Last week, the Center for Near Eastern Studies (CNES) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) co-sponsored a seminar with the ungainly title, “Invasion Is a Structure, Not an Event: Settler Colonialism Past and Present.” It was billed as a “two-day event organized by Gabriel Piterberg,” a notoriously anti-Israel UCLA history professor. True to form, the seminar featured some of the most politicized and biased academics in the field of Middle East studies.
The audience of around 30 included perhaps 15 professors and a cadre of the aging hippie revolutionaries (not mutually exclusive groups) one grows accustomed to seeing at anti-Israel events.
UCLA professors, perhaps aware that they are now being monitored, have become somewhat wary. The panel included Jewish and Israeli speakers in an attempt at “diversity,” but as is typical in academe, it was intellectually homogeneous. The “Jewish perspective” was represented by the far left of the political spectrum and differed little from the so-called pro-Palestinian perspective. To the extent any true debate existed, the seminar was an exercise in the indefensible vs. the incomprehensible.
New York University Middle Eastern studies and history professor Zachary Lockman introduced the indefensible by labeling Israel the “Zionist entity” and the “Zionist project,” while referring to Palestinians as the “indigenous people.” He claimed that “Israel can be compared to South Africa” because it “uses coercion” and concluded that “colonialism is Zionism.”
University of California, San Diego sociology professor Gershon Shafir provided the incomprehensible as his “rebuttal.” His defense of Israel was as weak as his communication and organizational skills.
Shafir began by quipping, “I didn’t expect such a large crowd. I only brought five handouts.” In looking at his own notes, he said, “I can't read this.”
He was self-deprecating and generous in his praise of his opponent Lockman, who was neither. As he put it, “I'm not from New York. I can’t speak as quickly.”
Shafir’s academic jargon rendered syntax worthy of a mathematics class:
Antecedent conditions lead to a critical juncture which leads to structural persistence which leads to a reactive sequence which leads to an outcome.
At one point, he almost managed to offer a pro-Israel sentiment, but then backed away:
I have all kinds of things to say about [Palestinian] violence, but I would get some ugly looks if I do.
He then looked at the other professors, who motioned for him to sit down. So much for intellectual diversity.
Patrick Wolfe, a history professor at La Trobe University in Australia, spoke next. He said he had no stake in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which led me to wonder, “Then why are you here?”
It turns out he was there to offer the Marxist position, including the following:
Black labor and red people’s land has been used for white people’s benefit.
The primary goal is not the exploitation of labor. It is the seizure of land.
Half of the Jews are Arabs, so the Jewish/Arab conflict makes no sense.
As to the latter, it makes plenty of sense. Arabs are murdering Jews, and Jews are against this.
Making less sense was Stanford University history professor Joel Beinin, who chaired the next panel. He began by praising Lockman and then claimed, against all evidence, “It is extraordinary to have such a rich discussion of the issues.”
Sticking to his usual biases, Beinin juxtaposed current Israeli leadership with Israel’s founders, to the detriment of the former: “The young Turks are militarizing the conflict to advance themselves.”
At this point Piterberg opined that, “Increased settler movement is meant to spread Judeo supremacy at all costs.”
And Lockman chimed in:
In 1948 Jews succeeded in getting rid of many indigenous Palestinians, but they can’t kill them all. This is the logic and contradiction of the Zionist project.
University of Minnesota-Twin Cities history professor Patricia Lorcin spoke about sexuality in colonial Algeria. She managed to unite Lockman and Shafir, both of whom desperately wanted her presentation to end: It was a distraction from bashing Israel.
Piterberg, who was slated to discuss leftwing Israeli writer Amos Oz, offered bizarre and at times, tactless thoughts instead. Here is a sampling:
Israeli settlers are running around like R2D2. [I guess that would make C3PO a colonizer, since he was British.]
Israel looted Palestinian land after 1948. It was colonial sexual excitement.
Like an adulterous woman, the nomads moved forward.
Picture an Oriental Jewish woman fantasizing about a man with a mustache.
Likud policies are about exerting sexual power.
And perhaps most outrageously:
A proper white woman must become a Moroccan slut to experience true physical pleasure.
Beinin emoted that:
Amos Oz is the Israeli author I most love to hate. We need an extra five minutes to expose his racism and misogyny.
While Lorcin noted helpfully:
Sexual anxiety creates a fear of Arabs and Muslims.
UCLA anthropology professor and chair of CNES’s Faculty Advisory Committee Sondra Hale, trying to reign in the discussion, asked, “How does that relate to settlers?”
Without missing a beat, Lorcin replied, “Demographic promiscuity.”
Rounding out the panel’s apparent preoccupation with sex, Lorcin added:
Sexual anxiety leads to the politics of this moment. Periods of calm mean that there is no need for “Frenchness.”
I’m not sure if this was intended as praise or an insult, but it was at least consistent with everything else she said.
Having had his fill of sex talk, Beinin moved on to implicitly accusing Israel of committing genocide:
The logic of settler colonialism is “eliminationist.” [That is not an actual word, but why let that stand in the way of making a good point?]
As “proof,” he cited the work of Columbia University Arab studies professor Rashid Khalidi:
In 1884, violence occurred two years after Zionists arrived in Palestine.
Beinin followed Khalidi’s incorrect assertions with his own:
The Nakba [or catastrophe, used by radicals to describe Israel’s founding] occurred in July, 1948. Yitzchak Rabin expelled 50,000 Palestinians.
Then he added, “I am not here making a pacifist solution,” which drew loud laughter from the professors, some of whom have a history of justifying violence against Israelis while decrying Israeli self-defense.
When somebody asked about problems with Palestinian leadership, Beinin replied, to more laughter, “Some things I don't discuss in black and white.” Apparently, Beinin only applies this approach to discussions of Israel.
The conclusion of this bizarre conference was stunningly and unintentionally honest.
We all write about the settlers, but none of us write about the indigenous population. This could be for a variety of reasons.
To which Hale replied:
We are only interested in the settlers because we are careerists. That is unkind, but true. There is plenty of material on the indigenous people; we just ignore it.
The question of which peoples can be declared “indigenous” aside, she is absolutely right in admitting that criticizing Israel on campuses is good for business, not to mention much easier than rigorous, objective research.
The lowest moment of the conference occurred during a break, when Sondra Hale conversed with two women in the audience. Speaking loud enough for everyone to hear, Hale, showing her true colors, made the following outlandish statements:
Stand With Us [a pro-Israel organization] are the White Citizen’s Council without the sheets. They are McCarthyists.
The ZOA [Zionist Organization of America] are Nazis.
Moreover, she agreed with the other two when they said that "Zionists are more despicable than Baathists. If we could just use the courts, we could make the Zionists feel the financial sting."
Some portions of the seminar were less harmful than silly. For instance, a couple people were simply outraged that the coffee cups they were using were not biodegradable.
Yet beyond the oddball assortment of environmentalists, Marxists, and supporters of Algerian eroticism, the bulk of the seminar hewed tightly to its clear and harmful purpose: demonizing and delegitimizing Israel. It’s a further sign of the continued politicization of Middle East studies.