Ginsberg ’16: Brown’s Middle East misnomer

Guest Columnist
Thursday, September 11, 2014

It is the start of my third year at Brown, but every morning at around 1 a.m., I still find excitement in opening the latest Morning Mail. There is something liberating about having so many lectures, events and performances to choose from in the day ahead. Lately, however, my usual sense of comfort and freedom has been constricted.

Morning after morning, I see the events offered by the Middle East Studies program: film screenings, panel discussions and guest speakers attempting to limit my academic choice to one narrative. There is the panel on “Why Gaza Matters,” the movie series “1948: Once Upon a Palestine” and an upcoming luncheon on inequality resulting from the Second Intifada. These perspectives are important. But as a pro-Israel student on campus, I’m left wondering about the other perspectives ­— speakers, films and luncheons addressing “Why Israel Matters.”

In its mission, the Middle East Studies program claims that it “promotes knowledge, understanding and informed discussion about the Middle East, Islam and Muslim societies through research, teaching and public engagement.” Perhaps the program’s name, then, is a bit of a misnomer. Rather than studying the Middle East, the program aims to explore only Islam and Muslim societies that live in the region. This is a laudable mission. Just as the Program in Judaic Studies explores the literature, research and themes critical to Jewish study, there should be a program to offer a deeper focus and field of study on the Muslim world.

But this program is not Middle East Studies. Call it “Islamic Studies,” name it “Studies of Muslim Societies,” but to insist that what is being taught is representative of the Middle East is misleading. Because when I think of the Middle East, I don’t think of a place that is exclusively Muslim — I also think of the vibrant Baha’i, Christian and Yazidi communities that live throughout the region. And I also think of the state of Israel.

Since the protest of the planned lecture by former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly last fall, there has been a lot of discussion on campus about constructive dialogue and meaningful conversation. How do we listen to the ideas to which we do not adhere, and how can we engage in perspectives that are different from our own? In the words of President Christina Paxson in her Convocation remarks just last week, the “social and intellectual diversity of our community, which we cherish, is certain to produce strongly held and often divergent points of view.” It is this diverse exchange of ideas, perceptions and understandings that begins to piece together a larger examination of any given issue — be it stop-and-frisk or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Only by hearing from others with whom we disagree, by exploring the talking points with our own chosen initiative, can we build a genuine pedestal for our beliefs. Without this exposure, our opinions remain under-developed.

For me, the University — and the departments that represent it — should strive for this exposure, challenging students of all views and backgrounds. The Department of Political Science should have professors representing different ideological leanings. The Department of Religious Studies should offer courses in a wide range of belief and non-belief systems. The Middle East Studies program should be no exception when it comes to studying different perspectives.

In my travel over the past several years, I have volunteered and gained nuanced exposure in Israel. With these experiences, I know that Israel — like its neighbors Lebanon, Jordan and Syria — is an important part of the greater region. Yet when I see upcoming events through Brown’s Middle East Studies program, it is not easy to find support for this reality. Israel is left out of the mix.

Though small, Israel has its own identity in the region, an identity that is simply not represented by the Middle East Studies program. The expulsion of the Jewish people from Middle Eastern countries in 1948 is not taught. There is little mention of Zionism as a legitimate expression of self-determination. Modern Israeli advances in agriculture, medicine and technology are not shared. These are understandings that are strongly held for many. They are upheld with passion similar to that of many Palestinian understandings regarding the same land. But within the Middle East Studies program, one of these forms of passion seems to be taught over the other.

As someone interested in studying the Middle East, I find it hard to gain comfort in the program offered at Brown. With the events of this summer and the seven-week Israel-Gaza war, I saw numerous demonstrations and heard many protests for both Israel and a Palestinian state. One chant, though, always created discord in my mind: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” That is, a liberated Palestinian state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea will become a free and independent state.

As a supporter of Palestinian sovereignty and of a Palestinian state thriving side by side with Israel, I find this chant troubling. Much like the Middle East Studies program, it excludes an entire narrative and reduces a history of plight to nothing. To me, it suggests the elimination and replacement of the Jewish state, which is currently located on land between the river and the sea. While I do not think the Middle East Studies program encourages this idea in any way, I do not think it does enough to balance it.

If we learned anything from the events of this summer, it is that the Middle East is an increasingly complex region. From the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, large populations are fighting over entirely different understandings and from exclusively distinct backgrounds. Here on College Hill, we have an opportunity to bring some of these pieces together, to begin to break down our worn convictions and rebuild our pedestal of beliefs with stronger perceptions. Here at Brown, the Middle East Studies program should lead the way. Include new narratives. Create points of tension. Allow us to come together as students should.


Jason Ginsberg ’16 can be reached at to talk more about the need for balanced conversation on campus.


  1. Stephen J. O'Rourke says:

    Well done! My thoughts exactly.

  2. Wow, excellent article. I do have to say though that academic departments typically do not contain a well rounded representation of their entire discipline. For example I am a PhD student in a microbiology department that exclusively studies viruses (and mostly only a small handful of RNA viruses, not even DNA viruses really). The discipline of microbiology also encapsulates bacteria and parasites but it is not represented. There is merit to saying that maybe my department should be called a virology department, and not a microbiology department, but then you get into practical matters of every school having different department names and no real consistency from school to school. I’m not really sure which is the right approach: more descriptive departments or more uniform names, but regardless, I do want to commend you for highlighting what are the strengths and weakness of a department that many students may not be familiar with.

  3. Chris Robotham says:

    Excellently well done. I think it’s important to not see this as a liberal vs. conservative, left vs. right issue though. In my opinion, the association of Israeli with the American brand of conservative Republicanism is a tad bizarre, and is largely a product of anti-Muslim sentiment in the American right, combined with a belief that the political entity of Israel signifies an impending return of Jesus Chris among the more extreme Christian populations in American. These two somewhat orthogonal issues have led to overwhelming support for Israel among the American political right, while the left has splintered between those who support Israel and those who see it as an oppressed vs. oppressor paradigm and who are inclined to support those who they see as oppressed. As a “pro-Israel” individual, I think that an oppressor vs. oppressed dynamic is an absurd and entirely inaccurate paradigmatic depiction of the situation, unless its applied to the relationship between Hamas and the Hamas-aligned PA government and their citizens (i.e. subjects). This Middle Eastern studies is useful, but yes, it is a typical liberal college echo chamber wherein individuals who are predisposed to the same views gather together to become more extreme and refuse to hear opposing viewpoints. This is an extremely dangerous phenomenon that exists in many other places here and needs to stop.

    What is more concerning, however, is the manner in which we have come to see Hamas and Israel as the “two sides of the equation”, and have been brought to believe that an appropriate resolution is one that is equally accommodating to both parties. I must applaud Hamas for the truly phenomenal PR war that they have waged in accomplishing this feat – the only other contemporary political organization that I can think of that his been so astonishingly successful at shifting the center is the American Republican Party, which has brought questions of scientific debate into a light of questions of opinion. It’s unfortunate that Israel, and especially Netanyahu’s wing of Israeli politics, has so abjectly failed to counter Hamas’s PR insurgency, but insofar as things remain the same, religious fanatics driven by medieval superstitions and bloodthirsty visions will be kept on par with a modern, civilized state.

  4. 1 point Mr. Ginsberg.
    Gaza has a border with the Mediterranean. While you are correct to say that Israel borders the Mediterranean, it is not the only territory involved in the conflict that has this border. Interestingly, the protest phrase reminds me of the Likud Charter (Mr. Netanyahu’s party). Their charter states “The Jordan river will be the permanent eastern border of the State of Israel.” I trust that Ginsberg is aware that the West Bank’s entire eastern border is on the Jordan River?

  5. Sam Rubinstein says:

    Thanks for writing this, Jason. You raised important points.

  6. A specious article with all the right talking points, “I support Israel , I love two state
    solutions, but , but, but, but its those darn Palestinians”…..

    None better than Peter Beinart to explain this charade
    “For decades, American Jewish groups have justified virtually everything the Israeli government does. Today they justify virtually everything the Israeli government does as consistent with the two-state solution. As result, in mainstream American Jewish discourse, the two-state solution has become something almost infinitely elastic. It has no fixed parameters. It means whatever the Israeli government says it means.”

    “But when you tell Palestinians that even that 22 percent won’t really be theirs—because Israel will annex large chunks of it and permanently station its troops on part of the rest—you trigger exactly the reaction American Jews fear most. You liberate Palestinians to stop accepting tragic compromises and begin struggling for what they most deeply desire: full rights in 100 percent of historic Palestine, from Jaffa to Jericho and Gaza City to the Galilee, even though that would likely mean the end of a country dedicated to Jewish self-protection, and even though a binational state, in practical terms, would likely mean civil war.”

    We seen this “form” letter before. Next.

    • ·
      There is no “Palestine”. There might have been, but they chose war instead-
      time and again:

      The would-have-been “Palestinians” would have had a state IN PEACE in 1937 with the Peel Plan, but they violently rejected it.

      They would have had a state IN PEACE in 1939 with the MacDonald White Paper, but they violently rejected it (and Jews would have even been restricted from BUYING land from Arabs).

      They would have had a state IN PEACE in 1948 with UN 181, but they violently
      rejected it (and actually claimed that the UN had no such mandate!).

      They could have had a state IN PEACE in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza from 1948-1967 without any Jews- because the Arabs had ethnically cleansed every last one; but they violently rejected it. In fact, that’s exactly when they established Fatah (1959) and the PLO (1964).

      They could have had a state IN PEACE after 1967, but instead, the entire Arab world issued the Khartoum Resolutions:

      A. No
      peace with Israel

      B. No recognition of Israel

      C. No negotiations with Israel

      They would have had a state IN PEACE in 2000 with the Oslo Accords, but they
      violently rejected it- as always.

      And as
      soon as Israel pulled every single Israeli out of Gaza, what did the
      would-have-been “Palestinians” do? They immediately started shooting thousands of missiles into Israeli population centers, they elected Hamas (whose official platform calls for jihad with no negotiations until Israel is destroyed) to
      rule them, and they have dug tunnels crossing into the Negev to kill and kidnap

      And even afterwards, Ehud Olmert made his subsequent generous offer that went far beyond even that of Barak. The would-have-been “Palestinians” rejected it.

      They had many chances.

      They threw them all away because destroying Israel was higher on their priority
      list. It still is.

      Oh well.
      That’s their choice.

      • There has never been a Palestine. it was invented by Arafat, an Egyptian. Palestine name was created by the Romans at the defeat of the jews in 135 AD. It was meant to taunt them. The jews in the region were known as the Palestinians since that time. They were also known as jews and israelites. The arabs were not. There was never a Palestinian state, Palestinian currency, Palestinian anything. There was Jordan where most of the so-called Palestinians reside. That is where they should go and where they should stay. Or they could go back to any of their host countries: Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, etc.

  7. …because there’s already a judaic studies department, and because organizations like hillel already finance and promote multiple large-scale events on israeli/jewish heritage, culture, and history? moreover middle east studies allows a wide variety of classes and languages to count under its requirements, including nearly all classes on judaism and christianity, and hebrew as a language study, and events cover issues spanning parts of the indian subcontinent to turkey. israel is already well-represented on this campus. the history of countries like iran and syria are not. and that’s what MES is attempting to highlight. we don’t need to rehash the same topics in every event.

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