Middle East studies scholars of Iranian descent, including Hamid Dabashi, Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University, are among the signers of an open letter to exiled Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf objecting to his attendance at this month’s Jerusalem International Film Festival where he received a “Lifetime Achievement Award for Peace and Freedom.” According to Makhmalbaf’s detractors:
His participation directly violates the International call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) of the State of Israel issued by Palestinian civil society in 2005, as well as the specific call for Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel issued in July 2004. . . . We cannot in good conscience stand by Mr. Makhmalbaf and his decision which will inevitably validate the Israeli occupation, apartheid and ethnic cleansing. We ask not only that Mr. Makhmalbaf stand with the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement, but that he be a messenger of liberation for everyone, including both Palestinians and Iranians.
In contrast, eighty Iranian academics and opposition activists sent an open letter to the Times of Israel supporting Makhmalbaf’s “bravery for breaking the taboo of visiting the state of Israel and conveying the message of friendship between [the] Iranian people and [the] people of Israel.” Moreover, the letter states, “We believe that supporting the rights of the Palestinian people is not a sufficient justification to criticize an Iranian director’s professional trip to Israel.”
As for Makhmalbaf, he stands by his decision, noting that, “I try to unite people through arts, I am [a] citizen of cinema, and cinema has no border.”
One might hope Dabashi, a film critic, film consultant, and self-described “theorist of trans-aesthetics (‘art without border’),” would reach the same conclusion, but, given that he’s a member of the advisory board for the U.S. Campaign for the Academic & Cultural Boycott of Israel, it’s clear that anti-Zionism trumps any alleged belief in the transcendance of art.
What’s worse, Dabashi actually wrote a laudatory book about the filmmaker in 2010 titled, Conversations with Mohsen Makhmalba. Among other subjects, the two discussed Makhmalba’s antipathy towards Iran’s theocratic regime–the very regime with which Dabashi now find himself in tacit agreement, as Iran’s hardliners have labeled the filmmaker a “traitor” and accused him of “treason” and “collaboration with the Zionists.”
Both Dabashi and the Islamic Republic are pursuing a strategy of isolation, demonization, and bigotry rather than engaging with political opponents in an effort to find common ground. It’s nice to know which side of the “peace” coin too many of our esteemed Middle East studies scholars are on.