Neutrals, Caught in the Crossfire

Editorial Notebook

By J.J. Goldberg

Published July 10, 2008, issue of July 18, 2008.
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Gannit Ankori chairs the art history department at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Her specialties include gender studies, Diaspora Jewish art and Palestinian art. Two years ago she published a book, “Palestinian Art,” described on the cover as the first comprehensive book on the topic in English.

Joseph Massad is an associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University. Four years ago he was accused of harassing pro-Israel students in class, touching off a firestorm of debate over professorial bias and academic freedom. The controversy continues to hover over Massad and the Middle East studies department and is clouding Massad’s bid for tenure.

Art Journal, published quarterly by the College Art Association, is one of the most prestigious periodicals in the art world. Last fall it published a review-essay by Massad that discussed three books on Palestinian art history, including Ankori’s.

Massad’s treatment of Ankori was scathing. Incensed, Ankori threatened to sue for defamation. The journal, sensing financial ruin, backed down and apologized. Ankori claimed complete vindication. Massad groused that he’d been abandoned. And the journal’s editors and publishers still don’t seem to know what hit them.

What hit them, of course, was the Middle East conflict in all its convoluted intractability. Added to the mix was an ongoing debate, probably insoluble, over the limits of academic freedom, along with explosive passions and something called libel tourism. That’s what free-speech advocates call the practice of suing authors for defamation in English courts, where libel defendants nearly always lose.

Ankori is known as a champion of Palestinian art and artists. She has been writing for nearly 20 years about the continuity of Palestinian art before and after the creation of Israel in 1948. Such is her sympathy with the Palestinian experience that she refers to 1948 in print as the Nakba or Catastrophe, as Palestinians call the creation of Israel.

A central figure in Ankori’s narrative is Kamal Boullata, a leading Palestinian painter and art historian. Boullata has been writing about the pre- and post-1948 periods for about as long as Ankori has. According to accounts by both sides, he cooperated with Ankori on her book, but soured after seeing a draft, reportedly feeling he didn’t receive enough credit for her theories. He began writing letters to colleagues, claiming Ankori had plagiarized his ideas. Ankori got a hearing in some Arab media, including Al Jazeera and the Jordan Times. In some venues, though, Boullata’s charges were taken at face value. Ankori seemed, some of her friends say, to have run into a reservoir of resentment from Palestinians at the very idea of an Israeli writing their history. Added to that was the assumption, all too common in intellectual circles, that Israelis are automatically guilty.

That would probably describe Massad, though he would likely deny it. A Jordanian-born Palestinian, he is regarded by colleagues as a brilliant scholar of the Middle East. His writings on Arab history and culture are graceful and compelling. When he writes about Israel, however, he loses his cool, becoming by turns snide and outraged. He seems barely able to mention Israel without attaching a rant about colonialism or mass murder. Every Israeli action against Palestinians is a deliberate effort to destroy them. Even in the document Massad prepared in his own defense before the Columbia faculty committee investigating his case, he couldn’t resist referring repeatedly and snidely to “Israel’s right to be a racist state,” what others call Israel’s right to exist.

Massad’s Art Journal review is of a piece with his other writings. The first two-thirds are a sharp, fluid review of Palestinian art history-writing by Arab authors. Coming to Ankori, though, it becomes a tendentious rant. Ankori’s account of the evolution of Palestinian art is, Massad writes, an “appropriation” of Palestinians’ ideas, comparable to Israel’s general “appropriation” of Palestinian property. She’s also judged guilty of failing, in recounting Israeli crimes, to acknowledge how systematic and deliberate the crimes were. And yet, he acknowledges, Ankori’s book would actually be “a welcome synthesis in English” of previous Palestinian work, “had it not been for her disingenuous claim of novelty” and her mistreatment of Boullata.

Last February, Art Journal received a 15-page memo cataloging misstatements in Massad’s essay. The memo said that Ankori’s central thesis — that Palestinian art is not just post-Nakba but stretches back in a continuous thread before 1948 — was not stolen from Boullata.

Unfortunately, the memo wasn’t sent by Ankori but by a British law firm she retained to threaten a lawsuit.

If her intention was to redeem her good name in the art world, she may have accomplished the opposite. The journal apologized, but not because the editors believed they had wronged her. “There were mistakes,” said Linda Downs, executive director of the College Art Association, in a phone conversation. But the mistakes were “in terms of not citing the proper issue of journals” and similar gaffes — hardly the stuff of major defamation. The journal agreed to apologize and pay Ankori $75,000 in damages because the publishers were afraid of losing their shirts in an English court. Larger publishers with deeper pockets and expensive insurance can afford to fight these things out, Downs said, but not Art Journal. “We had to understand that this is the first time we’ve been faced with anything like this.”

Art Journal’s experience is like the experience of all too many neutrals who wander near the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They want to be fair and hear both sides. When the Palestinian version is that the Israeli side has no case — well, that’s one view. When the Israeli side comes back with a sledgehammer, as it so often does, the neutrals just want to throw up their hands.

“The automatic response is to discuss it in terms of the content,” Downs said. “But once it’s put on a legal plane, it’s a completely different discussion.”

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