By Joe Sterling, CNN
June 18, 2012
The University of Texas' prestigious Center for Middle Eastern Studies recently got a blunt taste of the turbulent region it studies.
Arab authors pulled out of a planned short-story anthology honoring a late professor because it included Israeli writers, and that stance eventually led to the cancellation of the project.
Called the "Memory of a Promise: Short Stories by Middle Eastern Women," the book was dedicated to the late Elizabeth B.J. Warnock Fernea, a professor of comparative literature and Middle East Studies at the Austin campus.
It contained fiction from 29 female authors, from the Arab world, Turkey, Iran, and Israel, a fitting honor to Fernea who wrote "In Search of Islamic Feminism: One Woman's Global Journey" and "Guests of the Sheik" about Iraq.
As the book neared completion in May, Middle East politics intruded, said Kamran Scot Aghaie, an associate professor of Islamic and Iranian History and director of the center.
Some of the authors disliked the presence of two Israeli authors - Yehudit Hendel and Orly Castel-Bloom, objections motivated by some over the Israeli government's policies and actions toward Palestinians. The stance is one of the latest efforts across the world to boycott Israelis and Israel over the Palestinian question.
"If the volume included the Israeli authors, they informed us, they would withdraw their own contributions," Aghaie, an Iranian-American, said in a statement about the issue on the center's webpage.
But the university didn't cave to the demand, led by Huzama Habayeb, a Palestinian writer living in the United Arab Emirates.
Aghaie said UT couldn't "agree to exclude the Israeli authors, because, as an academic institution, we are committed to the ideals of academic freedom and non-discrimination. A university has to be a place in which ideas are uncensored and are freely exchanged, and more particularly, without regard for one's religion race, or national origin," Aghaie said in a statement on the center's webpage.
Aghaie sent a memo to the contributors saying that the school wouldn't withdraw the Israelis and 13 of the 29 authors withdrew their stories, "including almost all of the Arab authors."
After that, the project was going down because the alternatives were untenable - publishing a book without the Israelis, publishing a half-baked book with just half of the contributors and no Arab authors, or, as Commentary magazine pointed out "it could violate every known standard of professional behavior, and open itself to lawsuits, by publishing the withdrawn manuscripts without the authors' consent."
"After considering all options, we determined that the volume was no longer viable with only half the contributions remaining, not to mention that the Arab countries - in which Mrs. Fernea spent much of her life working - would be unrepresented in a volume produced in her honor," Aghaie said.
The school then told the contributors that the project is dead.
"It is an unfortunate reality that in Middle Eastern Studies sometimes politics trumps academic ideals," he said.
Huzama Habayeb declined to comment to CNN but she defended her position in a May 25 article in a Gulf News column entitled "My 'No' says more, and matters more" The Gulf News is in the United Arab Emirates.
She said the inclusion of the Israeli stories "imposed" by the center focused on "personal challenges" such as "loneliness and illness" that resonate to "experiences all women share."
"Well, certainly not to my experience! There is more to my suffering and painful experiences than 'loneliness and illness'!
She said she was born in Kuwait to a Palestinian refugee family. As a result, she has been "denied the right to return to Palestine, my homeland."
"How is it possible to overlook the fact that I am homeless and yet console my defeated self that a home can be envisaged out of clichéd 'cultural tolerance'? How can I refuse to hate a 'killer state' or not turn a deaf ear to voices that reflect its disgrace? I can't. I simply cannot.
"Since I could never compromise my pains or sugarcoat them with falsified 'reasoning," I requested that my contribution in the book be withdrawn."
The Gulf News praised Habayeb for taking on the center by organizing a boycott and winning.
"Habayeb's actions are those of a resistance fighter -- never giving an inch to Israel, which has illegally occupied her homeland. But there's also a bigger issue -- one whereby academics the world over need to ensure that Israel is isolated for its immoral and illegal actions in occupying Palestine and repressing the Palestinian people. The pen is mightier than the sword," the paper said in an editorial.
Hendel could not be reached for comment.
Orly Castel-Bloom, in an e-mail to CNN, called the Habayeb column "superficial," "full of hate" and laden with "clichés."
"If we cannot share a book in far away Texas -- how can we achieve peace literally on a daily basis? Tell me please," she said.
Castel-Bloom said that as an Israeli citizen, she "must therefore bear some responsibility for the actions of the Israeli government."
But at the same time, she said, "there have been a number of U.S. academics opposed to the policies of the U.S. government, from the Vietnam War to the invasion of Iraq, and beyond."
"Nobody has seriously proposed that all U.S. academics be boycotted from conferences and publications. This may be in part because of the power of the U.S., but it is also, I suspect, out of profound appreciation of the of the example set by the USA in matters concerning free speech and open enquiry," she said in the e-mail.
Castel-Bloom told the Maariv daily newspaper in Israel that "the University of Texas has surrendered to political blackmail. This is numerus clausus Texas 2012." That phrase is a reference to religious or racial quotas.
She said the situation reminds her of lyrics from the song "Sounds of Silence" -- "Hello Darkness my old friend, I have come to talk to you again."
"The University of Texas had no choice and the person that book was dedicated to will not be remembered through the book? But where are the students? Are they alive? Are they aware of what is going on in their place?"
Aghaie said the faculty, a diverse group in a department that supports Arab, Israeli, Turkish and Iranian studies, supported the center's decision to shelve the project.
Wrath against the university initially came from some pro-Israeli people, Aghaie said. But other Jewish voices, such as the Anti-Defamation League and the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at the Austin campus, supported the center's stance. There were e-mails from upset Arab authors explaining their position, he said.
Criticism goes with the territory in the "contentious" world of Middle East studies, he said.
"We are routinely subject to pressure," Aghaie said on the center's webpage. And, he told CNN, "whatever you do, you are going to be attacked."
"For example, we are constantly pressured to exclude Arab and Muslim voices, especially those that are critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East, or of U.S. allies, in particular Israel. Others wish us to exclude the perspectives of those who defend the policies of the U.S., Israel or other nations. And of course, in addition to these pressures, we also hear from the normal assortment of Islamophobes, anti-Semites, religious bigots, racists etc." he said in a remark on the webpage.
The incident resonates for other Middle East scholars in the United States.
Fred Donner, director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Chicago, praised Elizabeth Fernea and her work. He said she was "a wonderful person" who helped "bring a humane view of people in the Arab world to Americans" in the 1960s and 1970s "when Americans generally didn't have many resources to see the Arab world as it was."
He said he wishes the Arab contributors would have been pleased that Israeli authors were honoring Fernea's memory.
"So now, because of these contributors' ideological position, there will be no memorial to Fernea at all," he said.
Donner said all of the Middle East centers "face political pressure of diverse kinds" but strive to provide balance, with "a rich mix of activities representing contentious issues from as many perspectives as possible."
"They try to welcome responsible scholarly participation by those on all sides of the many contentious issues that afflict the Middle East - whether it is Israel vs. Palestine, Turkey vs. Armenia, Sunnis vs. Shi'is, Muslims vs. Christians, Baha'is vs. the Iranian government, Islamists vs. moderates and secularists, Kurds and their struggles with the governments of Turkey, Iran, and Iraq."
Aghaie said the incident drives home an important lesson he hopes students imbibe: censorship is "self-defeating" and "nothing good can ever come" of it.
And, he said, academic discourse should be exempt from a political boycott and "whatever they believe about identity politics," there needs to be some "guiding academic principles."
"If people want to challenge views, they should do it by arguing, writing, not silencing the other side," he said. "As an academic you want to engage people who disagree with you" and prove that they are wrong, he said.
Interviewed in the Journal of Higher Education, Aghaie stressed that academics and authors should be "talking across borders" and they all should recognize that they don't necessarily represent their governments' views.
"When Iran executes a gay man, I'm not guilty of that," Aghaie said in that interview. "I didn't do that. I would never support that."
He said censorship in the free marketplace of ideas is like price-gouging in a free-market environment.
"If we can't abide by basic academic principles, we're not academics," he told CNN.
Other Middle East departments in the United States might skew toward certain ideologies. Aghaie said the University of Texas has been "very fortunate" to have a big, tolerant tent.
"We have this view we need to keep all views represented and there aren't any that are illegitimate. We try to keep the focus on that," he said. "We're not going to change how we're doing things."
Laura Ann Fernea, Elizabeth's daughter who lives in San Diego, said it was a "huge blow" to find out the book fell through.
"My mother would have been so disappointed. That's the opposite of what she wanted,"
She said her mother had friends and worked with women all over the Middle East.
"If my mother was alive, she would have thought there had to be a way to work this out."
Robert Fernea, Elizabeth's widower who also lives in San Diego, called the development "unseemly" and hopes the project can be salvaged. He's surprised that it fell through since so much work was put into it and the writers were involved in the project from the beginning.
Formerly a professor of anthropology and Middle Eastern studies at the University of Texas, Fernea said he agrees with the principles of academic freedom and the position espoused by the university. But he also understands the Israeli-Palestinian political landscape.
"There's antipathy between the two groups and they are not going to overcome that antipathy with one book," he said.
Aghaie told CNN in an interview that at present there are no ways to salvage the project and there are no ideas at present to honor Fernea. If Fernea - who was sympathetic to Palestinians and their situation - witnessed the censorship, she wouldn't have liked it, Aghaie said.
"This isn't the kind of thing she would have believed in," he said.