James R. Russell: Ideology over Integrity in Academe

[James R. Russell is Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies, Harvard University.]

Is this Columbia University? A professor of anthropology calls for a million Mogadishus, a professor of Arabic and Islamic Science tells a girl she isn't a Semite because her eyes are green, and a professor of Persian hails the destruction of the World Trade Center as the castrating of a double phallus. The most recent tenured addition to this rogues' gallery is to be an anthropologist, the principal thrust of whose magnum opus is the suggestion that archaeology in Israel is a sort of con game meant to persuade the unwary that Jews lived there in antiquity.

I could refute the claims that Nadia Abu El-Haj makes in her book, but respected specialists have done so already in Isis, the Journal of Near Eastern Studies, and elsewhere. Facts on the Ground fits firmly into the postmodern academic genre, in which facts and evidence are subordinate to, and mediated by, a "discourse." There is no right or wrong answer, just competitive discourses. It does not come as news that people employ the data of archaeology to prove points of interest to them—information in any discipline used by human beings does not exist in a vacuum. But, as reviewers noted, Facts on the Ground expands upon this insight, quite unremarkable in itself, to propose that Israeli archaeologists use altered or falsified data and do so to a single ideological end. That purpose is to demonstrate a previous Jewish sovereignty and long historical presence that did not in fact exist, thereby to cloak the "colonial" essence of Zionism. This aspect of the book is malign fantasy.

Though alumnae of Barnard have declared they will stop giving money to Alma Mater if El-Haj is tenured, it is unlikely their protests will have any effect. She is fully supported by other ideologues in positions of power at Columbia and by outspokenly anti-Israel academics around the globe. Most of the good lack all conviction, as usual.

How did we come to this? Anti-Zionism has a long, diverse history, and the moral horror of the Nazi Holocaust in the 1940s did not diminish its appeal. In the early days of Zionism, in the early 20th century, many Jewish leftists rejected the idea of mass emigration to a historical national homeland and opted instead for the Bundist programme of a Yiddish-based Jewish polity in a Diaspora environment. The Soviets opposed the Bund but Zionism and Hebrew even more, supporting Israel only briefly on tactical grounds in the late 1940's. Stalin drew away from Israel and began the anti-Semitic campaign against "rootless cosmopolitans." The word translated as "rootless" is Russian bezrodnyi, a far more potent term composed of the negating prefix bez-, "without," plus the root rod-, which means anything from "birth" to "deeply-felt intimacy" (the adjective rodnoi) to "the Motherland" (Rodina) itself. Stalinist policies re-institutionalized in Russia an anti-Semitism in which Jews were shunned as homeless—barely human—by their very nature. In this way, the very qualities of selfless internationalism that Jewish leftists had assiduously cultivated in the cause of world revolution were turned against them.

The Soviet posture strengthened anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist trends in the Western Left; and when Israel, a democratic state, became increasingly alienated from the Eastern bloc and joined in alliance with France, Britain, and, later, the United States, Leftists saw this as confirmation of its imperialist nature. Winning the Six Day War in 1967 did not help: if only the Jews could be cuddly victims again. But it was hard for the New Left to remain loyal to the imbecilic Soviets, and the flirtation with Mao could not last long. The Third World became the cause du jour, and especially the Arab world and the Palestinian terrorist movement.

Further help came from Columbia, from Edward Said's 1978 book Orientalism, which proposed a vague socialist agenda, a conspiracy theory, and a new set of victims of imperialism quite unlike the Soviets. These were of course the Arabs—and it was even better that the proximal villain was the ever-sinister, colonizing, comprador Jew. But there is a problem. Said dealt with the 18th and 19th centuries, for the most part, but the Arabs were not the political player in the region then: Ottoman Turkey, a powerful empire and seat of the Muslim Caliphate, ruled them. Millions of Christian Greeks, Romanians, Bulgarians, Serbs, and Armenians labored under Ottoman misrule too. The first four broke away, but the Armenian homeland was in Anatolia itself. So in 1915, during World War I, the Turks decided upon genocide, and carried it out.

Said did not mention the Armenians even once in his book, for it would have made his passive, victimized Islamic world look rather less passive and not at all the victim. It is a glaring omission. Said's book was properly dismissed by many prominent reviewers as amateurish and dishonest—though on other grounds. They did not even notice the Turkish and Armenian aspect. The book might have been consigned to well-deserved oblivion.

But a year after its publication, revolution erupted in Iran. And Orientalism would become the guidebook and intellectual primer for a new wave of "anti-imperialism." Following the overthrow of the Shah, Khomeini's radical Islamic followers proclaimed an Islamic revolutionary ideology with many of the same romantic and apocalyptic features that had attracted the masses—and armchair revolutionaries here—to Communism. (An amusing aside: Harvard held an exhibition and symposium in May 2007, partially funded by our Provost's Office, on posters of the Iranian revolution. I was asked to present a paper on Soviet propaganda art, then hurriedly disinvited when the organizers realized, as they said to me, that comparing the Iranian masterpieces to those of an atheist régime might offend President Ahmadinejad. One is touched that Harvard is so alert to the sensitivities of a Holocaust denier who murders gay people and routinely calls for the incineration of Israel. So much for academic integrity on the banks of the Charles.)

Gradually, Middle East studies as we knew it at Columbia disappeared, to be replaced by what you have now. As it seems to me, Middle East studies at Columbia and elsewhere has become politicized; and other branches of the humanities have also fallen prey to ideology. Where university administrators do not actually share such extreme views and methods, they are anxious to preserve the appearance of tranquility and due process in the interests of the institutional image, even if that appearance is utterly superficial. I therefore doubt that any challenge to El-Haj can succeed; and perhaps efforts within universities like Columbia waste energy that might more effectively be channeled elsewhere. Jewish kids will keep on taking Lit Hum and enjoying convivial Shabbat dinners, but in a real sense the battle at Columbia may be lost.

What is to be done? When Berlin was divided and the Communists seized the Humboldt University in their half of town, refugee scholars founded the Free University in West Berlin. What have you in New York City? NYU is not much different from Columbia. But there are two fine institutions of learning in Manhattan where genuine Near Eastern studies, untainted by Jew-baiting, apologia for terrorism, and unscholarly chicanery, might find a home, aided perhaps by the donations of alumnae and alumni of Barnard and Columbia. The nearer one to Columbia is the Jewish Theological Seminary on 122nd Street and Broadway. The farther one (in Arabic, al aqsa—and with its noble neo-Moorish dome and minaret the appellation almost fits) is uptown, in Washington Heights: Yeshiva University. Instead of writing angry letters to Lee Bollinger, alumni can pool their resources to help create rival MEALAC departments; and Columbia students desirous of an authentic education in subjects like Middle Eastern history can earn their transferable credits there.

But, one might say, Jews have fought so hard to get into the Ivy League. Yes, and Jews in Europe fought hard for emancipation, too: some learnt skills and lessons along the way that proved useful when they realized it was time to go and rebuild our own country. Others held on and wouldn't leave. There is an old story about people who wandered and came to a plain, where they settled and built a village. But the place turned out to be the back of a great fish: it dived, and they drowned. So, there is another great university, actually a number, but a bit farther away. I have in mind the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the other universities of Israel. It is particularly appropriate to support them now, when they are threatened by boycott.

The Free University of Berlin is a historical example of how one can cultivate an alternate research center of higher quality than ones that have been corrupted, where efforts at reform yield diminishing returns. But there is an example closer to home. I was graduated from Columbia College in 1974 and delivered the Salutatory address on a medieval Armenian mystic. Professor Nina Garsoian had developed in the Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures department (MEALAC) a great program in Armenian Studies, and I was the first undergraduate joint major in the subject. But the subject has languished since her retirement in 1993. (I was denied tenure at Columbia in 1992 and shortly thereafter was appointed to America's oldest chair in the field, here at Harvard.)

After a series of farcical "searches," MEALAC last semester offered the Armenian position, at only a junior level, to a former pupil of mine. Carefully considering the character of the search process itself and the state of the subject and of Near Eastern studies at Columbia overall, she declined the post, accepting instead a job as director of the Zohrab Center, a library and research and cultural institute at the Armenian Diocese in Manhattan. The Zohrab Center and Harvard's Armenian Studies program have already begun our first joint project, bypassing Columbia altogether—leaving it behind its ideological Berlin Wall.

This latest scandal leads me finally, though, to grimmer reflections. In nazified Dresden,the Jewish professor Victor Klemperer—not Otto, the conductor, but the academic whose book LTI (Lingua Tertii Imperii) was the first study of the jargon to which the Third Reich reduced German—noted that people of every class and profession except his own had helped him now and then through the Hitler years. His fellow academics, though, were fascist enthusiasts, unwilling to help. Nothing of equivalent horror is going on today, but perhaps the amorality of Klemperer's colleagues should be a warning against expecting that because men are learned, they must also be right.

When I wrote "What is to be done?" I had in mind Nikolai Chernyshevsky's Chto delat'; so let me close with a marvelous verse of the Russian Jewish writer Isaac Babel. I think of it when I walk down 116th & Broadway, and see all that ivy concealing all that rot. Tvorchestvo vo dvortsakh ne vodvoritsya. "Creativity will not take up residence in palaces." Or in plain American, "Include me out."

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