Yale University's Middle East Studies falling behind the curve?
by Cinnamon Stillwell and Jonathan Calt Harris
Jewish Ledger
February 18, 2005


For over 150 years Yale University's Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations (NELC) has been one of North America's most important centers for study of the ancient and medieval Near East. Its scholars have been pioneers in Arabic, Islamic and Graeco-Arabic Studies, Assyriology, (Sumerian and Akkadian language, literature, and history), Egyptology, and the Christian Orient. But after the terrorist attacks of September 11, universities across America rushed to meet the increasing interest in South Asia and the Middle East. But NELC has been slow to respond and is coming under fire from students hungry for more contemporary offerings. But would such market driven changes make sense?

While the department has hired several new faculty members in an attempt to modernize their ranks, critics insist that it's "too little, too slow." Critics charge that the NELC department, mired in funding disputes, bureaucracy, and ideological rifts, is losing relevance in the context of the modern Middle East. As the new Director of Undergraduate Studies of the NELC department Hala Nassar – a specialist in the role of women in modern Arabic culture and arts – puts it, "Yale is the only campus without a strong modern Mideast program. I know the intentions are there, but they need to be realized sooner rather than later."

Yale's exceptional reputation in ancient and medieval studies makes the wisdom of responding to shifting academic currents questionable, even if they are in response to student interest. A variety of courses on the modern Middle East are available through Yale's History department and its Judaic Studies and Islamic Studies programs, as well as some others. More courses are always attractive, especially for faculty members who wish to teach their narrow specialty, but Yale students are hardly deprived when it comes to the Middle East. In this context, the desire to modernize NELC in response to apparent market demand seems as much an effort to capitalize in an economic and political sense as it does a well-thought out program of intellectual development.

The wisdom of making curricular changes at Yale is even more problematic given that members of the faculty have had little difficulty shifting direction following 9/11, and not toward U.S. interests or sympathy for the victims of terrorism. Rather, it has become commonplace for Yale professors to express open hostility towards the United States and Israel, while belittling the threat of terrorist regimes and dictatorships throughout the Arab and Muslim world.

At a panel discussion on terrorism and the Middle East held immediately after the September 11 attacks, Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state under Bill Clinton and director of Yale's Center for the Study of Globalization, insisted that it was "from the desperate, angry and bereaved that those suicide pilots came." Abbas Amanat, a professor of Middle Eastern history, chalked up Osama bin Laden's popularity in the Middle East to "an arrogant U.S. foreign policy," including of course, "support for Israel."

The panel's conclusions were so outlandishly one-sided that other faculty members felt compelled to respond. Professor of Classics and History Donald Kagan was quoted in the Yale Daily News: "Our schools have retreated from encouraging of right and wrong -- with the exception of an education in moral relativism that borders on nihilism." His condemnation has had little apparent effect, even as one study after another has disproved the alleged link between desperation, anger, and bereavement, as well as poverty, and terrorism.

In April 2003, yet another panel was convened, this time to debate the war against Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime in Iraq. The sentiment expressed at this "teach-in," which was sponsored by the Yale Coalition for Peace, the Muslim Students Association, and the Students for Justice in Palestine, was overwhelmingly anti-American and anti-Israel, and occasionally anti-Semitic.

Dmitri Gutas, Professor of Graeco-Arabic Studies and Chairman of the NELC department, used the occasion to push anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. He attributed the Bush administration's plans to invade Iraq to a cabal of Jewish neo-cons, including Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Bill Kristol. "These people," Gutas claimed, were the sole shapers of U.S. foreign policy, while Israel, he maintained, was the main recipient of its success. An American victory in Iraq, according to Gutas, would result in Israel's "expansion over the local population." Unsurprisingly, Gutas has consistently advocated for divestment from Israel.

Glenda Gilmore, C. Van Woodward Professor of History, delivered an especially paranoid diatribe about the international conspiracy of "right-wingers" she seemed to think were out to get her. Her villains included Daniel Pipes, simply because he had highlighted her rabidly anti-American views. In fact, Gilmore herself made such views quite clear in an opinion piece for the Yale Daily News (October 11, 2002), in which she called the United States, "an imperial power in the most sinister sense of the term." But in Gilmore's insulated world, criticism is not allowed – it is simply someone trying to, as she put it, "shut you up."

Even after the conclusion of the Iraq war and the stream of revelations regarding the human rights abuses of Saddam's Baathist regime and its role in corrupting international organizations such as the UN, Yale's panels on the Middle East have kept this tone of extreme hostility.

In October 2003, long after the fall of Baghdad, the NELC department organized the second installment of a panel series titled, "Iraq: Beyond the Headlines." The panel focused on the U.S. occupation and Iraq's future, which, needless to say, was not portrayed as particularly rosy. Panel members included five NELC professors, who all but proclaimed the destruction of Iraq's cultural heritage at the hands of the U.S. occupation. Not only was the U.S. blamed for the looting of Iraq's museums and archeological sites, but also for stealing the country's oil, censoring the media, and perhaps most curious of all, preventing democracy from taking root.

Instead of blaming the actual perpetrators, Assistant Professor of Assyriology Eckart Frahm claimed that the U.S. occupation had "caused unrestrained looting," while Professor of Ancient Near East and Aegean Art Karen Foster, rehashed the myth that U.S. soldiers guarded the ministry of oil while intentionally leaving the museums unattended. Professor of Graeco-Arabic Studies Dimitri Gutas accused America of "killing the heritage of Iraq and also killing the truth," despite the emergence of a free press for the first time in Iraq's history, and unfettered Western press access, something unknown in over three decades. Bassam Frangieh, Senior Lector in Arabic, urged the U.S. to support "the people and their cause instead of dictators who oppress the Arab masses." Oddly, Frangieh made no mention of the fact that it was U.S. forces that ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.

Professor of Assyriology Benjamin Foster gave what were by then the usual predictions of doom and gloom, warning that Iraq was destined for "disrepair" based on its past history. Considering that one audience member described the discussion as "unremittingly depressing," it was little wonder that others felt overpowered afterwards by the "destruction and hopelessness of the situation in Iraq."

This feeling was compounded yet again in October 2004 during the "Iraq: Beyond the Headlines III" panel, which highlighted the war's impact on Iraqi culture. Professor Karen Foster lamented the state of Iraq's archaeological sites one more time, but instead of simply blaming the U.S., Foster melodramatically declared "the murder of Mesopotamia…a global crime." As always, Saddam's mass murder of living Mesopotamians was overlooked.

NELC faculty members have even politicized departmental finances. While encouraging students enrolled in Arab and Islamic Studies to study abroad in Arabic speaking countries, the department—citing safety concerns—stopped all funding for study in Israel. Archaeological projects are maintained in Egypt and Syria in which graduate students can participate, but are refused to Israel. The university has cited State Department advisories to avoid funding Israel travel. But Yale has no qualms about funding trips to Cuba despite the fact that they are required to obtain special annual licenses from the State Department for each "structural educational program" in that country. The 2003 "Reach Out Cuba Spring Break Trip" was billed as a way to cover "the history and legacy of the Cuban revolution." Whether this trip met the letter and spirit of the regulation seems open to question.

Whatever the advisability of transforming its NELC department, Yale is pressing ahead with plans to expand its offerings in the modern Middle East. Ellen Lust-Okar, director of Undergraduate Studies for the Ethics, Politics and Economics Program and Assistant Professor of Political Science specializing in the modern Middle East, is responsible for recruiting new faculty for the NELC department.

While objectivity may still exist outside the field of Middle East Studies, Yale's reputation as a pillar of higher education is seriously undermined by the anti-American, anti-Israel politics of the NELC department. The question of whether these students, parents and taxpayers are paying $28,400 a year for an education or a political indoctrination remains unanswered. And the allegation that the department's evident difficulty in modernizing is making Yale a less than attractive destination for students interested in current events in the Middle East is also an open question. Even if that is the case, should scholarship be held hostage to shifting tastes?

But these difficulties simply point to the fundamental problem of how to separate modern Middle Eastern studies from the politics of the present. The university must decide to meet the needs of a changing world and a politically diverse student body, or it will fade into irrelevance. How to go about doing so, given both student pressures for ‘relevance' and faculty pressure for a single political view, is far from simple.

Cinnamon Stillwell and Jonathan Calt Harris wrote this for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum designed to critique Middle East Studies at North American universities with a view to improving them.

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