had with a Panama City newspaper, including a flattering caricature of himself. It’s all informed comment, as his blog is titled, but perhaps only to those who buy into his master narrative about the contemporary Middle East. It is more misinforming than informed if you don’t necessarily buy into that narrative.

The blog also allows you to access its extensive archive which is arranged according to topic. I clicked on his 15 Israel entries and read, among his informed comments, about his theory on Zionism. He writes: “Zionism: The theory that because murderous Nazis hated Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, all Jews should now crowd into a narrow strip of land between the Mediterranean and 400 million angry Muslims.”

That’s Juan Cole on Zionism. Crude, nasty, but by self-description, informed. That’s the summary statement on Zionism by the chaired professor of Middle East history at Michigan. Can you imagine being a student and talking notes on the Arab-Israeli conflict in his class? Can you imagine writing an essay on that conflict knowing he will grade your work?

Juan Cole’s reputation as a historian is built on an impressive lists of published books, some co-authored, on chapters in books, and papers whose focus is principally on the early histories of the Baha’i and Shi’as. But his academic reach stretches as well into contemporary history of the Muslim Middle East. Yet his knowledge of Jewish history, of early Zionist thought, of Hebrew literature, of Israeli political philosophy, of contemporary Israeli politics, sociology, and economics has no real scholarly roots. His views on these matters are as pedestrian and ideologically tainted as those of any other academic trained in any other branch of academic knowledge who, too, dislikes a Jewish state. Juan Cole might just as well sound off on global warming as he does on theories of Zionism.

His analysis of Israel and Zionism are revered by those who share his views. His scholarship or lack of scholarship is of little consequence. Consider again Juan Coles’ idea of Zionism: “Zionism: The theory that because murderous Nazis hated Jews in the 1930s and 1940s, all Jews should now crowd into a narrow strip of land between the Mediterranean and 400 million angry Muslims.”

It is interesting to note that since 1948, those Jews who have crowded into that narrow strip of land have created a remarkable standard of living for its people, among them over a million Israeli Arabs. That it has won more Nobel prizes since 1948 than have the 400 million angry Muslims. That it has defended itself successfully against several attempts by those 400 million angry Muslims who tried to run the Jews into that Mediterranean Sea Juan Cole refers to. That the Israelis discovered enough natural gas in that Mediterranean Sea to become energy independent while the energy revenue of those 400 million angry Muslims has been wholly dependent on the discovery, extraction, transportation, and refining of crude oil done by the not-angry Christians of the Western world.

So much for Juan Cole as a pundit on Israel and Zionism.

Pundit, Shmundit: Juan Cole on Zionism

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Fred Gottheil

Fred Gottheil is Professor, Department of Economics, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

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