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USC "Middle East Awareness Week" Features the Usual Suspects

By Cinnamon Stillwell
November 9, 2007

Dueling "awareness" weeks seem to be all the rage on college campuses these days, both for better and for worse.

Potentially falling into the latter category is the "Middle East Awareness Week" taking place at the University of Southern California (USC) from November 12-17. One would hope that the event will provide USC students with a scholarly and unbiased perspective on the Middle East, but the inclusion of several highly politicized professors and sponsors casts doubt.

Along with Students for Justice in Palestine and the Political Student Assembly, co-sponsors include the Levantine Cultural Center, a non-profit organization that describes itself as "the Los Angeles nexus for Middle Eastern/North African and Mediterranean cultures." While that's all well and good, the Levantine Cultural Center has a disturbing propensity for sponsoring events on Southern California college campuses that put forward a particularly one-sided view of the Middle East.

The "Covering Lebanon: Media and the 2006 War" conference held at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) in April of this year and co-sponsored by UCLA's Center for Near Eastern Studies was a case in point. Purporting to analyze media coverage of Israel's war with Hezbollah, panelists, including several Middle East studies professors, came to the surreal conclusion that the Western media was biased in Israel's favor. As Campus Watch noted at the time, none of the participants managed to explain "how numerous U.S. and international media sources putting forward as fact staged and altered photos and false accounts designed to damage Israel's image [was] evidence of bias in Israel's favor."

Promising more of the same, As'ad Abu Khalil, professor of political science at California State University, Stanislaus, visiting professor at University of California, Berkeley, and Angry Arab News Service blogger will be giving a presentation at USC's "Middle East Awareness Week" titled, "Media and the Middle East." Khalil was a panelist at the "Covering Lebanon" conference at UCLA and weighed in heavily on the side of the poor, beleaguered "Hezbollah fighters" whose "anguish and discomfort," in his view, apparently didn't receive enough sympathetic media coverage. His contribution to USC's examination of the media is likely to be debatable.

Speaking of which, former DePaul University political science professor and Holocaust Industry author Norman Finkelstein will also be speaking at the USC event. Giving a talk titled, "The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy in the Middle East," Finkelstein is sure to pick up his usual theme of the allegedly disproportionate influence of the "Israel Lobby" in America (as compared to say, all those Saudi dollars funding Middle East studies centers across the nation) and how U.S. support for Israel is the supposed cause of Islamist aggression.

Chances are Finkelstein's radicalism and unprofessional behavior had a little something to do with his forced resignation from DePaul earlier this year. But it certainly hasn't put a dent in his speaking engagement calendar and USC students will comprise the next audience for a figure who is admired by Holocaust deniers, Islamists, leftists, and neo-Nazis alike.

USC's director of the School of International Relations, Laurie Brand, will be giving a talk with the politically loaded title, "Palestine 101." This is fitting for, as pointed out by Middle East studies scholar Martin Kramer, Brand did a "five-year stint at the Institute of Palestine Studies," an organization not exactly known for its commitment to balance, and "her election in late 2002 [as Middle East Studies Association president] was MESA's way of endorsing the Palestinian cause in the midst of the intifada."

Directing her ire towards the United States, Brand gave a talk at the 2004 MESA annual conference in San Francisco called, "Scholarship in the Shadow of Empire." As one might expect with such overheated rhetoric, the empire in question was the United States and the academics resisting its alleged hegemony, the "embedded patriots." Indeed, Brand has consistently opposed all efforts by the U.S. government to call upon the nation's Middle East studies scholars to aid the battle against radical Islam, even as they continue to receive funding from that very source.

No longer MESA's president, Brand is the current chairwoman of the association's "committee on academic freedom," as well as being a signatory to the Ad Hoc Committee to Defend the University petition. As such, Brand buys into the line of thinking, common among Middle East studies professors, that criticism is on par with censorship. For instance, in response to outcry surrounding the granting of tenure to controversial Barnard anthropology professor Nadia Abu El-Haj, Brand claimed that the "opposition…was coming from critics trying to silence her."

In a backhanded endorsement of Campus Watch noted by Middle East Forum director Daniel Pipes, Brand vowed to continue her "protest against those who seek to curb the polyphony of the academy." No doubt Brand's talk at USC's "Middle East Awareness Week" will provide further evidence of her brave resistance to the diabolical purveyors of disapproval.

With speakers like Brand, Finkelstein, and Khalil, students are unlikely to be made more "aware" of the Middle East, or anything else for that matter. But then again, perhaps that's the point.



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