This weekend, Yale’s Council on Middle East Studies (CMES) is holding a conference on "opportunities and challenges" in the Middle East–standard fare, when it comes to innocuously naming gatherings of academics. The taxpayer-funded Council claims itself "a central resource for the Yale community, the region, and the nation on issues pertaining to the Middle East" that organizes programs and events "designed to advance understanding of regional issues." It is fair to ask whether CMES’s annual conference furthers these objectives.
Several things are remarkable about the list of conference participants on the program. The keynote speaker–you can tell a lot about who the organizers of a conference wish to identify themselves with by the choice of the keynote–is Robert Malley, the controversial former Obama adviser whose work over the past several years has been notable in its effort to absolve Yasser Arafat of blame for the failure of the Camp David talks in 2000 and his attempt to convince anyone who will listen that the key to peace in the Middle East is for Israel and Abu Mazen to go hat in hand to Hamas. This is CMES’s choice to headline its conference.
And then there are the individual panel discussions. The one on Lebanon and Syria is inexplicably moderated by a neurology researcher from Yale Medical School with no publications of any kind related to those two countries, the Middle East, or even foreign policy. Participating on the panel is an American University of Beirut demographer–a specialty of little relevance to the subject of the panel–named Marwan Khawaja, who signed a viciously anti-Israel, pro-Hezbollah letter during the 2006 war. Here are some of the ideas to which this Yale conference participant has attached his allegiance:
We the undersigned declare . . . [o]ur unambiguous refutation of the logic that accuses HizbAllah of having provided the "pretext" for the Israeli invasion. Israel did not invade Lebanon, destroy its infrastructure, displace and murder its populace because of the heroic operation carried out by HizbAllah. . . . [T]he recent Israeli aggression is the latest in a long series extending back to the founding of the Zionist state and motivated by both historical ambitions vis-à-vis Lebanese territory and waters and by a racist supremacist ideology that denigrates the indigenous population, their culture, and their very existence.
A fuller reading will reveal wonderfully florid rodomontade about the "Zionist killing machine" and similar concerns. This pro-Hezbollah activist is not just visiting Yale to speak at a conference–he is in fact a visiting professor in the Modern Middle East Studies program. (Two other Yale employees, Simon Samoeil, a librarian, and Bassam Frangieh, an Arabic professor, also signed the declaration.)
The panel on "Peacemaking in the 21st Century"–this presumably refers to the various Israeli-Arab conflicts–amazingly does not feature a single person on it who has a positive, or even balanced, thing to say about Israel. The "Israeli" voice is Avi Shlaim, who lived in Israel for a few years in childhood and today says that Israel looks "like an ‘Ashkenazi trick’ of which [I don’t] feel a part." Shlaim rose to fame as a relentless and often unhinged critic of Zionism and Israel; his life’s work is dedicated to the proposition that there has never been an Arab offer for peace that was not sincere, and an Israeli offer for peace that was not a deception. He favors an arms embargo and economic sanctions against Israel. The organizers of Yale’s conference on the Middle East apparently could not find a single professor in a relevant discipline to speak without rancor or fanaticism about Israel’s place in the region. So what about government officials? Sallama Shaker, an Egyptian foreign minister, will be at the conference, after all. But apparently the Israeli consulate in New York, an hour-and-a-half drive from New Haven, was considered too far away.
So, Avi Shlaim will hold forth on the myriad injustices of Zionism; Rob Malley will tell us that we must bring Hamas in from the cold; Trita Parsi will apologize for the Iranian regime; Murhaf Jouejati will apologize for Bashar Assad; Daoud Kuttab, who three days after 9/11 blamed the attacks on American support for Israel, will lecture on the illegitimacy of Israeli self-defense; and Marwan Khawaja, the pro-Hezbollah Yale professor, will tell us what Lebanon needs, although this time, ensconced in New Haven, he will probably not say that Lebanon needs Hezbollah to slaughter more Zionists, as he did in 2006.
In the end, what does it matter that the attempt to establish a de jure academic boycott of Israel failed, when a perfectly effective de facto one already exists? What does this choice of participants say about the ideas that the Council on Middle East Studies at Yale believes are worth promoting? And it is worth asking a final question: Properly understood, is this event a conference, or a two-day exercise in self-indulgence?