November 12, 2004

Frustrated by Mid East discourse, Sassen storms from panel lecture

"Examining National Identity: Nationalism, Transnationalism, and the Future of the Middle East," held Wednesday night at the International House, was a simple panel on the Middle East until Sociology Professor Saskia Sassen stormed out during the presentation of another senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, Anne Bayefksy.

"I thought the panel would offer a chance to explore, to remap the situation. But when one of the speakers basically makes a completely unilateral presentation reciting the litany of UN resolutions that went against Israel, without ever bringing in a reflection about the complexity of the matter, we are in trouble," she said.

The Student Committee on the Middle East (SCME) hosted the panel discussion, which featured four scholars from across the country who presented perspectives on the political, theoretical, and philosophical aspects of nationalism.

Sassen and Peter Berkowitz, a professor of law at George Mason University's Law School, addressed the theoretical notion of national identity. Meanwhile Bayefsky and Mazin Qumsiyeh, associate professor of genetics at Yale University, focused on the relevance of national identity in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

After being angered by the presentations of panelists Qumsiyeh and Bayefsky, Sassen believed that the panel was no longer merely exploring the topic, but presenting biased viewpoints that detracted from the discussion. "We cannot make any headway even in our academic discussion if we talk about the Israeli government as a pure victim the way two of the speakers explicitly or implicitly did," she said. "We need to recognize that the Israeli state has operated with excess power in a situation of extreme asymmetry."

In the first presentation, Sassen discussed the effects of globalization on the relationship between the state and the citizen. Sassen claimed not to be an expert on the Middle East, but said that she would use her broader understanding of national identity to "apply analytical incursions into the situation in the Middle East." She said that in newly formed democracies, the role of the citizen has become blurred, and the sovereign, even if elected, does not always represent the people.

Sassen suggested that Israeli and Palestinian citizens were also experiencing a changing relationship, and she said that the academy is preparing for exploration and deliberation on the situation in the Middle East.

Berkowitz spoke next, tracing the history of nationalism as a political idea to the notion of the modern nation-state. Berkowitz said that the purpose of the modern state is the protection of individual rights and the sovereignty of the people. While he said he believed that the nation-state is obligated to provide security of those rights, he felt that "transnationalism shares a common root with nationalism in the protection of these individual rights."

Upon discussing nationalism in Israel, Berkowitz noted that the balance between a democratic state and a Jewish state is somewhat problematic. Berkowitz ended with a quote from a Palestinian woman who felt that Israel's dedication to being a democracy as well as a Jewish State was an inherit contradiction.

"I thought the event went relatively well. It emphasized some of the major points we were hoping to address," said SCME organizer Rita Koganzon. "I was disappointed that one of the panelists left the panel in the middle; I think that was an extremely unprofessional and rude gesture. SCME's aim to is to allow competing views on an issue a public forum rather than giving one particular opinion an unchallenged pulpit, so we expect our panelists to disagree with each other but be willing to defend their ideas through civil discussion. We were very dismayed that one of the panelists was unwilling to do so."

International House Global Voices Program, University of Chicago Democrats, College Republicans, Americans for Informed Democracy, Chicago Society, Chicago Friends of Israel, Rockefeller Chapel, SGFC, and the Newberger Hillel cosponsored the event.