Fisking Joan Scott

Recently Joan Scott published an article in The Link, a publication of Scholars for Middle East Understanding, in which she makes the case that a well organized pro-Israel, pro-occupation lobby, has Middle East Studies “under siege.” The article really does rival Robert Fisk in its misleading and tendentious presentation, which is particularly sad, because rather than being a hack writer for Arab causes living in Syria, Joan Scott is a well-respected professor of History at the Princeton Center for Advanced Study, America’s most prestigious academic institutions, home of Albert Einstein and dozens of other Nobel Prize winners. Here is a detailed analysis to which I welcome further comments and additions.

[Because of the length of this article, it will appear in sections over the next week or so. This is installment I.]

Middle East Studies Under Siege
by: Joan W. Scott
January – March 2006
The Link – Volume 39, Issue 1
Page 1

Shortly after the terrorist attacks on the trade towers in September 2001, the American Association of University Professors (A.A.U.P.) set up a special committee to report on Academic Freedom in a Time of National Emergency. (For the text of this report see I was a member of that committee and, at the time, chair of A.A.U.P.’s committee on academic freedom and tenure.

A year later, on October 4, 2002, The New York Times carried a story about the special committee’s work and I was quoted in it as stating “There are many more examples of attacks on critics of Israel than on students who are pro-Israel.” My comment was based on reported incidences in newspapers and magazines, and on conversations we had had with faculty and students on a large number of campuses.

Given how tendentious this formulation — “many more” — and the overwhelming sense of surprise and fear that overcame the Jewish students on campus in the wake, not of 2001, but of October 2000 and the beginning of the “Second Intifada”, this kind of remark was bound to raise cries of foul… and it did.

In response I got several, quite similar e-mails challenging my comment and demanding concrete proof for it. One e-mailer, who identified himself as a writer from the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Missouri, asked to see my “data” for his ongoing research on “the polarization of campuses.” I replied that we were in the process of assembling data, that my comment was based on a “rough impression,” and that I would be back in touch with him when I had more information.

Well, Professor Scott, where is that concrete evidence? Or is this article, filled with more deeply tendentious anecdotes, your response?

Shortly after that, a friend forwarded me an e-mail from a right wing pro-Israeli list serve. In it the same man who had asked to see my data boasted that he had trapped me into admitting that I spoke on the basis of a “rough impression” and that he could now publicly denounce me as a bad social scientist since I had no hard data on which to make my claim. But he hesitated to do so—here was the ethical dilemma he was sharing with his allies—because his impersonation of a scholar would then have to be revealed. “I told her I was a researcher,” he said, “but I’m not; I’m an activist devoted to ridding our campuses of the pro-Palestinian presence.”

Given how partisan Scott’s work on this subject, I would love to know what she considers “right wing”, and I would like to see what the actual email said, since it seems more than likely that even the most right-wing of pro-Israeli activists would be living in fantasy land if he thought he could “rid” our campuses of pro-Palestinian presence. The intellectual ethnic cleansing on our campuses comes far more actively from the pro-Palestinian side.

I tell this story because it was my personal introduction to the well-organized lobby that, on campus and off, has been systematically attacking Middle East studies programs under various guises in order to achieve the end my e-mailer so clearly articulated. In this article I refer to this lobby in several ways, sometimes as the Israeli lobby or the pro-Israel lobby, although it should be noted that it is a lobby that has a particular position on Israeli politics, does not represent all Israelis, and is not the only representative of Israel. Its self-definition as the Israeli or pro-Israel lobby refuses this complexity; it insists that it represents “Israel,” as if current policies were the only ones possible, the only way to defend the right of that state to exist. Because I want to refuse the idea that this right-wing lobby represents “Israel” or is the only way to be “pro-Israel,” I also refer to the lobby as pro-occupation, by which I mean it is in favor of current Israeli policy. That seems to me a more precise description, though it is a more awkward locution.

Awkward? or partisan smear? The idea that the pro-Israel lobby is a) well-organized, b) unified on being for the “occupation”, and c) refuses complexity, is both a joke to anyone operating within that effort, and a travesty in comparison with the pro-destruction/dismantling of Israel lobby that Scott systematically ignores and conceals in this lengthy piece.

Although this lobby and its activism antedates September 11, it has become far more visible, efficient, and ruthless since then.

It does predate 9-11. It first begins to mobilize in the aftermath of the outbreak of the Intifada a year earlier, and it represents a wide range of grass-roots activities in response to the steamroller of anti-Zionism that hit hard, starting with the spread of the Al-Durah libel, and reaching an early peak of ferocity with the Durban conference in the weeks just before 9-11. Scott’s radar picks up none of this — apparently 9-11 is the first time she noticed the problems on campus, which may be an institutional problem of the AAUP — and so the motivation behind the “well-organized” lobby escapes her notice as well. As for ruthless… what’s so striking about the anecdote with which she starts, is how mild and scrupulous the fellow was, wondering whether he could denounce her since he misrepresented himself. Ruthless? As we shall see below, Scott regularly disguises the really vicious and ruthless behavior of the anti-Zionist lobby.

It has gained powerful allies in Congress, has been able to take advantage of the provisions of the USA Patriot Act, and has, in collaboration with the tabloid media, succeeded in terrifying some liberal university administrators by charging that bias and anti-Semitism are rampant on their campuses.

We will return to this in more detail later, but now note the term tabloid media. This is part of Scott’s active engagement in the culture wars in which the NYTimes — flagship of an increasingly dishonest, hypocritical, and intimidated media — is the gold standard and newspapers like the NYSun represent little better than the National Enquirer. For example, in responding to an article that Scott Jaschik wrote about a fiasco at the AAUP, Scott refers to Jaschik’s article as

“like something written for the N.Y. Sun instead of for a serious news organization.”

Note the choice of the Sun. She could have chosen the Post, or even the National Enquirer, but she prefers to target with her contempt a feisty and intellectually vibrant newspaper (albeit not to her political tastes) which has some excellent columnists and writers now covering the international scene and especially the Middle East — Claudia Rosett, Mark Steyn, Hillel Halkin, Fiamma Nierestein. So instead of recognizing a long-needed rival to the NYTimes, she prefers to sneer condescendingly at it. These are precisely the kinds of moves that have rendered self-styled “progressives” so isolated, with results like the article under examination. Even Wikipedia is more judicious than Scott.

It’s tempting to draw a picture of a vast interlocking conspiracy—and it probably would not be all that far-fetched.

Thank you for letting us know what you find tempting. Hopefully your real historical work does not also indulge in such temptations to see what you want and cram the data into your desired outcomes.

But my commitment to serious social science, though not to quantification, suggests I take a slightly different tack,

Preserve us from her notion of good social science. Apart from sweeping aside the role of quantification (which is exactly what she avoids doing in this inundation of impressionistic reporting), her commitment to historical reliability in this article — if it does represent “serious social science” — is a sad indictment of that pretension of students of society to be “scientists.”

identifying the contexts which have enabled my e-mail correspondent and his colleagues to do their work and to find, sometimes unlikely, allies for their campaign.

Alas, not even the hint of an awareness that there may be another side to this sad affair… that her email correspondent and his colleagues are not only not even close to a “vast interlocking conspiracy” — they wish — but a response to a far more ruthless, organized, and effective force which has Middle East Studies under siege since the early 1980s and the wild and bizarre success of Edward Said’s Orientalism
Joan Scott: dupe or demopath? For the reader to decide.

End Part I.

2 Responses to Fisking Joan Scott

  1. Solomon says:

    Ah, I didn’t realize Scott’s “material” went beyond a short comment left at Insider Higher Ed. I have a vague recollection of being sent a link to that long piece but glancing at it and thinking, “I’m going to read 8 pages of *this?” *click*

    I’ve now found the read rather entertaining and will look forward to your further installments.

  2. RL says:

    it’s actually depressing. like listening to NPR tell us about the moderation and pragmatism of Ismail Haniyeh… all without any word from the Israeli side.

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