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Field of Fire: Fifty Years in Middle East Studies (I)

This is Part I of a three-part series on the radicalization of Middle East studies. Over the past five decades Middle East studies have had a profound impact on the region. It has long been less an academic field than an ideological battlefield— and here is my report from the front. Stay tuned for Part II.

ID’s from my time at Yale, Georgetown, and Harvard.

The magazine was The Middle East Journal, the edition: Spring, 1983. It was lying on a table, together with other recent publications, in the Near East library of Princeton University’s Jones Hall. As a graduate student, I practically lived in that library, ensconced in a burnished wooden carrell and surrounded by books related to my thesis. The topic, “The Origins of Lebanese Christian Nationalism,” fit in perfectly with my field of Modern Arab History. There was also a personal connection, as I’d recently fought alongside Phalangist Christians in Israel’s ill-fated Lebanon War. My academic career lay before me, linear and controversy-free, once I completed my doctorate. Then I saw the article.

“Conflicting Approaches to Israel's Relations with the Arabs: Ben Gurion and Sharett, 1953-1956,” was its title and its author, Avi Shlaim, an Israeli professor teaching in Britain. While still focused on Phalangists, I couldn’t resist picking up the journal and retreating to my carrell, eager to browse through Shlaim’s piece.

Historians read articles backward. First, we look at the endnotes—the equivalent of a computer program’s code—to assess the researcher’s sources. Shlaim’s were scarcely diverse. Ninety percent of them, it seemed, were drawn from the diary of Moshe Sharett. In charge of international relations for the Zionist movement before the founding of the State, Sharret served as its first foreign minister and briefly, from 1953 to 1955, as prime minister. Though Ben-Gurion, too, was an avid diarist, his entries were sparsely noted. Weird, I thought, that a study of the policies of two men would be based almost exclusively on the writings of only one.  My curiosity quickened as I flipped back to the article’s opening and began to read. And my curiosity turned to discomfort.

Israelis and Arabs could have made peace in the early 1950s had not Ben-Gurion undermined the efforts of Sharett—or so Shlaim argued. Israel’s founding father, he contended, though a polyglot, never bothered to learn Arabic or to understand Arab culture and viewed Israel’s neighbors as irredeemably bent on its destruction. Sharett, by contrast, was a fluent Arabic speaker and as much at home with village muqtars as he was with American secretaries of state. He was a man of peace, Shlaim concluded, and might have attained it if not for Ben-Gurion.

I was dumbfounded. Though no expert on Israeli history, I couldn’t understand how any serious historian could advance such a far-reaching thesis based largely on one, highly subjective, source. Right then and there, I resolved to go downstairs to tell my advisor that I’d changed my thesis topic. No more Lebanese nationalists, no more Phalangists—no, my new subject would be the relations between Israel, the Arab World, and the Great Powers in the period before the 1956 Suez Campaign.

The rest—forgive the cliché—is history. Over the next two years, I rifled through archive after archive, library after library, to get to the truth about the period between the first and second Arab-Israeli wars. And the truth I uncovered utterly vitiated Shlaim’s. The United States and Britain launched major peace initiatives, codenamed Alpha and Gama, that offered large parts of the Negev to Egypt and Jordan, and swaths of the Galilee to Syria, the Arabs were simply uninterested. Though occasionally willing to communicate secretly with Israeli leaders—the young Egyptian dictator, Gamal Abdel Nasser, exchanged several letters with Sharett—they were unwilling to take on the “Arab street.” Popular Arab opinion demanded a “second round” with Israel to finish the state-destroying work of the first. To this end, Arab countries acquired massive amounts of offensive arms and sent terror squads infiltrating across Israel’s borders. Israel, I concluded, whether under Ben-Gurion or Sharett, bore scant responsibility for the failure of peace and ultimately had little choice but to prepare for war.

The thesis, “The Origins of the Second Arab-Israeli War: Egypt, Israel, and the Great Powers, 1952-1956,” was strictly academic—I could fall asleep reading it today. Methodologically sound, it drew on Hebrew, Arabic, and English sources, a respectable array of archival materials, and several oral histories. I made extensive use of Ben-Gurion’s diary but was circumspect with Sharett’s, a twelve-volume plaint by a man beset by complexes, both of superiority and persecution. I received my Ph.D. and was ready to run the tenure track when I discovered the gravity of that Jones Hall decision. Without knowing it, I’d stumbled out of the urbane field of Middle Eastern History and straight into a battlefield.

In the five years between the end of my undergraduate education in 1977 and the beginning of grad school, the American campus had dramatically changed. As a BA candidate at Columbia, I studied alongside Syrians, Palestinians, and Egyptians, and learned from crusty old Arabists, without feeling a second of discomfort, much less friction. I moved to Israel, served as a lone soldier in the paratroopers, and returned to Princeton’s storied Department of Near Eastern Studies, home to such luminaries as Charles Issawi, Philip Hitti, and Bernard Lewis. As I recalled in an earlier essay, “Trials of the Ivy League,” it was at Princeton that I first heard anti-Israeli comments from my classmates. My thesis advisor, though a fine scholar who was otherwise respectful and hospitable toward me, made no effort to hide his antipathy to Zionism. After my first semester, I began to question whether I could withstand such hostility and continue to my Ph.D.

What had happened in that mere half-decade? That period, I recalled in “Trials of the Ivy League,” saw the victory of the student rebellions of the 1960s. Having failed to export their ideas beyond the university gates, the leaders of that movement shut those gates behind them and determined to create a generation of like-minded junior faculty. I’ll never forget asking an Israeli doctoral lecturer in art history at Harvard whether she’d ever get tenure. “No way,” was her response. “I’m not a Marxian.” Not only Marxism but also the post-modern assault on objectivity championed by the French philosophers Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault were already dominating campuses. Gone was the nineteenth century notion of Leopold von Ranke that the historian’s job was to uncover the truth. Truth no longer existed, only interpretation. Gone, accordingly, was the need to meticulously document every fact because facts themselves were relative.

But in no other department was this transformation more radically registered than in Middle East Studies. They were the canaries in the coal mine—pardon yet another cliché—of our contemporary culture wars.

It happened in Middle East Studies first thanks in large measure to one man. A celebrated professor of English literature at Columbia, Edward Said. Though never part of the Middle East Studies field, he nevertheless set out to destroy it. His book, Orientalism, published in 1978, hit academia like an iceberg. Said accused Western scholars of fabricating a region they called the Near East and then studying it in order to pave the way for its conquest. As history, Orientalism was bunk. The original Orientalists hailed from Germany and Hungary, neither of which claimed an inch of the Middle East. Nor did it matter that Said, who claimed to have been raised, educated, and evicted from Jerusalem in 1948, had falsified his own history. Orientalism became the most impactful book of late twentieth-century humanities and remains near-holy writ today. “Oh my God! My God!” I remember a classmate of mine, reading it in an adjacent carrell, exclaiming in horror. Years later, teaching undergraduates in the United States, I encountered students who’d been assigned the book repeatedly in courses as diverse as African literature and modern Italian history.

Said took one of the West’s greatest assets—its interest in other cultures—and turned it into a sin. “Orientalism,” I wrote in The New Republic, “planted a sequoia of self-doubt in the innermost courtyard of academia.” And nowhere was that transformation more immediately and ruinously felt than in the history of Israel and its conflict with the Arabs. Indeed, this was the test-case for Said’s post-colonial theory. It singled out Bernard Lewis as the Orientalist par excellence who established the scholarly underpinnings of the Palestinian nakhba—the disaster of 1948—and the defeat of 1967.

Said took one of the West’s greatest assets—its interest in other cultures—and turned it into a sin.

Derrida, Foucault, and Said combined in the work of the controversial Israeli writer, Simcha Flapan. Kibbutznik, Socialist leader, and Arabist, Flapan shocked many Israeli readers in 1987 when he published The Birth of Israel: Myths and Realities.  Among these “myths” were the belief that the Zionists accepted, and the Arabs rejected, the 1947 UN Partition Plan; the myth that Arab states then joined in a war of destruction against Israel, the myth that the Palestinians fled the country voluntarily, and the hyper-myth that Israeli leaders always sought peace. To substantiate this massive iconoclasm, Flapan cited numerous Israeli and British diplomatic documents, but very few Arabic sources, and no oral histories though many thousands of veterans of the period were still alive. Flapan died before his book appeared, but expressed his hope that someday Palestinian historians would similarly tackle their own myths. That didn’t happen. Instead, Flapan spawned a new movement among Israelis who took up his myth-breaking crusade and adopted his methodology but abandoned his hope for a parallel Palestinian revisionism.

“I don’t claim to write history,” Avi Shlaim declared before a seminar I attended in the late 1980s. “I write my history.” Right out of Derrida. His book, Collusion Across the Jordan (Columbia University Press, 1988), claimed that the Zionist Movement secretly plotted with Jordan’s Hashemite rulers to deprive the Palestinians of a state in 1948. But the book itself failed to support the claim—straight out of Said. And taking his cue from Flapan, Shlaim greatly downplayed Arabic sources and oral histories.

Unlike Flapan, though, Shlaim did not write out of concern for the Zionist project or any commitment to Israel. His student, Ilan Pappé, took that approach further by leaving Israel entirely, dedicating his books to a liberated Palestine, and speaking to his children in Arabic. Pappé made up entire chapters of his own history as well as that of Israel’s founding, including massacres of Palestinians that never took place and the charge—utterly baseless—that Ben-Gurion planned to gas them.

“I am the hangman of history,” Shlaim proudly declared, and the job of besmirching Israel proved professionally fruitful. He, Pappé, and several other obscure historians were propelled into the international limelight. By contrast, Benny Morris was a scholar of prodigious talents whose book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem (Cambridge, 1988) was also hailed for debunking the “myths” of Israel’s creation and undermining Israeli propaganda. Yet Morris’ book, which the PLO embraced in its demand for reparations and territorial concessions from Israel, also used few Arabic sources and oral histories. Instead, Morris relied extensively on diplomatic cables which, he claimed, were more reliable and objective than veterans’ memories.

As a former ambassador, I can attest to the fact that diplomatic cables—written with an eye to self-promotion and posterity—are some of the least objective sources imaginable. And not interviewing people who lived through the events of 1947-1956 would be equivalent of writing a book about the American Revolution in, say, 1800, without speaking with Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton. The violation of academic standards that would have disqualified any historian in any other field of the time would, in the study of Israel and its conflicts, became de rigeuer—almost a point of pride. And pridefully, indeed, Shlaim, Pappé, and Morris declared themselves the New Historians, rewriting the story of Israel’s creation.

And I, though significantly younger than Shlaim and Morris, became an Old Historian. This meant that I was unwilling to subscribe to the New Historians’ oddly Christological belief that Israel had been “born in sin” and that the Arabs were virtually blameless. It meant that, while the New Historians could make just about any assertion about Israel without fully grounding it in sources, my work had to be lavishly documented. While nobody ever fact-checked the New Historians, the Old ones would be examined microscopically. And I also learned—painfully, savagely—that Old Historians were effectively evicted from the field.

“This is the drooling of a little horse’s ass.” That was the response of an anonymous reader of one of my articles, on Nasser’s correspondence with Sharett, submitted to a peer-reviewed journal. The article was rejected. So were all my articles except for those sent to the small number of Israeli and British magazines still willing to publish scholars other than the New Historians. My thesis, adapted into a book, was under consideration by Cornell University Press for nearly a year before being frightened off the project by an unnamed, rabidly anti-Israel professor. “I will never be involved with another Middle East book again,” my almost-editor told me. At academic conferences, Benny Morris insisted on referring to me and other Old Historians as “Mr.”—i.e., not Dr.—and publicly ridiculing those of us who refuted the New Historians’ gospel. I watched, dejectedly, as many of my colleagues gave in and went “New.”

Bullheadedly, perhaps, I refused to relent. I consoled myself with the words of Bialik— “Alone. I remain alone, under the wing of the Schinah.” Finally, in the early 90s, I left academia for work in government. The arguments there were indeed bitter but—to paraphrase Kissinger—at least the stakes were high.

I’d be back, though, before the millennium’s conclusion, as a result of the 1967 Six-Day War. Not the war itself, of course, but the history of it. Israel, along with the United States, Canada, and Britain, observes the thirty-year rule. After three decades, they will all declassify most of their formerly secret documents, providing a veritable treasure-trove for historians. Having already exploited the rule to write my 1956 book, I was tempted to do the same, ten years later, with 1967. The ultimate lure, though, was the need to stand up to the New Historians who were already maintaining that Israel started the war in order to expand territorially and once again dispossess the Palestinians. My goal, as Israel’s in the war, was a preemptive strike.

Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, published by Oxford, became a New York Times bestseller and winner of national awards. This did not prevent Morris from publishing a vicious review— “the writing is atrocious” — or Tom Segev, another New Historian, for authoring a book that predictably claimed that Israel started the war to expand territorially and dispossess the Palestinians. Segev’s main sources were postcards and newspapers.

Time passed. The Second Intifada, which broke out in October 2000, represented a road to Damascus moment for Morris. The conflict was not, as so many of the New Historians thought, about the results of 1967 but rather about those of 1948. The Palestinians, it turns out, were not interested in a West Bank state centered around Hebron, Bethlehem, and Nablus, but a Palestinian state incorporating Jaffa, Haifa, and Jerusalem. Realizing this, Morris went on to attack his former colleagues and to write a second book, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, which attempted to undo the damage wrought by the first. He was too late.

Today, forty years after I stumbled onto Avi Shlaim’s article in the Jones Hall Library, the notion that Israel was created in sin—the product of colonialism, imperialism, and ethnic cleansing—is considered unassailable in universities throughout the Western world. Zionism has been ejected from the list of acceptable ideas. But in keeping with the canary-in-the-coalmine cliché, the post-modern, post-colonial miasma overtook all the humanities. American Studies became anti-American Studies, and the Classics became, like Orientalism previously, racist.

By the time I returned to the American campus as a visiting professor, between 2006 and 2009, the process begun in the early 1980s was near-complete. Pro-Israel Columbia students complained of receiving poor grades from their anti-Israel professors and, at three hundred other universities, faculty members called for boycotting all Israeli academic institutions. The Middle East Studies departments at both Harvard and Yale totally shunned me. Later, at Georgetown, I had to step over the “bodies” of student demonstrators lying prostrate in front of my office, each with a sign saying, “Dead Gazan,” in a protest openly sponsored by the university’s program in Arab Studies.

What began in Middle East Studies, and what altered my professional trajectory from academia to diplomacy and authorship, ended up devastating entire canons. The campuses on which they were taught have become archipelagos of calcified thought. But the damage didn’t conclude there. Rather, as I’ll discuss in the next section, many of the graduates of these institutions—and especially the most elite among them—became the navigators of their nations’ foreign policy. The results, as we’ll see, were disastrous.

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