Academic Zionism

by Henry Farrell on April 10, 2005

Juan Cole makes a claim that I find hard to buy.

Personally, I think that the master narrative of Zionist historiography is dominant in the American academy. Mostly this sort of thing is taught by International Relations specialists in political science departments, and a lot of them are Zionists, whether Christian or Jewish. Usually the narrative blames the Palestinians for their having been kicked off their own land, and then blames them again for not going quietly. It is not a balanced point of view, and if we take the NYT seriously (which we could stop doing after they let Judith Miller channel Ahmad Chalabi on the front page every day before the war), then the IR professors should be made to teach a module on the Palestinian point of view, as well. That is seldom done.

This doesn’t at all gel with my experience of how international relations is taught or practiced, which is that IR courses which cover Middle East politics usually provide readings that cover both sides of the argument. I did a quick Google search on “international relations”+syllabus+Israel to see whether my impression bore out for the first twenty or so course syllabi that I could locate. While I came across one site where the readings tended heavily towards the Bernard Lewis school of analysis, it was the exception – and there was another course where the readings seemed to me to lean equally heavily towards the Palestinian side. The vast majority, covered both arguments, or covered the question from a perspective such as peace and conflict studies, where the emphasis is on solving the conflict rather than addressing the underlying merits of either sides’ claims.

You probably could make a case that IR has an implicit bias towards the Israel side of the argument: Israel is a state, and a discipline which claims that states are the key actors in international politics will tend implicitly or explicitly to discount the rights of peoples without states. But this is hardly evidence of Zionist bias – rather of a pre-existing theoretical set of suppositions about what counts or doesn’t count in international politics. Furthermore, many pro-state realists are quite critical of US support of Israel, on the grounds that this is not in the best interests of the US – for example, Stephen Walt. You could also certainly argue that the IR types who are most visible in US public debates are pro-Israel – but this says more about the public debate than about international relations. The IR scholars who expound in op-ed pages are not by any means necessarily the IR scholars who get taught in the classroom. I suspect that Cole’s claims reflect his lack of experience with IR as it is actually practiced in the academy. Certainly he needs to provide some evidence if he wants to make the rather strong claims that he is making stick. Otherwise, he’s doing what the people who he’s (in my opinion correctly) criticizing are doing – condemning an entire discipline wholesale on the basis of a rather shaky set of claims as to what the people in that discipline are “really” doing in the classroom.

NB – as usual with posts that touch on Middle East politics, I’m going to ruthlessly delete any comments that wander off into the general questions of who’s right or wrong in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Update: I hadn’t seen that Dan Drezner had already commented on Cole’s post; unsurprisingly, his reaction was rather similar to mine.

Update 2: Jeff Weintraub has been good enough to share part of an email that he’s sent to Cole on the topic – excerpt below:

Furthermore (and here I’m in accord with Dan Drezner, which is not always the case), when it comes to your concrete characterization of the hegemonic perspective on Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict within political science, and particularly within IR, then I have to confess that I found that quite implausible, indeed mystifying. My degree happens to be in sociology, but I have spent a fair amount of my academic career in political science departments or interdisciplinary programs, a number of my courses have always been cross-listed in political science, and I read a lot of political science work on this and other subjects. (I agree with you that there are a vast number of political scientists, like hordes of locusts. And a sometimes annoying characteristic of social scientists generally, including political scientists as well as sociologists, is that they often feel qualified to write and pronounce about subjects they don’t know much about. Many historians, for their part, have the problem that they can’t follow an argument, but to be a historian you have to know SOMETHING, however narrow. But I digress….) Your claim is that this hegemonic perspective involves an uncritical acceptance of the Zionist historical “master narrative”–by which you appear to mean, not just excessive sympathy for Israel, for Israeli policies, or for historical interpretations that favor the Zionist project, but an acceptance of the whole underlying mythic structure of Zionism as a form of “nineteenth-century romantic nationalism.”

Maybe you know a different breed of political scientists than I do, but as an empirical claim, this strikes me as factually incorrect, indeed a bit strange. This is especially true with respect to IR specialists (a breed for which my own enthusiasm is not unbounded). Let’s leave Zionism aside for a moment. The idea that the professional ideology of IR scholars involves the uncritical acceptance of the “master narrative” (and historical myths) of ANY form of ethnic nationalism, “romantic” or otherwise, runs entirely counter to everything I know about the field. On the basis of my own reading and experience, I would say that IR people in North America, overall, are not particularly inclined to sympathize with ethnic nationalism. And, if anything, they tend to be a lot more ontologically uncritical about states (or about allegedly “rational” individuals) than about “nations.”

So I would have to reiterate that in my (possibly fallible) opinion, this specific claim you made is just factually incorrect, and indeed not even plausible.

Freedom of speech at Powerline

by John Q on April 10, 2005

Since I’m not much interested in memos, I’d never visited Powerline until today. But I happened to follow a link from DC Media Girl and came across this post by Scott (a Dartmouth alum) about trustee elections at Dartmouth. Apparently Peter Robinson and Todd Zywicki[1] are running on a free speech platform, promising to “rescind all infringements on freedom of speech while promoting a climate in which every man or woman on campus feels genuinely at liberty to speak his or her mind.”, views Scott finds “powerful” . But what concerns him most is that ” Some alumni banded together several weeks ago to put up a site (“Alumni for a Strong Dartmouth”) attacking Robinson and Zywicki in apparent violation of the college’s rules against campaigning. ” Following a couple of links, we find one supporter who’s alive to at least one of the contradictions that the great minds at Powerline apparently missed, saying “The campaigning policy may be one freedom of speech limitation that I actually support”.

fn1. I assume this is the Todd Zywicki at Volokh. I have no reason to suppose he or Robinson is associated with attempts to shut down free speech.