Joy Resmovits
October 8, 2010 - 12:00am

America’s first academic center devoted to Palestinian studies launched to huge applause – and with apparent Jewish support – at Columbia University the evening of October 6.

Rashid Khalidi, the noted Palestinian American historian of the Middle East who will co-direct the center, told a capacity filled 335-seat lecture hall that he hoped the center would serve to connect Palestine scholars across the globe. Another of its goals will be to build up its library collections.

“A great lacuna in Palestinian history is the lack of archives,” Khalidi said.

Khalidi is the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia and editor of the Journal of Palestine Studies. He will co-direct the Center for Palestine Studies with Professor Brinkley Messick, chair of the school’s anthropology department.

Columbia has been the scene of bitter battles in recent years in which some supporters of Israel have attacked the University’s Middle-East studies department (formerly known as MEALAC) as academically unbalanced and accused one of its faculty members of anti-Semitism — a charge later refuted by an investigation conducted by a committee appointed by Columbia’s president. But there were no protests at the launching. Instead, well-wishers, including some Jews, looked forward to the new center becoming a place for civil discourse that could calm the polarized campus atmosphere.

“I believe that this is a prime opportunity for collaboration between the Center for Palestine Studies and the Institute for Israel and Jewish studies,” Barnard student Aviva Buechler, President of the Columbia/Barnard Hillel, said the next day.

Indeed, the new center enters the academy as the first of its kind at a time when the academic discipline of Israel studies has been expanding rapidly, often with funding from Jewish patrons. In contrast, Khalidi told the audience that while the Center for Palestine Studies will be under the roof of the Middle East Institute, “We need to raise money … .We have absolutely no money.”

The center honors the legacy the late Columbia scholar Edward Said, whose book “Orientalism” strongly critiqued prior Middle East scholarship as conducted from a colonialist perspective by scholars whose work served the interests of Western governments deeply involved in the region. The new center aims to promote research on Palestine and Palestinians; to support scholarship in the West Bank, Gaza, and among Palestinians throughout the world; and to hold regular workshops, lectures, and screenings. More tangibly, the center will dedicate an Edward Said Reading Room in the spring.

The launch event featured the New York premiere of “Zindeeq,” a Palestinian feature about a documentary filmmaker who returns to Palestine to understand the ramifications of Israel’s establishment and the making of Palestinian refugees in 1948. Afterwards, James Schamus, a Columbia School of the Arts Professor who produced movies ranging from “Brokeback Mountain” to “The Pianist,” moderated a discussion with “Zindeeq” director Michel Khleifi.

The film’s message aligned with the center’s goal of making sense of a largely unsystemized history. “Palestine seems to be a world of multiple myths, a world of lies,” Khleifi said, through a French translator. “It’s not possible to move forward before we organize the past. … It’s about trying to legitimize a history that really doesn’t exist.”

The room was filled with students and academics ranging from sociologist Todd Gitlin to Yinon Cohen, Columbia’s Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi Professor of Israel and Jewish Studies. Schamus said he was pleased to see a mixed crowd of Palestinians and his “fellow Jewish American academics.”

Schamus, who plans to host similar events in the future, said he became involved in the center’s formation when a group of Columbia faculty felt the sting of the earlier campus polarization. “There was a real assault on fundamental academic freedoms a few years ago. That really galvanized a lot of faculty,” Schamus told the Forward after the event. Schamus cited the highly-publicized film “Columbia Unbecoming,” which advanced the later refuted charges of anti-Semitism against Professor Joseph Massad, and to the high-profile tenure case of anthropologist Nadia Abu El-Haj at Columbia-affiliated Barnard College.

Schamus said the center’s launch marked a new moment of civility for Middle East dialogue on Columbia’s campus. “The failure of those assaults has made everyone – no matter what their political opinions – much more sensitive to the value of open and courteous dialogue, and has given real impetus to the establishment of the center, the first ever of its kind in North America,” Schamus said.


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