by Brendan Goldman
June 13, 2010
“The martyrs of the [Gaza flotilla] ships are heroes,” writes Mark LeVine, professor of history at the University of California, Irvine. “They are warriors every bit as deserving of our tears and support as the soldiers of American wars past and present.”
In the aftermath of the death of nine mercenaries on the deck of the Gaza-bound Turkish vessel, the Mavi Marmara, professors of Middle East studies lined up to denounce the Jewish State. Ignoring overwhelming video and documentary evidence of the activists’ radical agenda and affinity for violence, these professors asserted that the “Freedom Flotilla” of the six Gaza-bound vessels were on a purely “humanitarian” mission.
“Those ships were just bringing aid to the impoverished Palestinians,” said New York University professor of modern Middle Eastern History Zachary Lockman. “It’s not [the Palestinians’] fault they are under Hamas rule.” Has Lockman already forgotten that Hamas was democratically elected by the Palestinians in January 2006?
Even professors who managed to recall the Palestinian elections were determined to demonstrate that the terrorist group has been falsely maligned. Georgetown University’s John Esposito, director of the Prince Alwaleed bin Talal Center for Muslim Christian Understanding, tried to whitewash the terrorist group’s reputation by declaring, “Hamas simply does not steal … thus any aid delivered to the UN will be respected.” Yet even traditionally anti-Israel institutions like the U.N. and the left-wing British Guardian have noted that Hamas has illegally seized aid intended for Gaza’s poor.
Uninterested in the terrorist connections of the blockade-runners, many professors expressed concern that the U.S. would lose “popular support” in the Islamic world as a result of siding with Israel in the flotilla crisis. Recalling President Barack Obama’s controversial Cairo address to the Muslim world last spring, George Washington University’s Mark Lynch writes, “If [Obama] tries to ignore the issue [of the Gaza flotilla] or simply defend Israel’s actions, then the first anniversary of the Cairo speech will also be its epitaph.”
Esposito warned that according to a Gallup poll and his “own experience,” “[the] window of opportunity in the Muslim world” will close unless the U.S. stops being “in lock-step stride with Israel.”
Apparently shilling for terrorists doesn’t close the “window of opportunity” to lecture American administrations on foreign policy.
Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University suggested one way the U.S. could follow Esposito’s advice: Confront Israel militarily. He told WBEZ Chicago Radio that ideally, he sees “European or American ships physically breaking the blockade or [the U.N. putting] sanctions on Israel.”
Some academics who do not fancy themselves pollsters like Esposito or NATO admirals like Khalidi claimed the mantle of the law, arguing that the flotilla ships were “illegally” boarded. Jennifer Loewenstein, associate director of the Middle East studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told the Islamic Republic of Iran’s semi-official Press TV that “[t]he fact is that legally [the Israelis] have no defense. They violated international laws by attacking a non-violent humanitarian aid convoy to the Gaza Strip in International waters.”
Fawaz Gerges, professor of Middle Eastern politics and international relations at the London School of Economics and Sarah Lawrence College, also asserted his newly discovered legal expertise: “The killing of those activists, sad though it is, could easily serve as a framework to … force Israel to abide by international law.”
In addition to condemning the Israelis, Stephen Zunes, professor of international relations and the Middle East at the University of San Francisco, attempted to exonerate the militant passengers who attacked them. “Certainly it would have been better if the largely Turkish crew of the ship … had not fought back. But it was well within their legal right to do so.”
Actual scholars of international law tend to reject these pronouncements. Ruth Wedgwood, who teaches international law and diplomacy at Johns Hopkins University, convincingly debunks Zunes’s, Gerges’s, and Loewenstein’s arguments. “We had a blockade around Cuba in the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Wedgwood explained, noting that during that period, ships were boarded in international waters. “Under traditional law of the sea, you can visit and search before a boat gets to port.”
Reuters released an informative Q&A legal analysis of the incident that supports Wedgwood’s position by noting that “[l]egal experts say proportional force does not mean that guns cannot be used by forces when being attacked with knives.”
As for examining the region’s history in order to better understand its present, Middle East studies scholars were as eager to avoid discussing that subject as they were to heap blame on Israel. For instance, the passengers of the Mavi Marmara were recorded on Al-Jazeera chanting in Arabic, “Khaybar, Khaybar, oh Jews! The army of Mohammed will return!” They were referring to the Battle of Khaybar of 629 CE, in which Muslim forces under Mohammed summarily executed, enslaved, and forced into economic servitude the Jews of the Khaybar Oasis. But you needn’t bother looking for commentary on such matters from Middle Eastern scholars — with very few exceptions, they don’t exist.
Israeli-Turkish relations were another subject for which many Middle Eastern experts failed to provide context, ascribing the breakdown in the nations’ alliance to Israel and the singular event of the Gaza flotilla. Middle East scholar Daniel Pipes has warned of Turkey’s Islamization for many years, and professor Henri J. Barkey of Lehigh University recently outlined how Israeli-Turkish relations have deteriorated since Turkey’s main Islamist party took power. Turkey’s current Prime Minister, Recep Erdogan, has consistently expressed sympathy for Hamas and Iran’s nuclear program.
Yet such basic background information was missing from many academics’ analyses. “Historians may look back on the [Mavi] Marmara raid as the moment a new order began emerging in the Middle East, grouping Turkey with Iran, Syria, Iraq and Palestine rather than with Washington and Tel Aviv,” University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole writes.
Among Khalidi’s saber-rattling; Zunes’s, Loewenstein’s and Gerges’s claims to judicial authority; and Esposito’s and Lynch’s popularity contest, it is easy to forget that these individuals are scholars who have spent decades studying the history and politics of the Middle East. The media organizations that invited them to speak did not challenge their unsubstantiated claims. Issues actually relevant to Middle Eastern expertise were either distorted or neglected completely. These scholars’ response to the Gaza flotilla incident demonstrates that America cannot expect an objective analysis of major news events from the leaders of this troubled discipline.
Brendan Goldman, a member of New York University’s class of 2010, earned a B.A. in Middle Eastern and Islamic studies. This essay was sponsored by Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.