November 14, 2003

Khalidi discussion mistaken

In his opinion column last week, Jeff Friedman attacks the notion that Rashid Khalidi's presence at the University of Chicago was a good thing ("Khalidi's Move to Columbia Raises Diversity Questions," 11/4/03). Specifically, he contends that Khalidi's presence at the University suppressed views and prevented discussion. Inclusion of views like Khalidi's is crucial; his departure is our loss and Columbia's gain.

Friedman responds to two points made in support of Khalidi's presence here: that Khalidi brought attention to the University and that Khalidi created controversy and discussion. In responding to these, Friedman twice employs the bizarre strategy of comparing Khalidi to murderers. First, he suggests that the attention brought to the University by Khalidi is like the attention brought by Leopold and Loeb. Then, he writes that Khalidi generates controversy as Osama bin Laden would. Clearly, Khalidi has very little in common with these figures, and the comparisons are misleading and offensive.

In terms of public attention, it is true that not all publicity is good publicity. It is also true that Khalidi's views, which many disagree with, have received attention in the media. There is no indication that this attention has hurt the University, however. On the contrary, the coverage of Khalidi's views and his association with Chicago should enhance the reputation of the University as a place tolerant of ideas outside the mainstream. Perhaps there are people who assume that Khalidi speaks for the entire University, but this is a misconception; universities are supposed to foster different viewpoints.

Friedman next argues that the controversy generated by Khalidi is not beneficial but polarizing. I haven't seen Khalidi's presence at the University, and I haven't seen discussion break down because someone heard Khalidi speak. Friedman gives no examples. To the degree that opinions on the Israel-Palestinian conflict are polarized, we must understand that people generally have strong "polar" viewpoints on these issues; Khalidi has nothing to do with it. Furthermore, a class taught by a controversial figure like bin Laden is a bad idea, but students with various perspectives have taken and benefited from Khalidi's courses, as course evaluations indicate.

Most importantly, Khalidi is a scholar respected by many inside and outside the University of Chicago. Kirkus reviews calls Khalidi's book Palestinian Identity "an impressive, thoughtful, layered, and well-documented study." Library Journal, hardly a source open to attacks of bias, highly recommends the book. Khalidi has been invited to speak around the country as one of the world's foremost scholars on the Middle East. His impressive record as a historian and analyst of the Middle East made his presence a real asset, regardless of whether or not we agree with his views.

Friedman also argues that there is a lack of diversity of opinions of Middle East issues in the Near Eastern Language and Civilization (NELC) department and at the University. In the context of Friedman's other points, this doesn't really make sense; how can Khalidi's views be both polarizing and the same as everyone else's? In reality, there is no significant lack of diversity. Strong support for Palestinians is not considered mainstream in American society and, while less unusual here, is not the modal opinion.

There is also diversity within NELC. Of the 50 professors in the department, seven focus on Arabic or Islamic studies while a similar number focus on Hebrew and Jewish studies. Menachem Brinker, for example, teaches Hebrew language and literature here. He has stated his belief that the way in which the Palestinians are pursuing statehood is wrong and that "Israel cannot under any circumstances accept the Palestinian demand regarding its legal and moral responsibility for the departure of the Palestinian refugees."

Furthermore, an entire academic system extending far beyond individual professors and NELC examines issues from many angles. This system includes faculty in other departments here (particularly those in the social sciences), students, and scholars from other institutions.

Additionally, it is revealing that Friedman's pleas for diversity come as he compares Khalidi to murderers and terrorists. It implies that Khalidi has no academic qualifications, and suggests that Khalidi is an agent of foreign governments. These statements greatly detract from the atmosphere Friedman claims to desire.

Ultimately, the question raised by Khalidi's departure is this: What value does an outspoken scholar with views far from the mainstream bring to an academic institution? Such figures can provide an enormous benefit to students and the general academic community. Universities are places where ideas are created, shared, tested, and discussed. This happens most effectively when a very wide range of views are expressed. Universities are especially useful for considering views outside of conventional wisdom. In the 1960s and '70s, universities were the birthplace of the movement to end our involvement in Vietnam. This movement involved faculty as well as students.

Fostering a wide range of views is especially important on an issue as complicated and contested as the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Over the past decades, mainstream ideas about this situation have led to virtually no significant progress. Politically, militarily, and ideologically, it seems we are stuck in a terrible stalemate. If there is a way out, it probably involves open-mindedness and listening to a wide range of opinions.

Finally, those who are concerned with the presence of views like Khalidi's in Middle Eastern studies departments may soon be able to breathe a collective sigh of relief. The U.S. Congress unanimously passed HR3077 last month, a bill that would establish a commission to investigate such departments and determine if they are sufficiently pro-American. If not, their federal funding, on which these departments are heavily reliant, would be in jeopardy. The bill's proposed interference with academic freedom is deeply troubling; this interference is what we risk by attacking the presence of unique viewpoints like Khalidi's in our or any university.