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The Middle East Studies Disconnect

Prolific blogger and commentator Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted an apt reminder yesterday that not everything in the Middle East revolves around the Israel-Palestinian conflict, even if U.S. policymakers often see it that way. Writes Goldberg:

Syria and Iraq are melting down, and the State Dept. and the Arab League are focused on…. the West Bank. The peace process is vital but there are more urgent matters than the peace process that are not linked to Israel-Palestine, that demand more attention.

Goldberg is right, but he doesn’t ask why. Perhaps this is one more example of the failure of Middle Eastern studies. The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) has a membership database that lets users sort by discipline. For example, the MESA faculty database finds 151 students and professors who specialize in Iraq; and 223 who specialize in Syria. In contrast, 290 specialize in Palestine, and additional 33 who specialize in the West Bank specifically; and 20 in Gaza. Israel studies is growing, with 171 members. Almost as many focus on refugees and Diaspora studies.

Certainly, membership in MESA and self-identification by field is not perfect: Being a MESA member is self-selective, and MESA is not the only game in town. Not every student will get a job, nor does focusing on a particular region translate to relevance. After all, 285 members focus on “colonialism,” and almost 400 focus on women’s and gender studies. “Radicalism” and “Jihadism” are not legitimate subcategories to MESA, although 25 members list their concentration as “peace studies.” Only 36 list their field as terrorism.

Many universities, consumed by a noxious mix of politicization and ideological homogeneity, disproportionately choose to teach courses on the Arab-Israeli conflict, at the expense of myriad other conflicts in the region. History and political science departments are already in decline—the fault being not only with administrators but also with the professors themselves and their increasing detachment from reality. Few universities, given limited resources, will bless a course on Iraq or Syria when they could instead have a class on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Perhaps there might be a bump now as universities cater to the headlines, but it will not be lasting.

Generations of students—future diplomats and intelligence analysts—grow up with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at the center of their attention and, if they are Middle Eastern studies majors, as the center of their existence. There is a growing tendency of universities to subsidize their programs with cash from regional governments who have discovered they can use the Arab-Israeli conflict to distract American students away from more systematic Middle Eastern failings much in the way that they have so long tried to use the conflict to distract their own domestic audience, a strategy that worked well up until the Arab Spring.

While many students leave Middle Eastern studies courses feeling unsatisfied, and while those with experience in the region—for example, the many former servicemen who now are pursuing graduate study in the field—recognize the disconnect between the Ivory Tower and reality, too many drink the Kool Aid and transfer their academic experience into their positions. The irony here, then, is that while so many academics condemn colonialism, it is now the American academics who seek to impose their vision, values, and priorities on the region, even as the peoples of Iraq and Syria, for example, fight for something fundamentally different. One way or another, the United States and its policy-making community are ill-served.

Alas, more than a decade on, so many of the problems which Martin Kramer identified in “Ivory Towers on the Sand,” remain not only unresolved, but also far worse.


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