Without Protest or Funding, Columbia Opens Center for Palestine Studies

By Joy Resmovits

Published October 08, 2010.
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In 1969, Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir famously denied the historical existence of the Palestinians as a people. Forty-one years later, there is now officially an academic center on the campus of Columbia University devoted to the study of Palestinians and Palestine.

Whether what’s touted as the country’s first campus-based center for Palestine studies becomes a template for others that will follow remains to be seen. But, as Gil Anidjar, a Columbia professor of religion affiliated with the university’s new Center for Palestine Studies, noted, the notion that Palestine and Palestinians have a history is no longer novel.

“One can argue: What is Palestine? Is it a national entity or not?” Anidjar told the Forward. “They are all legitimate questions. But they can only be asked from the perspective where we recognize that there is an object [of concern and study]. There is something that has been called Palestine, with increased pertinence in modern times. It’s not a question anymore.”

The Columbia center, which launched officially on October 7, has an office, a plaque, a website, affiliated faculty, a plan — and not much else.

“We have absolutely no money,” Rashid Khalidi, the center’s co-director, told a packed audience at the launch event, attended, among others, by some notable supporters from the campus Jewish community. The center is now funded through Columbia’s Middle East Institute. In an interview, Khalidi, Columbia’s Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies and Literature, expounded on his hopes for the center. “We’d like to have post-docs, be able to bring students here from Palestinian universities and fund research,” he said. “I’d like to give Palestinian universities the sense that they’re not so isolated.”

But he added, “It would be nice to have money for programming and ultimately have money for an endowment, but that’s very difficult.”

An historian of the Middle East and leader of the project, Khalidi is co-directing the center with Columbia University anthropologist Brinkley Messick.

Unlike Israel Studies, which has expanded rapidly with support from wealthy Jewish donors, “Palestine studies” as an autonomous field of research has no ready-made set of foundations and donors to back it. Khalidi said he was seeking them out in the United States and Europe, though he declined to name specific groups or individuals he has contacted. The field has yet to be institutionalized. On most campuses, courses related to the topic are offered within Middle East studies or Arab studies programs.

Khalidi was cautious in describing the significance of the center’s creation as far as setting an academic trend.

“The start of the center marks a certain evolution,” he said, adding that he does not consider Palestine studies an academic discipline, such as history or economics, which get their own departments. He called it instead an “area of study,” one whose resources are scattered along with its archives, which he hopes to help rebuild. Some of the 23 affiliated faculty members in fields ranging from anthropology to film have done no scholarship specifically on Palestine; and to some of those who have, it is but one of several interests.

One problem with studying Palestinian history, Khalidi said, is the lack of a central library. In one respect, this may be advantageous because “you don’t have that nationalist perspective imposed,” he said, but added, “It’s a disadvantage, as the material is scattered: dispossession, dispersal, repeated dispossession, repeated dispersal, loss of archives, seizure of archives, burning of archives, polluting of archives, loss of private papers, and so on and so forth. What our little modest center will be able to do may be some narrow, specific things.”

The center honors the legacy of the late Columbia scholar Edward Said, whose 1978 book “Orientalism” critiqued prior Middle East scholarship as conducted from a Western perspective.

Mitchell Bard, who wrote the recently published “The Arab Lobby” and runs the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, an organization that distributes grants to Israeli scholars, is skeptical of Columbia’s approach. It was Said’s perspective, he said, that amplified what he sees as the anti-Israel bent of many Middle East studies departments today — and in turn, the creation of Israel studies as a separate entity.

“I wonder if this is going to become the center for anti-Israel studies,” Bard said. He added that studying something that “doesn’t exist” brings a “definitional problem” into play. (Khalidi said the center defines its area of study as the historical territory covered today by Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. Palestinians are defined as those who describe themselves as such.)

Ilan Troen, Brandeis University’s Stoll Family Chair in Israel Studies and director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, disputes the center’s claim of being first. “There are many Middle East centers that in fact are centers for Palestine studies,” he said. “To say this is entirely new is erroneous.”

But George Bisharat, a law professor at University of California, Hastings College of the Law and author of a book on Palestinian lawyers in the West Bank, said that Palestine in the context of Middle East studies generally focuses on the Israel conflict and not much else.

“It’s as if everything about Palestine and the Palestinians has to do with the Israel conflict,” Bisharat said. “That’s not all there is to Palestinian society and culture. I do think there is a value in taking Palestine and the Palestinians out of the shadow of their relationship with Israel and examining them to some extent as independent agents.”

Columbia has been the scene of bitter episodes in recent years in which some supporters of Israel have attacked the university’s Department of Middle East, South Asian, and African Studies (formerly known as the Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures) as academically unbalanced, and have accused one of its faculty members of anti-Semitism — a charge later refuted by an investigation conducted by a committee that Columbia’s president appointed. But there were no protests at the launching of the center. Instead, well-wishers, including some prominent Jews, looked forward to it becoming a place for civil discourse that could calm the polarized campus atmosphere.

“I believe that this is a prime opportunity for collaboration between the Center for Palestine Studies and the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies,” said Aviva Buechler, a student at Columbia-affiliated Barnard College and president of the Columbia/Barnard Hillel, the next day.

Eric Schorr, a student in Columbia’s joint program with the Jewish Theological Seminary and vice president of LionPAC — Columbia’s largest pro-Israel group — was more wary. “What I’m concerned with is the propagation of anti-Israel scholarship under the guise of Palestine scholarship,” he said, adding that he was initially excited by the project but is concerned about the views of some of its faculty.

The lecture room where the launch took place was filled with students and academics ranging from sociologist Todd Gitlin to Yinon Cohen, Columbia’s Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi Professor of Israel and Jewish Studies. James Schamus, a Columbia School of the Arts professor who moderated a panel at the launching, made a point of noting his pleasure at seeing a mixed crowd of Palestinians and his “fellow Jewish American academics.”

Schamus, who has produced movies ranging from “Brokeback Mountain” to “The Hulk,” conducted a public discussion with director Michel Khleifi, whose new film, “Zindeeq,” was premiered in New York at the event. The movie depicted the fictional odyssey of a documentary filmmaker who returns to Palestine to understand the ramifications of Israel’s establishment and the making of Palestinian refugees in 1948.

The director said the film’s message aligned with the center’s goal of making sense of a largely unsystematized history. “Palestine seems to be a world of multiple myths, a world of lies,” he explained through a French translator. “It’s not possible to move forward before we organize the past.… It’s about trying to legitimize a history that really doesn’t exist.”

Schamus said he became involved in the center’s formation when a group of Columbia faculty felt the sting of the earlier campus polarization. “There was a real assault on fundamental academic freedoms a few years ago. That really galvanized a lot of faculty,” Schamus told the Forward after the event. He cited the highly publicized film “Columbia Unbecoming,” which advanced the anti-Semitism charges, later refused, against Professor Joseph Massad, and to the high-profile tenure case of anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj at Barnard.

Schamus said the center’s launch marked a new moment of civility for Middle East dialogue on Columbia’s campus. “The failure of those assaults has made everyone — no matter what their political opinions — much more sensitive to the value of open and courteous dialogue, and has given real impetus to the establishment of the center, the first ever of its kind in North America,” Schamus said.

Contact Joy Resmovits at resmovits@forward.com






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