The recent appointment of Ilana Feldman as the interim dean of George Washington University’s (GWU) Elliott School of International Affairs is extremely concerning on several levels. Feldman is an active known supporter of the anti-Israel “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” (BDS) movement through her involvement with the Palestinian American Research Center, and was part of a group that pushed a BDS initiative in the American Anthropological Association.
Feldman’s scholarship has long typified the politicization of the academy, especially as it relates to the Arab-Israeli conflict. But her new appointment would allow her pro-Palestinian activism to shape university administration. It is important to note that Feldman was among those who signed a letter calling for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions that was published on the Arab Studies Institute website. The letter endorses the Palestinian so-called “right of return”—and thus, the destruction of Israel.
Feldman’s deliberate blurring of scholarship and activism has prompted serious expressions of concern. She is a case study of a scholar-activist who has now been given authority by the university administration to extend her own sphere of influence beyond the classroom.
Notwithstanding these fears, the university has thus far lauded Feldman’s work in Middle East studies and brushed off complaints. GWU provost Brian Blake has welcomed Feldman by referring to her as “an expert in her field with close working relationships with faculty, students and staff.”
Feldman is a byproduct of the growth of academic specialization that has directly helped the Palestinian cause. The creation of academic sub-disciplines, and then journals, in areas such as refugee studies, human rights and international law has provided venues to generate a new, large literature on Palestinian-Arab refugees and UNRWA, the internationally funded welfare organization purportedly aimed at helping Palestinians.
This academic growth has also been accompanied by the even more explosive growth of local and international NGOs, many of which are supported by the United Nations and European countries as extensions of foreign policy—addressing issues such as democracy promotion, human rights and development. These NGOs have created a global network of institutions to promote the Palestinian cause, generally—and that of the refugees, specifically—which then works in tandem with like-minded academia and media.
In more recent years, the pervasiveness of scholarship-advocacy in favor of the Palestinian-Arab refugees and UNRWA has also spawned a backlash. These have mostly had the effect of putting the organization and its supporters, like Feldman, on the defensive. Some substantive critiques of UNRWA have, in turn, also been attacked by the organization and its various supporters.
The bigger picture surrounding the Feldman kerfuffle is the broader state of academia that continues to produce vapid pro-Palestinian polemics under the thin guise of scholarship. Scholar-activists want to be seen as successors to the late Palestinian intellectual Edward Said, the leading proponent of academia’s Palestinianization and a key creator of its ruling intellectual paradigm, postcolonial theory. In that context, Said equated academics who support American foreign policy with 19th-century European intellectuals who, he alleged, propped up racist colonial empires.
A core premise of postcolonial theory is that it is immoral for a scholar to put his/her knowledge of foreign languages and cultures at the service of American power. Said’s major work, Orientalism, blamed all of the troubles of the Middle East on the West, stemming from a “trifecta of evils”—imperialism, racism and Zionism. While Orientalism often ignored evidence that ran counter to its thesis, it is still the canonical text in the academic field of Middle Eastern studies. Feldman exemplifies this.
The correlation of identity politics and propaganda among younger pro-Palestinian scholar-activists who devote their time to misinformation rather than actual inquiry and research has also spread to other disciplines. One result has been the transformation of classrooms and campuses into places where only one narrative is offered and only one opinion is acceptable.
For its own sake and that of GWU’s broader reputation, the Elliott School should reconsider this troubling academic appointment.