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Quiet Riot

Tinfoil hats in Harvard Yard.

What does Jerry Falwell have in common with Paul Wolfowitz and Howard Dean? What links columnist George Will with The New Republic? All, according to a recently issued "working paper," a shortened version of which appeared in the London Review of Books, are agents of an amorphous but incalculably powerful "Israel Lobby." That same inscrutable organization, the paper alleges, has dictated the decisions of politicians from George W. Bush to Jimmy Carter and determined the content of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. The goal of the lobby? Quite simply, it wants to impose the will of a racist, colonialist, antidemocratic state on the unsuspecting American people, to provoke conflict between the United States and the world, and to endanger American lives for its own sake.

Expos?s of Jewish conspiracies have long been the bailiwick of white supremacists and Islamic radicals. Indeed, the former Klan leader David Duke has lauded this document for "validat[ing] every major point" he had ever made, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has also praised it. But "The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy," as the paper is titled, was written not by lunatics, but rather by Stephen Walt, the academic dean of Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government, and by University of Chicago political scientist John Mearsheimer--two of America's most reputable scholars. Well, scholars in most regards--but not in this case. To prove their argument, the professors don't rely on such banal sources as declassified records, presidential memoirs, or State Department documents. These would unimpeachably show that Arab oil (and not Israel) was America's persistent focus in the Middle East--and that presidents have supported Israel for strategic and moral reasons, not political ones. But, instead of citing archival sources, Walt and Mearsheimer pack their footnotes with newspaper articles and references to the polemical writings of Noam Chomsky and Norman Finklestein, as well as the unreservedly pro-Arab Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. The paper's slipshod quality was so evident that the Kennedy School removed its official seal from the treatise. Criticisms have rained down upon on it from across the political spectrum, with one notable exception--the field most pertinent to their paper: Middle Eastern studies.

The refusal of this faculty to distance itself from a report that fails to meet rudimentary research standards, posits unsubstantiated conspiracies, and, if directed against any other ethnic group, would surely be renounced as racist, raises serious questions about the state of today's academy. It should compel all those outside of academia to ask: Why?

The answer can quickly be discerned from a tour of recent writings by the leaders of Middle Eastern studies. One eminence, Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, has argued, "[K]nee-jerk US support for Israeli expansionism is at the root of anti-Americanism in the Arab world." According to Cole, "pro-Likud intellectuals" have plotted "to use the Pentagon as Israel's Gurkha regiment, fighting elective wars on behalf of Tel-Aviv." At Columbia, the political scientist Joseph Massad has proclaimed that Israel is "a racist Jewish state." Indeed, the contention that support for Israel is the primary cause of Arab rage against America has long been regarded as unassailable doctrine among American scholars of the Middle East, along with a grossly inflated estimation of the Israel lobby's potency.

The radical politicization of Middle Eastern studies stems from one generation's romance with an idea. The generation was that of the 1960s New Left, which briefly succeeded in seizing many campuses but failed to capture the society surrounding them. Retreating into the safety of their universities, these rebels set about institutionalizing their postmodernist creed, which denied the existence of objective truths and treated all narratives as equally valid. "I don't pretend to write history," Avi Shlaim, an anti-Zionist professor extensively cited by Walt and Mearsheimer, once proclaimed. "I write my history." Infused with the nihilism of postmodern French philosophers, this coterie was also deeply skeptical of its own country's virtue and of Western civilization in general.

Ten years after the student revolts of 1968, those students had become junior professors, but they still needed a galvanizing idea, an all-encompassing manifesto that encapsulated their relativist approach to history and cynicism about the West. That credo was just then furnished by a charismatic and gifted scholar who, though a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia, wrote as a Palestinian attacking the venerable discipline of Middle Eastern studies.

The academic impact of Edward Said's Orientalism, first published in 1978, was seismic. That's because its core argument was so powerful: "[E]very European, in what he could say about the Orient, was…a racist, an imperialist, and almost totally ethnocentric," Said maintained. He accused the old "Orientalist" professors, who once dominated the discipline, of "essentializing" the Middle East into a primitive "other," thus rendering it conquerable by the West. To cleanse themselves of these impurities, Said implied, scholars would have to identify "wholeheartedly with the Arabs," and, as he later explained, become "genuinely engaged and sympathetic…to the Islamic world."

As a work of history, Orientalism is patently unsound. (For instance, Germany and Hungary, which produced the greatest Orientalists, never coveted a granule of Middle Eastern territory.) Yet, by condemning laudable curiosity about other cultures as a symptom of imperialism, by planting this sequoia of self-doubt in the innermost courtyard of academic inquiry, Said provided the New Left academics with a road map for their intellectual assault.

Said's thesis swept through Middle Eastern studies departments, which, in large measure, were transformed into platforms for advocating the Arab worldview. Scholars who challenged this dictum were branded Orientalists, and students who rejected the regnant canon were unable to publish their work or obtain tenure. Special enmity was reserved for those who portrayed the United States as anything other than a force for oppression in the Middle East or who defended Israel against charges of racism and colonialism. All narratives were valid, suddenly, except those of unapologetic Americans and Zionists.

But the idea behind Orientalism did not remain within the confines of Middle Eastern studies. Inexorably, it spread to the emergent fields of gender and postcolonial studies, and, in time, it grew to dominate the humanities departments. (One Harvard junior recently told me that she has already been assigned to read Orientalism twice--once for a course on French colonial literature and another for an Italian-language class on Africa.) It's precisely this triumph that makes Walt and Mearsheimer's complaints about the Lobby's efforts "to stifle criticism of Israel by professors and students" ring so hollow. Organizations like the Israel on Campus Coalition, which the working paper specifically targets, emerged because real academic debate over the Middle East has become virtually impossible. Consider the case of Michael Doran, the promising former Princeton professor who, after venturing to suggest, in Foreign Affairs and elsewhere, that the Arabs--not Israel, not the United States--bore primary responsibility for their malaise, was publicly excoriated and never granted tenure. Indeed, it seems the only real disputation among scholars today is over which is the more sinister, Zionism or U.S. imperialism. Massad, for example, reproved Walt and Mearsheimer for fixating on the Lobby's power rather than on U.S. crimes in the region. "[T]he very centrality of Israel to U.S. strategy in the Middle East…accounts, in part, for the strength of the pro-Israel Lobby and not the other way around," he argued.

"The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy" in fact reveals little about the conduct of U.S. foreign affairs. It does, however, afford a disquieting look into just how far the pernicious ideology of Middle Eastern studies has penetrated the humanities and helped render the academy irrelevant. Gripped by absolutist theories that quash all opposition, some of America's finest universities provide environments in which partisan and shoddily documented screeds like the working paper can pass as serious research.

Michael B. Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, is a visiting lecturer at Harvard and Yale.

By Michael B. Oren