Home inFocus The Academy and the Palestinian Refugees

The Academy and the Palestinian Refugees

Asaf Romirowsky Winter 2008

Of all the thorny issues complicating peace efforts in the Middle East, the Palestinian demand for the “right of return” of refugees from the 1948 and 1967 wars ranks among the toughest to address. Even if the Palestinians were to cease calling for the destruction of the state of Israel tomorrow, the refugee issue would remain an obstacle to peace.

Academic specialists in the field of Middle East studies are responsible for keeping this problem alive with errant scholarship. Scholar-activists continue to agitate for unrealistic outcomes to this problem. A principal example is their support for the United Nations Works and Relief Agency (UNRWA), an organization that exacerbates the Palestinian refugee problem by refusing to repatriate Palestinians, even those living in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank—land commonly viewed as Palestinian.

Refugees & the Ivory Tower

The academic narrative on the “right of return” has been anything but scholarly. It is frequently based on a skewed reading of history, which assumes Israel was responsible for creating the refugee problem through “ethnic cleansing.” Academics in the ivory tower conveniently disregard the fact that Israel fought defensive wars against Arab armies in 1948 and 1967, and that a great many Palestinians elected to flee these wars with the expectations that the Arab armies would emerge victorious.

Nonetheless, Middle East studies professors are nearly unanimous in their vilification of Israel. Disagreements, inasmuch as they exist, center on proposed solutions to the Palestinian refugee problem.

There are some professors who demand nothing less than a complete “return” of the families of refugees. Among the most vocal in this school is Fawaz Gerges of Sarah Lawrence College. Gerges asserts that the Arab world should not accept compromises “on minimal fundamental rights”—including the “right of return” for Palestinians.

Similarly, Joseph Massad, an assistant professor at Columbia University, believes that asking “the [Palestinian] Diaspora and the refugees to sacrifice their rights… is to ask the Diaspora and refugees more generally, to commit national suicide.”

Few professors openly acknowledge that their demand for Israel to take in the descendants of refugees, numbering in the hundreds of thousands, is tantamount to Israeli “national suicide.” There are, however, some who speak their minds with alarming clarity.

Hatem Bazian, a senior lecturer at the University of California Berkeley who famously called for “an intifada in [America],” openly advocates for the “right of return” precisely because it would mean the end of a Jewish majority in Israel. He revels in his prediction that the Palestinians will one day live in “an Arab-majority state.”

Similarly, Elia Zureik, professor emeritus at Queen’s University in Canada and former PLO advisor on refugee issues, is an advocate for the “right of return” who openly acknowledges that an influx of Palestinians would, “disturb Israel’s ‘fragile demographic balance’ or ‘change the character’ of the state.” Yet he labels Israel’s refusal to accept Palestinian refugees as “ethnic cleansing… as a means of national self-preservation.”

There are also professors for whom agenda trumps truth. Stanford University professor Joel Beinin, former president of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), demands that Israel acknowledge wrongdoing. Indeed, this scholar-activist seeks for Israel to merely “acknowledge that the creation of the Jewish state entailed the destruction of Palestinian society.”

Similarly, Rex Brynen, associate professor of political science at McGill University in Montreal believes that “within Israel, the refugee issue needs to be further aired, in an effort to build some degree of public recognition (and acceptance) that future compensation payments to Palestinian refugees are both justified and in the interest of both Israel and the Palestinians.” Brynen’s scholarship ignores history. Indeed, there is no historical precedent whereby a nation that fought a defensive war was expected to pay reparations.

These are just a few examples of the way in which politicized professors of Middle East studies have adopted the cause of the Palestinian refugees cause while simultaneously assailing Israel and ignoring reality. Their political agenda is made clear by the fact that they consistently choose to omit discussion of the estimated 900,000 Jewish refugees who either fled or were forced out of Arab states during the 1948 and 1967 wars.

UNRWA Support

Not surprisingly, a number of academics have openly embraced the efforts of UNRWA and its concerted efforts to perpetuate the Palestinian refugee problem. Founded in 1949, UNRWA exists entirely to service those claiming to be Palestinian refugees, including the children and grandchildren of the original displaced people who have long since passed away.

In the interest of self-survival, UNRWA encourages new generations of refugees. Indeed, how would the organization exist if the Palestinians were all repatriated? In recent years, it has been reported that UNRWA even works with extremist organizations that hold similar views on the “rights” of refugees.

Given the aforementioned academic positions on the Palestinian refugee problem, it should come as no surprise that academics have helped transform UNRWA from an organization designed only to give refugees material assistance to an activist organization that derives its legitimacy from both the United Nations and Western scholars.

Anthropologist Julie Peteet of the University of Louisville, in her latest book Landscape of Hope and Despair: Place and Identity in a Palestinian Camp, unabashedly lauds UNRWA. She calls it a, “pivotal and transformative institution, shaping Palestinian refugee identity in manifold ways.”

Law professor Susan Akram of Boston University proposes the continuation of international support to UNRWA “as an assistance agency” because she believes the consensus is that the refugee problem is “the responsibility of the entire world community.”

The Palestinian American Research Center (PARC), a not-for-profit academic institution that receives federal government funding for area studies (via Title VI), has also promoted UNRWA. At one Middle Eastern Studies Association meeting, PARC paid for lecturer Salim Tamari from the West Bank to discuss the merits of UNRWA. Tamari, director of the Institute of Jerusalem Studies and a professor of sociology at Ramallah’s Birzeit University, has now made his rounds at American universities for more than a decade. He advocates for the “return, resettlement, [and] repatriation” of the Palestinians. He seeks “ways in which UNRWA can play a positive role in the reintegration of returnees to the economy of the West Bank and Gaza.”

Rather than promote UNRWA, other professors simply apologize for it. For example, Rashid Khalidi, a former PLO spokesman, PARC member, and now professor at Columbia University, turns a blind eye to UNRWA’s open affiliation with terrorist organizations. He notes nothing wrong with the fact that, “UNRWA, NGO-run [organizations] and public hospitals and clinics, for example, employ members of different political groups such as Fatah, the [Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine], Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.”

Notable Exceptions

Not all Middle East scholars approve of UNRWA, however. Scholar Don Peretz, for example, identified UNRWA as a problem decades ago.

In 1952, Peretz received a fellowship from the Ford Foundation to study Israel’s policy toward the Palestinian Arab refugee problem. His research consisted of several working papers later published as a book by the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, and was the basis for his doctoral thesis at Columbia University. Peretz described the connection between the “refugee problem” and UNRWA in a 1963 article in Foreign Affairs saying that, “continued identification of ‘the refugee problem’ with a solution of the total Palestine dilemma is not only illusory, but fosters Arab fears that the success of international attempts to liquidate the refugee problem would mean abandonment of the rights of Palestine Arabs.”

Peretz concluded that, “to be of value, the nature of refugee assistance must be reevaluated.”

Even the late Edward Said, the dean of scholar-activists and author of the influential, anti-Western book Orientalism, was less than enamored with UNRWA. In a 1992 book, Said observed that there existed an “ambivalence of Palestinian feeling toward UNRWA” and a “latent dissatisfaction with UNRWA’s role.”

Part of the problem with UNRWA, he explained, stemmed from the organization’s “nonpolitical paternalism represented by doled-out food, clothing, as well as medical and educational facilities.”

In the end, he concluded that “Palestinians living in the political cocoon that UNRWA was supposed to be providing could not determine whether they would ever break through into genuine self-determination.”

Of course, it must be noted that Said’s opposition to UNRWA stemmed from his desire to see all Palestinians living in the state of Israel. Still, Said deserves credit for criticizing UNRWA for its failure to help the Palestinians take responsibility for themselves.

Part of a Pattern

Many of the same scholar-activists who have corrupted the field of Middle East studies are the ones who have consistently misled American students on the problem of Palestinian refugees. Worse still, many of these professors lend their support to UNRWA, an organization that actively prevents Middle East peace.

Sadly, the radical activism surrounding the problem of Palestinian refugees is just one troublesome trend among many contributing to the continued failure of Middle East studies in America.

Asaf Romirowsky is an adjunct scholar for Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, and manager of Israel & Middle East Affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. JPC intern Alan Levine contributed to this piece.