Friday, February 10, 2006

Politicized Ignorance

Sol of Solomonia draws attention to this post by David Bernstein of the The Volokh Conspiracy. Bernstein writes about a review of Spielberg's Munich by Edward Said's most earnest epigone, Columbia professor Joseph Massad. The rhetorical device around which the review turns is an analogy between Munich and Exodus, the 1960 Otto Preminger film based on Leon Uris's novel of the same name. The novel is a fictional treatment of the founding of Israel that includes a dramatization of the ordeal faced by Jewish Holocaust survivors on the ship Exodus 1947, who were fleeing European Displaced Persons camps to settle in Palestine.

Here is Massad's take on this event in post-Holocaust Jewish history:

Exodus was the major cinematic achievement of the Zionist movement. The film popularized the Zionist cause and remains inspirational to young American and European Zionists. The film was most effective in staging the determination and desperation of the Zionist leadership, which was depicted as having no choice but to conquer Palestine and make it the Jewish State.

Others have pointed out Massad's intellectual limitations, not the least of which is the violence (see POSTSCRIPT) he does to language. And surely the thesis he develops -- that like Exodus, "Munich is already having the same impact on American audiences and is playing the same role as Exodus did in legitimizing Israeli policies and the Zionist project" -- will strike any reasonable person who's seen the film as a blinkered reading. But Bernstein refers to the Massad piece as "lunatic", which isn't quite right, as it implies Massad is inured to reality.

The truth is that both the Uris novel and the movie can be accused of distilling and embellishing Zionist history in that era. So in this narrow sense, Massad, in pursuing the tack that these fictionalizations amount to propaganda, is not "lunatic". Instead, where I believe he fails, both analytically and morally, is in his utter lack of concern for the Jewish historical narrative. To reduce this short but brutal chapter of Jewish history to a mere furtherance of "the Zionist project" is criminal. Such an extreme brand of myopia is troubling in an Ivy League Middle East Studies professor.

I'm no Martin Kramer, but most of what I learn about Middle East Studies reaffirms a suspicion of mine. That is: in the wake of Edward Said, the discipline, beyond being thoroughly politicized, is in itself a political statement about the relationship of Jews to the Middle East.

Consider the stars today of Middle East Studies -- people like Massad and Juan Cole. They (at least putatively) have a general knowledge of the region, they have their areas of cultural specialization, and they are of course steeped in postcolonial, that is Saidian, theoretics. You also have the sundry scholars of Islam. But is there any one of them whose area of cultural specialization is Jews? Any one who is a scholar of Judaism? A historian of Israel, or even a fluent Hebrew speaker? Any one who learned the Bernard Lewis/Chatham House ouevre before rejecting it?

Clearly then, for the Saidian set of Middle East scholars, a political statement about the relationship of Jews to the Middle East is being made: that there is no relationship between the two besides that of Zionist-colonial depredation. Jews are mere interlopers, fanged colonists, European bagmen, even Nazis. They are not -- cannot -- be indiginous to the region, and worthy of study themselves.

It is therefore not "lunacy", or merely sub-par scholarship and political indoctrination, that results in pablum like Massad's review, but a studied disengagement from anything authentically Jewish. It is, in short, politicized ignorance.

Addendum: This post is an adapted expansion of comments I made on Solomonia. Bernstein seems to have come across those original comments, and in an update to his post, quoted me at length. In preparing this post, I took Bernstein's editorial suggestions and added "A historian of Israel, or even a fluent Hebrew speaker?" to my series of rhetorical questions in the antepenultimate paragraph.