What will Columbia’s new Center for Palestine Studies become?

The October launch of Columbia University’s Center for Palestine Studies (CPS), the first institution at an American university specifically dedicated to the study of Palestinian Arabs, received surprisingly little notice. Middle East–related brawls on Columbia’s campus have often captured national attention, featuring accusations of anti-Semitism lobbed at professors (recall the alleged bullying of Jewish and pro-Israel students in 2004 by Professor Joseph Massad) and controversial speaking engagements (for example, Iranian president Mahmud Ahmadinejadin September of 2007). Despite this tumultuous track record, the CPS opening took place without disruption. Paraphrasing Columbia University film professor James Schamus—a faculty member associated with the CPS—The Forward characterized the opening as “a new moment of civility” and a re-dedication to “open and courteous dialogue” on Middle East issues.

But is it? Given the highly sensitive subject matter of this dialogue, the CPS faces an important choice. It can host academics interested in serious Palestine-related scholarship, or it can advance political interests under the guise of Palestine studies. Should it move in the latter direction, it could make the boundary between politics and scholarship more meaningless than ever. And there are already troubling signs that this is exactly what is happening.

To be sure, the Center represents a crucial development in a nascent field. “Very simply, there’s never been a dedicated space … for this kind of research,”says CPS co-director and anthropologist Brinkley Messick. Rashid Khalidi,the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia and fellow CPS co-director, hopes that the Center will help broaden a “tiny, narrow, not well-established” field by building an archive, hosting events, and awarding doctoral fellowships to Palestinian scholars. By pursuing these admirable goals, the CPS has the potential to cast new light on the Palestinian people, who are too often only known within the context of their relationship with Israel. And the leaders of the Center are aware that they must ensure that the Center’s activities fall within a scholarly mandate. “The last thing you want is a Middle East Institute or a center for Israel or Palestine that isn’t within the university mission,” Khalidi says. “We’d avoid doing is anything that’s directly related to any political activism.”

But there are signs that politics have already infiltrated the CPS. Take, for example, the fact that Joseph Massad (the professor accused of bullying students in 2004) is associated with the center. Massad’s body of work is a postmodern mash-up of high-minded critical theory and base innuendo. His book Desiring Arabs theorizes that homosexuality is a western construct that imperial powers imposed upon the Middle East and that a “gay international” cabal (consisting of groups like Amnesty International and the Human Rights Campaign) uses the rhetoric of minority rights to unfairly vilify Muslim regimes.

More troubling than this vilification of human rights organizations is that much of Massad’s work is overtly political—exactly the type of scholarship that the CPS purportedly intends to avoid. In a 2002 essay in the “independent socialist” journal New Politics titled “On Zionism and Jewish Supremacy,” Massad called for “the continuing resistance of Palestinians in Israel and the Occupied Territories to all the civil and military institutions that uphold Jewish supremacy”—this during a year when “continuing resistance” killed over 200 Israeli civilians. In the wake of “Operation Cast Lead,” the three-week armed conflict in the Gaza Strip in 2008–2009, Massad published an article on the Palestine solidarity activist Ali Abunimah’s website, Electronic Intifada, titled “The Gaza Ghetto Uprising,” which pilfered the memory of the Warsaw Ghetto for rhetorical flourish.

Such politicization of the Center is perhaps inevitable, given the ill-defined purpose of the CPS, even according to those who are its core participants. Legal scholar Katherine Franke, who is also associated with the CPS, likens the Center’s current situation to the parable in which a group of blind people touch different parts of an elephant, with no ultimate consensus about the creature’s dimensions. “They see more of the elephant than I do,” she says of her colleagues in the Center. Such uncertainty has the potential to diminish the seriousness of the endeavor by allowing for the inclusion of scholarship that is only tangentially related to the study of Palestine. Instead of making Palestine studies a coherent field, the Center may become a sounding board for anyone whose work has ever touched upon Palestine.

Franke’s own work reveals the perils of such uncertainty in mission. She told us that she focuses on “gender and sexuality and how the rights of LGBT people in Israel are being used to punish Israel’s Arab neighbors.” For her, one of Israel’s greatest accomplishments (the creation of one of the most tolerant societies in the Middle East) is linked to the country’s ceaseless persecution of Palestinian Arabs. The association of Mahmood Mamdani—the former directorof Columbia’s Institute of African Studies—with the CPS further illustrates the dangers of mission-creep. Mamdani justifies his involvement by pointing to a conference he helped to organize titled “Post-Apartheid Reflections on Israel and Palestine,” which taught him “how a thematic focus [on Palestine] could bring African scholars … into the mainstream of intellectual discussions.” Mamdani associates with Palestine studies, it seems, to increase the profile of his primary field. Moreover, he has used his background as an Africanist to attack Israel. In a 2002 speech at a pro-divestment teach-in, Mamdani argued that Israel was an apartheid state and a settler-colonial enterprise comparable to Liberia.

Both Franke and Mamdani use hostility toward Israel as a jumping-off point for specific academic inquiries—issues of sexual identity politics for Franke and comparative colonialism for Mamdani. Their involvement with the CPS helps elevate this reductive and opportunistic treatment of Israel and Palestine to the cutting-edge of a new academic field, turning the CPS into a platform for niche interests that, together, share an anti-Israel agenda.

This evolving character of the CPS is not entirely surprising. Some scholars involved with the Center have acknowledged that they always saw it as a place intended to defend certain views and protect the academy’s autonomy in the face of organized outside critics. Schamus, for example, became involved with the CPS in response to the outcry over the alleged bullying of Jewish students. A self-described “armchair pundit” on Middle Eastern affairs, he told The Forward that the campaign against Columbia faculty members organized by the pro-Israel non-profit The David Project in response to the alleged bullying represented “a real assault on fundamental academic freedoms.” According to Franke, the CPS took shape when faculty members realized it would make sense to “institutionalize” Palestine studies at Columbia in light of the negative attention the university had received.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with gathering a broad-based community of scholars behind a new academic initiative. Columbia and American academia need a venue for the interdisciplinary study of Palestine. But, unaccompanied by a dedication to real expertise, the CPS will be little more than a clique of like-minded academics whose defining commonality is hostility toward Israel. In its current form, it’s likely that the first Palestine Center at an American university will lead the way not in “a new era of civility,” but, rather, in politicizing Middle East studies further than ever before.

Jordan Hirsch is an assistant editor at Foreign Affairs. Armin Rosen is a freelance writer based in New York. They are both recent Columbia University graduates.