Why Academic Scholarship on Israel and Palestine Threatens Western Elites

IN FOCUS, 24 Jun 2024

Joseph Massad | Middle East Eye - TRANSCEND Media Service

US House Representative Elise Stefanik questions Northwestern University President Michael Schill during a congressional hearing in Washington, DC, on 23 May 2024. (Rod Lamkey/CNP via Reuters)

No institution in the liberal West is safe from pro-Israel repression, especially universities whose knowledge production has dismantled the official consensus.

18 Jun 2024 – The gap is most apparent in the United States, but also in Britain and France.

Between the early 1950s and late 1970s, academic knowledge and media coverage of this issue had largely converged in their support for the Zionist state. Israel’s crimes against the colonised Palestinians were often suppressed or even justified.

There were some exceptions, of course, like journalist David Hirst’s 1977 classic The Gun and the Olive Branch. Released by a mainstream commercial publisher, the book made the previously little-known histories of the Palestinian struggle and Zionist settler-colonialism accessible to a broader audience.However, it was not until the 1980s that the momentous academic production on the subject of Israel and Palestine occurred.

Edward Said’s The Question of Palestine in 1979 and Noam Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle in 1983 were early doses of what the new academic scholarship on Palestine and Israel portended and had reached larger audiences on account of the fame of their authors.

While neither Said nor Chomsky was a Middle East specialist, both were distinguished academics in their respective fields of comparative literature and linguistics.

Since then, the shift in the field from its erstwhile pro-Israel position to more critical scholarship has created a wide chasm between the academy and the media.

A critical shift

Before the 1980s, attempts by Palestinian scholars in the West to provide alternative histories remained limited in scope, especially in view of the pro-Israel euphoria that overtook the right and the left after the 1967 Israeli conquest of three Arab countries.

The West’s commitment to Israel runs so deep that it is willing to destroy not only academic freedom at universities, but all notions of international law and human rights

Examples include the most valuable books of historian Abdul Latif Tibawi, who published between the late 1950s and late 1970s, and other studies by Sami Hadawi and Fayez Sayegh.

Other scholarship includes the crucial documentary history edited by Walid Khalidi, From Haven to Conquest, and Ibrahim Abu-Lughod’s edited The Transformation of Palestine.

Both books were published in 1971 but remained ghettoised within a small circle of Arab and Palestinian readers in the West and their small circle of supporters. This was also the case with Sabri Jiryis’s definitive 1976 book The Arabs in Israel, which detailed the apartheid system under which Palestinian citizens of Israel suffered.

The 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, in which slaughtered Palestinian and Lebanese civilians received rare western news coverage, also allowed for more academic production that was critical of Israel.

In this new context, the first half of the 1980s saw the publication of Lenni Brenner’s books on Zionist cooperation with the Nazis in the 1930s. Studies by Helena Cobban and Alain Gresh on the history of the Palestine Liberation Organisation were among the earliest books not to demonise the national movement.

During the same period, the revolutions and counter-revolutions in Central America and the upheaval in southern Africa inspired several books, including works by Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, Bishara Bahbah and Jane Hunter on Israel’s alliance with and arms exports to these repressive right-wing regimes.

New and valuable books on the Palestinian diaspora also proliferated, like Pamela Ann Smith’s 1984 Palestine and the Palestinians and Laurie Brand’s 1988 Palestinians in The Arab World. In addition, new histories of Palestinian nationalism, including Muhammad Muslih‘s authoritative work and Philip Matar’s biography of Amin al-Husayni, were published the same year in 1988.

‘New Historians’

The emergence of Israel’s New Historians, who began publishing books in English in the second half of the 1980s, was another major contribution to the field.

This new crop of Israeli historians included Benny Morris, Tom Segev, Ilan Pappe and Avi Shlaim, among others, whose research was based on recently released Israeli archives about the 1948 war and after.

Not only did they confirm long-standing Palestinian claims about Zionist and Israeli colonial crimes, but their books also documented them from official Israeli sources with extensive details about the scope and goals of Israel’s historical crimes.

Some Israeli scholars teaching in the US and Britain began to increasingly publish their own contributions, further exposing Israeli crimes and the nature of its society.

Scholars like Ella Shohat revealed the Ashkenazi-dominated Israeli state’s massive discrimination against Asian and African Jews, and the dominant orientalism of Israeli cinema and cultural production about the Orient more generally.

Other studies on the nature of military occupation, resistance and revolt, and the expansion of Jewish settler-colonialism in the occupied territories emerged following the first Palestinian uprising in 1987.

A plethora of scholarship exploded from the 1990s to the present, with massive works on every aspect of Israeli and Palestinian histories and societies since the late 19th century. These studies by Palestinian, Arab, Israeli, American and European academics are mainstream in the field.

Media cliches

There is no respected scholar of the Middle East today in the western academy who would deny Israel’s massive expulsion of the Palestinians in 1948 and 1967.

Equally, no academic expert could deny that Zionism was always a European settler-colonial movement allied with the imperialist countries or that Zionism had always espoused racist views of the Palestinians and cooperated with other settler colonies extending from South Africa to French Algeria and beyond.

And no scholar today could earnestly question that the Israeli state is an institutionally racist and Jewish supremacist state – enshrined in law – or deny the history of Zionist terrorism in the region, let alone the turmoil and violence Israel has visited on the entire Middle East since its establishment in 1948.

The problem, however, is that the media seems oblivious to this massive corpus of academic knowledge. So are academics in the professional schools of business, engineering, law and medicine, or even in the natural sciences or some of the social sciences who obtain their information from the mainstream western media.

Aside from the scant sympathy expressed for the Palestinian and Lebanese victims of the 1982 massacres in Lebanon or the Palestinian civilians killed during the First Intifada, western media has firmly held on to the tired cliches of the 1960s and 1970s.

The myth that Israel is a David fighting a Palestinian and Arab Goliath intent on destroying it because it is Jewish and that the Palestinian struggle is “antisemitic“, not anti-colonial, persists in media narratives today amid Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza.

What particularly shocked the ruling political class is that their peculiar orientalist views were not shared or adopted by the academic community

Other cliches include framing Israel as a “democratic“, liberal and peace-loving country and that European Jewish settlers in Palestine are fantastically descended from the ancient Hebrews, which somehow gives them the right to colonise the country and expel its indigenous population.

These views are not limited to the media, but are embraced by the American and Western European political class – whether it is those serving in office or the lobbyists who help get them elected.

Since US President Ronald Reagan’s administration, the ruling political class in the West became officially attached to these views, which became further entrenched after the 9/11 attacks.

What particularly shocked this class, both in the aftermath of 9/11 and with renewed passion since 7 October, is that their peculiar orientalist views were not shared or adopted by the academic community.

It is this outrage that precipitated the repressive crackdown on universities.

Political repression

The campaign to fire professors and expel recalcitrant students was launched more than two decades ago.

In 2003, the US House Subcommittee on Select Education decided to “probe” the field of Middle Eastern studies, extending to the dangers that Said’s seminal 1978 book Orientalism constituted and how it might have led to 9/11, with lobbyists urging Congress to cut off funding to universities and academic programs that teach Said’s work or scholarship critical of Israel.

Such campaigns have continued unabated. Just last week, the Congressional House Committee of Ways and Means held a hearing about antisemitism at universities and invited several witnesses to push the anti-academic freedom agenda targeting Middle Eastern studies.

Police line up outside the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) campus after clearing a new pro-Palestine student encampment, in Los Angeles, California on 23 May 2024.
(Frederic J Brown/AFP)

Since 7 October, the ruling political class has recognised a notable shift in mainstream attitudes towards Israel and Palestine, especially at universities.

Sustained pro-Palestine campus protests proved to this class that its decades-long efforts to compel or collude with university administrators to quash dissent were insufficient. Maintaining the pro-genocide status quo would require backup from the corporate world and police state, with larger doses of governmental repression.

Seemingly wielding every repressive tool at their disposal, politicians have forced McCarthyite congressional hearings on “antisemitism”, and business leaders have threatened to punish offending universities financially and deny employment to their graduates.

Such drastic measures speak amply to the level of danger and threat these influential people attribute to the production (and consumption) of academic knowledge that veers so far from the received ideas in the corridors of political and corporate power.

That universities now invite the police to repress their own students and openly threaten and investigate their faculty for thought crimes (as this author has been especially targeted) exposes the vulnerability of pro-Israel policies and media coverage, which have remained steadfast no matter which savage Israeli crimes are exposed.

If “experts” condemned academics in congressional hearings 20 years ago, now university presidents and board of trustees members have stooped to condemning their own faculty – on false grounds, no less – and declaring they would have hypothetically denied their tenure.

But it is not only universities, professors and students that are targeted for criticism of Israel. Human rights organisations are being similarly attacked for their assertions that Israel has been an apartheid state since 1948 and the documentation of its continued war crimes.

The latest threats are targeting the International Criminal Court and could move next against the International Court of Justice for its genocide ruling against Israel.

The West’s imperialist commitment to Israel runs so deep that it is willing to destroy not only academic freedom and freedom of expression at universities and other cultural institutions, but all notions of international law, human rights and the institutions that uphold them.

Even US and Western European human rights organisations, which had served these countries very well during the Cold War and long after, are now disposable.

Indeed, no institution in the liberal West is safe from this repressive and punitive campaign, especially universities whose knowledge production has upended the official western consensus on Israel and Palestine to a point of no return.

For that, the powerful have decided that universities must uphold official state propaganda as their knowledge base, destroy the field of Middle Eastern studies, and no longer produce scholarship that threatens the interests of western imperialism and corporate power.

Otherwise, they will be punished, defunded and their reputations destroyed.


Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York. He is the author of many books and academic and journalistic articles. His books include Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians; and most recently, Islam in Liberalism. His books and articles have been translated into a dozen languages.

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