Saturday, October 9, 2010

Will the ghost of Edward Said haunt Columbia's Center for Palestine Studies?

Columbia University Establishes First Academic Center for Palestine Studies – Forward.com
Edward Said sanctified

To be led by Columbia Professors Rashid Khalidi (the Edward Said acolyte) and Brinkley Messick (he was a spokesman for the academics calling for boycott and divestment at Columbia), the university is establishing the first center for Palestine studies in North America. In a kumbaya event to open the center, several Jewish and Israeli students and faculty attending claimed that this is a great moment for scholarship and civil discourse in the world of Middle East studies. “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 Barnard student Aviva Beuchler who is president of the Columbia/Barnard Hillel. 

Maybe.

On the other hand, it's difficult to imagine how the Saidist influence, which overwhelms Middle East studies at Columbia and just about everywhere else, could not but politicize everything it touches. In a rapturous article in HuffPo, Leah Finnegan claims that, "The center has been in the works for years at the notoriously Israel-connected university (full disclosure: my uncle is a co-director of the center). After several metamorphoses, the scholars behind the division laid its foundation on relatively neutral territory: the legacy of Edward Said, who taught at Columbia for 40 years before his death in 2003." Neutral. Right.


Columbia has had a history of deep polarization among its constituents, largely due to accounts of intimidation by its very vocal pro-Palestinian faculty and student organizations. Everyone likes to dismiss it now but the film, Columbia Unbecoming, gave a good description of the brow-beating of students who were not anti-Israel.

The center still has to raise money, and this will be interesting to watch where the philanthropic dollars come from along with a certain vigilance concerning what will actually take place there; what guests will be invited to speak. Of course, with the institutional protection of academic freedom, anything and everything will be allowed to be said.

Palestinian identity and history of the past 62 years has been formed mainly in opposition to Israel and earlier as a colonial outpost of the Ottoman Empire and British Mandate. It would be interesting to see if there will be any divergence from the anti-Orientalist, post-colonial and, ultimately, anti-Zionist perspective. Not that there is an institutional connection, but a look at the website of the Institute for Palestine Studies does not raise much hope.

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