Outside of the United Nations, few institutions are as dedicated to anti-Israel rants as the University of California, Los Angeles Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES). A recent CNES conference titled “The Settler Colonial Paradigm: Debating Gershon Shafir’s ‘Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict’ on its 25th Anniversary,” was a case in point.
The mouthful of a title refers to University of California, San Diego sociology professor and director of the human rights minor Gershon Shafir’s 1995 book, Land, Labor and the Origins of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict. Ignoring 3,000 years of archeological evidence connecting Jews to what is now the land of Israel, Shafir’s unoriginal thesis was that carpet bagging Zionists bought up land and displaced indigenous Palestinians. Calling the conference a “debate” was a misnomer, for that typically requires at least two opposing views. In this case, the Israeli Gershon Shafir offered the Palestinian point of view and none of the speakers’ contested him.
Of the twenty-five or so attendees, at least half were middle-aged and half were presenters, moderators, and other faculty. About five people under thirty showed up, including Shafir’s daughter and her boyfriend, both of whom looked bored.
UCLA history professor and CNES director Gabriel Piterberg, speaking on the second panel, declared that, “Zionism is a rupture from Judaism, and certainly a rupture from Rabbinic Judaism.” He managed to conclude that this uniquely Jewish movement could be considered “Protestant,” and described Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto as “a classic in its own right.” Piterberg, who was born in Argentina and grew up in Israel, described himself as a “Palestinian historian”; despite consorting only with likeminded academics, he then castigated “self-designated New Israeli historians” as “insular.”
He offered the usual anti-Israel canards, including the “false Zionist narrative of the 1948 war,” the “Israeli plan to carry out an ethnic cleansing,” and, bizarrely, the “elitist, Marxist, feminist colonization.” He referred to Israel’s founding as the “Nakba,” the Arabic word for “catastrophe” and claimed the “Jewish National Fund” was responsible for “helping settlers buy up land” to “displace” Palestinians.
Next up was Beshara Doumani, director of Middle East studies at Brown University, who coupled harsh criticism of Israel with environmental tropes. After accusing Israel of ethnic cleansing and genocide, he suddenly lamented that “climate change is creating new forms of displacement,” although, he added, the “consequences are not clear.”
He described the two sides of the Arab-Israeli conflict as “one based on hard facts [and] one based on memories” and bemoaned the mythical “settler colonial nature of the Zionist project.” His incisive summation was, “I don’t have a conclusion.”
Doumani conceded that he was “not a historian,” and that “I’ve never done any research on the period after 1860 until now.” In what could have been the tagline for this very conference, he noted that “The more people study” this issue, “the less we know,” before asking rhetorically, “How do they know I am not making any of it up?” Doumani then made one of the more revealing statements of the day:
If the world was black and white we would never have a job. Historians, what they really do is erase. That is their number one job.
David N. Myers, chair of the history department at UCLA, showed up very late to deliver the keynote address. He briefly described honored guest Gershon Shafir as a man without “bombast,” “facile reductionism,” “sloganeering,” or “generalizations.” In his remarks, Shafir quickly disproved at least one of Myers’s assertions, as his voice was too quiet to offer bombast. He did, however, thrice reference the “occupied territories” rather than the “disputed territories.”
Shafir then got confused and briefly disagreed with his entire narrative, stating that, “The Hebrew language does not have a term for conquest” before reversing himself and adding, “It does not have a term for occupation, but does have a term for conquest.” His ramblings did little to enliven the audience, at least one member of which, Stanford University Middle East history professor Joel Beinin, appeared to be taking a nap.
While Shafir was supposed to be the focus, the speakers fawned over Areej Sabbagh-Khoury, a young Arab-Israeli woman who is project coordinator for the Mada al-Carmel Arab Center for Applied Social Research in Haifa and a PhD candidate at Tel Aviv University. A key moment in the seminar came when she asked her fellow speakers when exactly the Palestinians became indigenous and none of them, despite basing their entire narrative on the “indigenous Palestinian” story, could answer the question.She had no idea herself, nor an idea how to find the answer.Perhaps that’s because the assertion that they’re indigenous is based not on historical research but on modern misinformation.
The conference was rife with such lapses, but an absent-minded, biased professor is no less damaging than an effective one. Spreading the false narrative of Jews as colonizers and Palestinians as victims, Middle East studies academics are able to corrupt generations of impressionable young minds. And taxpayers are left footing the bill for what amounts to anti-Israel propaganda.
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