How does a detail-oriented lecture on research methodology and academic field building in Middle Eastern Studies (MES) descend into a one-sided and unprovoked salvo against Israel? Last month, Zachary Lockman, a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic studies at New York University (NYU), provided the answer with a talk entitled, “Anxieties of Field-Building in U.S. Middle East Studies.” It was the first in a new series at NYU meant to introduce students to faculty members’ methodological approaches; however, Lockman used the occasion of the question and answer period to peddle “Israel Lobby” conspiracy theories that bordered on classical anti-Semitism.
The talk took place in the museum-like Richard Ettinghausen Library in the Hagop Kevorkian Center. Half the room was high-ceilinged with built-in mosaic-covered arches in the Islamic style along one wall and floors with inlaid mosaics, the other half walled in honey-stained wood and lined with reference books. The audience of approximately fifty, primarily graduate students and research fellows, filled the room.
Part of the research for a new project, Lockman focused on political vectors influencing how the field of Middle Eastern studies was built in the post-WWII period. In particular, he examined the role of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), their multi-decade lavish funding from the Ford Foundation, and, ultimately, their failure to create an agenda to influence the study of the modern Middle East. His project ends in the 1980s, the point at which the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) began, as he put it, to accommodate “the opposition left wing caucus within Middle East studies” composed “of people, myself included” with the resultant “political [and] intellectual consequences.” Indeed, from that point onwards, MESA’s politicization took on a leftward and anti-Zionist slant, causing many scholars to leave the organization and, in some cases, to form alternatives.
Although no one brought up Israel during the question and answer period following the lecture, Lockman proved the point when he began, in his own language, to “free associate” at length about the country’s alleged faults, all the while employing an objective, professorial tone.
In answer to an audience member’s question, “I’m just curious as to when you started to see foreign governments fund area studies departments and . . . to what extent [did] their funding ha[ve] any sort of conditions attached to it?,” Lockman noted briefly that, in the 1970s, Saudi Arabia “created a King someone or other chair . . . and appointed an old Aramco [the Saudi Arabian Oil Company] guy to it.” He acknowledged this was “problematic” before focusing on what he believed to be the truly controversial characteristic of the situation:
So, by this point, you begin to get criticism often from American Jewish groups for this kind of thing. There hadn’t been much criticism before that, but it’s part of the emergence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: organized Jewish groups lobbying a whole range of things, and those kind of donations come to be seen as questionable or problematic in ways that they weren’t so much before.
In other words, Lockman diverted the discussion to the alleged depredations of the “Israel Lobby.” Alluding further to Israel and its lobbyists, he assured the audience that, “[F]or those of you who feel you are under siege, let me reassure you there’s a very long history to this.”
From this Lockman segued to Senator William Fulbright’s 1963 hearings on “Activities of Nondiplomatic Representatives of Foreign Principals in the United States,” which were aimed at uncovering abuses of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) of 1938 and making necessary amendments to the law:
Among other things, the hearings showed that money from Israel was being channeled, again, not in conformance with American law—you’re supposed to register before getting money from foreign governments—to something called the council for Middle East Studies, which published a journal through the 50s and into the 60s . . . which was subsidized surreptitiously by the Israeli government, passing money through the American Foundation.
His preoccupation and thorough familiarity with this topic—declassified through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by anti-Israel conspiracy monger Grant F. Smith in order to write an anti-American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) screed—further reveals his obsession with alleged Israeli influence-buying.
Lockman then told a convoluted story concerning a “secret” donation from Israel that he traced personally, even writing a letter decades later to its recipient, Henry Siegman—a former executive director of the American Jewish Congress who later became a harsh critic of Israel and hence, in Lockman’s words, “a very sweet guy.” This ostensibly nefarious donation amounted to the princely sum of five hundred dollars—a paltry gift indeed compared to the Ford Foundation’s “hundreds of millions” to academe in the early 1950s.
Next Lockman claimed that by 1984 MESA was “denouncing the Anti-Defamation League and AIPAC because they [were] circulating blacklists of scholars, anti-Israel, whatever.” In fact, it is anti-Israel agitators who have a history of leveling spurious “blacklisting” accusations against outside critics.
Returning to the evolution of MESA, Lockman noted that:
In its early years, it quite deliberately refused to talk about what was then called the Arab-Israeli conflict. . . . No papers at MESA, no panels at MESA in its first couple of years because they were terrified about divisiveness, conflict, whatever.
Today’s MESA is no stranger to divisiveness and conflict. Its membership recently agreed to provide platforms for “sustained discussion of the academic boycott of Israel,” a move that even Lockman, a former MESA president, opposed, arguing that the organization could suffer a loss of prestige, membership, and Title-VI congressional funding. Ironically, the politicization of MESA has now reached the culmination for which Lockman and his cohorts were agitating in the 1970-80s, while Lockman has become one of the graying heads urging restraint.
The contrast between Lockman’s lecture and his conspiratorial assertions against Israel during the Q&A was noteworthy: during the former, his tone was restrained and objective, while during the latter his every utterance was negative. He obviously assumed his audience shared his prejudices—a safe bet in contemporary academe. Beyond describing the methodology of field-building, Lockman offered unscripted instructions on how to build a biased case against Israel.
Mara Schiffren, who has a Ph.D. from Harvard University in comparative religion, is currently working on a book about historical Israel. She wrote this essay for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.