On March 3, 2012, Harvard University will host a two-day conference on the “One State Solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Featured guests include academics who seek to delegitimize the Jewish state, the founder of Electronic Intifada and an ex- Palestinian official. No one remotely sympathetic to Israel is identifiable.
Tragically, this is the sort of anti-Israel activity thinly disguised by a veneer of academic posing that one has come to expect from this venerable Ivy League institution.
In recent years, Harvard has hosted such figures as Holocaust defamer Norman Finkelstein, accused serial fabricator professor Ilan Pappé, and Naim Ateek, founder of the anti-Israel, anti-Jewish Sabeel ministry.
The university is also home to Stephen Walt, co-author of the error-prone The Israel Lobby.
The transformation of Harvard’s Middle Eastern studies from sober scholarship to anti-Israel advocacy has coincided with a rise in financial gifts from wealthy Arab donors, including a reported $20 million gift by Saudi businessman and international investor Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Al Saud in 2005. However, the most insidious component of this shift is the position the school’s Center for Middle East Studies occupies as a beneficiary of both Gulf Arab largesse and taxpayer funding through federal Title VI grants.
Harvard is one of 17 universities that receives 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 supported 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.
Saudi Arabia and the Global Islamic Terrorist Network, edited by Sarah N. Stern and published in November 2011 by Palgrave Macmillan, details the extent of the Saudi infiltration of American education.
The book’s Web site includes data from the US Department of Education indicating that from 1995 to February of 2008, Gulf and other Arab states provided $329 million to American schools. The figure has undoubtedly grown since 2008.
Two well-known academics, Stanley Kurtz and Martin Kramer, testified before Congress about the need for better oversight of how Title VI funds are used. In 2007, Kurtz warned of the capture and use of public outreach programs by Saudi and Gulf Arab donors to shape America’s K- 12 education on the Middle East.
There is hardly a better example of the dangers Kurtz, Kramer and Stern warn us of than the activities of the Outreach center of Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies. The center’s stated mission is to promote “a critical understanding of the diversity of the Middle East region.” But the activities and record of its director and its 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.
The Outreach Center’s director, Paul Beran, is an activist in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. The center’s recommended readings heavily favor anti-Zionist writings, including works by the late Edward Said, a Palestinian polemicist, and former Israeli professor Ilan Pappé, 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, whose “despicable” anti-Israel animus led Susan Rice, US ambassador to the United Nations, to call for his removal as UN special rapporteur on the Palestinian Arabs in 2011. The center’s Web site steers teachers to writings by anti-Zionist Jews.
A presentation entitled “Teaching Sense-Making Around Israel/Palestine” rejects discussion of Palestinian terrorism and describes any focus on the conflict’s religious dimension as “unsophisticated.”
Israel is labeled a regional “hegemon,” ignoring the fact that Muslim and Arab populations outnumber the Jewish state by 400 million to 8 million and possess land area a thousand times greater.
Distortion and misinformation are only part of the problem.
Of equal concern is the intellectual dumbing-down that inevitably follows the abandonment of serious scholarship. This is apparent in the banal selection of reading materials recommended by the Outreach Center. A bevy of fictional stories recycle the theme of alleged Palestinian victimization by Israel.
The center even plans to devote a day-long seminar to a cartoon book produced by a young activist named Sarah Glidden, whose insight into Israel consists of a two-week tour with the Birthright program.
As blogger Joshua Malbin noted, “If the most memorable experience of your life is a package tour taken by literally 200,000 other people to date, you don’t get to write a memoir.” Malbin could have added, if you do write such a memoir, how does that get to be the sole topic of a seminar at Harvard University? 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 September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks by al-Qaida, there was a broad consensus that the United States needed to understand the Middle East better, particularly to answer the question, “Why do they hate us?” With the increasing role of Saudi and other Gulf Arabs in funding Middle Eastern studies and the oft-noted radicalization of many of the professors in this field, state and local officials must take on the responsibility of 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 carefully scrutinize educational material provided from universities like Harvard that have compromised their standards of scholarship.
The writer is a senior researcher for the Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). Any opinions expressed above are solely his own.