Juan Cole and the Decline of Middle Eastern Studies
By Alexander H. Joffe Middle East Quarterly Winter 2006
When the Middle East Studies Association's annual conference ends on November 22, 2005, University of Michigan history professor Juan Cole is scheduled to become the organization's president. The association describes itself as:
A non-political association that fosters the study of the Middle East, promotes high standards of scholarship and teaching, and encourages public understanding of the region and its peoples through programs, publications, and services that enhance education, further intellectual exchange, recognize professional distinction, and defend academic freedom.
As president, Cole is the public face of Middle Eastern studies. His election marks an endorsement of his work by hundreds of professors in various fields of Middle Eastern studies in American universities. Cole has written four academic books but his prominence comes not from scholarship but from his commentary on history and current events. As such, this commentary provides a mirror into the state of Middle Eastern studies and the widespread urge of its practioners to promote polemic over scholarship.
Cole: Israel as a Fascist Society
Juan Cole: The Likud coalition in Israel does contest elections. But it isn't morally superior in most respects to the Syrian Baath. The Likud brutally occupies 3 million Palestinians (who don't get to vote for their occupier) and is aggressively taking over their land. That is, it treats at least 3 million people no better than and possibly worse than the Syrian Baath treats its 17 million.—September 9, 2004
Middle East Quarterly: Freedom House gives Syria its lowest rating of "not free" for both political rights and civil liberties. In contrast, Israel has a rating of "free." The analogy between Likud and the Syrian Baath misunderstands the nature of comparative politics. The Likud has an active membership and contested leadership; the Baath is subordinate to Bashar al-Assad. Cole ignores the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, its massacres of perhaps 20,000 in Hama in 1982, and the imprisonment of at least 17,000 political prisoners.
Cole: No American media will report the demonstrations in Israel as fascist in nature, and no American politicians will dare criticize the Likud. But the fact is that the Israeli predations in the West Bank and Gaza are a key source of rage in the Muslim world against the United States (which toadies unbearably to whatever garbage comes out of Tel Aviv's political establishment), something that the 9-11 commission report stupidly denies.—July 26, 2004
MEQ: Cole's characterization of peaceful demonstrations as "fascist" is inaccurate. Fascism suggests an autocratic system that seeks to regiment and control every aspect of social, political, and economic life. This cannot apply to Israel, which has from its independence been fully democratic. Israelis often demonstrate against their government's policies. Cole also fails to acknowledge U.S. political criticism of various Israeli governments. In 1991, Secretary of State James Baker declared Sharon persona non grata in Washington and President H.W. Bush opposed issuing loan guarantees to Israel. More recently, the Pentagon blacklisted Israeli Defense Ministry director-general Amos Yaron because of a dispute over Israel's military relationship with China. Lastly, Jerusalem—not Tel Aviv—is the capital of Israel.
Cole: Judaism has given us so much that is noble in ethical religion, and what the Likud is doing is an insult to that long and glorious tradition. Likud's real roots lie not in the Bible but in Zionist revisionism of the Jabotinsky sort, which is frankly a kind of fascism.—March 21, 2003.
MEQ: Cole's dislike for Ze'ev Jabotinsky (1880-1940), an early Zionist leader who moved Zionism from intellectual debate to reality by organizing illegal immigration into Mandatory Palestine and helped establish a Jewish state, is a constant theme in his Internet postings. Cole resents the establishment of the Jewish state. In January 2003, he wrote, "While one certainly cheers the British for giving refuge in Palestine to Jews fleeing Hitler, it would have been nobler yet to admit them to the British Isles rather than saddling a small, poor peasant country with 500,000 immigrants hungry to make the place their own."Cole's insistence that Likud's willingness to defend Israel against terrorism suggests a break with the "glorious tradition" of Judaism, a religion in which he holds no expertise, suggests a misunderstanding of both the democratic process which brought Likud to power and the divisions between religion and state which mark Israeli governance.
Cole: Dual Loyalties
Cole: It is an echo of the one-two punch secretly planned by the pro-Likud faction in the Department of Defense. First, Iraq would be taken out by the United States, and then Iran. David Wurmser, a key member of the group, also wanted Syria included. These pro-Likud intellectuals concluded that 9-11 would give them carte blanche to use the Pentagon as Israel's Gurkha regiment, fighting elective wars on behalf of Tel Aviv (not wars that really needed to be fought, but wars that the Likud coalition thought it would be nice to see fought so as to increase Israel's ability to annex land and act aggressively, especially if someone else's boys did the dying).—August 29, 2004
MEQ: Cole suggests that many American Jewish officials hold dual loyalties, a frequent anti-Semitic theme.Suggestions that American Jewish officials desired "someone else's boys" to fight is anti-Semitic and a common refrain in Cole's commentary. Cole's commentary is often derivative and dishonest; he often substitutes others' web commentaries for the effort of tracking down original sources. In the case of "the one-two punch," he adopts the narrative espoused by the Lyndon LaRouche movement and mischaracterizes the contents of the Institute for Advanced Strategy and Political Studies paper that actually chastised Israel for not supporting the U.S. fight against terrorism and made suggestions about how Jerusalem could be more supportive of Washington.
Cole: Likud Manipulation
Cole: The rightwing Zionists want to racialize the Sudan conflict in American terms, as "Arab" versus "black African" because they want to use it to play American domestic politics and create a rift among African-Americans and Arab-Americans. Both of the latter face massive discrimination in contemporary society, and they should find ways of cooperating to counter it. What is happening in Darfur is horrible with regard to the loss of life and the displacement of persons, but the dispute is not about race. It is about political separatism and regionalism.—March 27, 2005
MEQ: In contrast to those in the region, Cole argues that there has not been an ethnic component to the Sudanese conflict and implies that suggestions that ethnicity is a factor are a Zionist conspiracy. Since hostilities erupted after Khartoum's 1983 decision to impose Islamic law over the predominantly Christian and animist southern region of the country, approximately two million persons have died.
Cole: If Rice is going to be a successful Secretary of State, she simply has to get back control of US foreign policy from the Likudniks in the Bush administration.—January 20, 2005
MEQ: Cole promotes an anti-Semitic myth while misunderstanding the process of U.S foreign policy. The president and the U.S. Congress set the direction of U.S. foreign policy. A secretary of state is charged with implementing it. Several times weekly, a Principles' Committee, consisting of the secretaries of state and defense, the national security advisor, and the director of national intelligence, meets to resolve any policy questions. In response to charges of undue influence by Jewish American officials, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld said, "I suppose the implication of that is that the president and the vice-president and myself and Colin Powell just fell off a turnip truck to take these jobs."
Cole: With both Iraq and Iran in flames, the Likud Party could do as it pleased in the Middle East without fear of reprisal. This means it could expel the Palestinians from the West Bank to Jordan, and perhaps just give Gaza back to Egypt to keep Cairo quiet. Annexing southern Lebanon up to the Litani River, the waters of which Israel has long coveted, could also be undertaken with no consequences, they probably think, once Hizbullah in Lebanon could no longer count on Iranian support. The closed character of the economies of Iraq and Iran, moreover, would end, allowing American, Italian, and British companies to make a killing after the wars (so they thought).—August 31, 2004
MEQ: No Israeli expulsion of the Palestinians or annexation of Lebanese land has occurred. Cole's comment appears to reflect his belief in the Arab nationalist and Islamist claim that Israel seeks to stretch from the Nile to the Euphrates.This is one of many Cole predictions that are detached from reality.
Cole: Israel as Cause of Terrorism
Cole: That British police have received training in Israel in stopping suicide bombers with the technique of shooting the suspect in the head has not made things easier in that regard [sic].—July 25, 2005
MEQ: In most cases, Israel thwarts suicide attacks without violence. Following the shooting of a Brazilian tourist by the London police on July 22, 2005, Tom Gross, the Jerusalem correspondent of The Daily Telegraph, wrote, "Had the Israeli police shot dead an innocent foreigner on one of its buses or trains, confirming the kill with a barrage of bullets at close range in a mistaken effort to thwart a bombing, the UN would probably have been sitting in emergency session by late afternoon to unanimously denounce the Jewish state."
Cole: our press and politicians do us an enormous disservice by not putting the Israeli announcement about the Jerusalem barrier on the front page. This sort of action is a big part of what is driving the terrorists (and, of course, Sharon himself is a sort of state-backed terrorist, anyway). The newspapers and television news departments should be telling us when we are about to be in the cross-fire between the aggressive, expansionist, proto-fascist Likud coalition and the paranoid, murderous, violent Al-Qaeda and its offshoots.—July 11, 2005
MEQ: The separation fence has reduced terrorism 75 percent. Saudi Arabia, India, Morocco, Turkey and even the United Nations in Cyprus built similar barriers before Israel, in each case reducing terrorism or, in the latter case, communal violence.
Cole: According to the September 11 Commission report, Al-Qaeda conceived 9/11 in some large part as a punishment on the U.S. for supporting Ariel Sharon's iron fist policies toward the Palestinians. Bin Laden had wanted to move the operation up in response to Sharon's threatening visit to the Temple Mount, and again in response to the Israeli attack on the Jenin refugee camp, which left 4,000 persons homeless. Khalid Shaikh Muhammad argued in each case that the operation just was not ready.—July 8, 2005
MEQ: Martin Kramer points out that the 9-11 Commission determined the hijacking plan was conceived by early 1999, that Sharon's visit to the Temple Mount took place in September 2000 when he was head of the opposition, and that the Jenin operation took place in April 2002, seven months after 9/11. After these factual problems were pointed out, Cole surreptitiously changed his original posting.
Cole: It is obvious to me that what September 11 really represented was a dragooning of the United States into internal Middle East political conflicts. Israel's aggressive policies in the West Bank and Gaza have poisoned the political atmosphere in the Middle East (and increasingly in the Muslim world) for the United States. It is ridiculous to suggest that radical Islamists don't care about the Palestine issue.—September 9, 2004
MEQ: Cole ignores events such as the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center, the attacks on U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998, and on the USS Cole in 2000, all of which took place during periods of seeming progress in Israeli-Palestinian relations.
Cole: We don't need any more U.S. buildings blown up because our government is coddling cuckoo [Israeli] settlers who are stealing other people's land to fulfill some weird religious power fantasy.—January 2, 2004
MEQ: The 9-11 Commission determined that planning for the terrorist attacks began during the Camp David II process as it appeared that Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority chairman Yasir Arafat would agree to a comprehensive peace agreement.
Cole: Taking Liberty with the Facts
Cole: Was American journalist Steve Vincent killed in Basra as part of an honor killing? He was romantically involved with his Iraqi interpreter, who was shot four times. If her clan thought she was shaming them by appearing to be having an affair outside wedlock with an American male, they might well have decided to end it. In Mediterranean culture, a man's honor tends to be wrought up with his ability to protect his womenfolk from seduction by strange men.—August 8, 2005
MEQ: According to Vincent's wife, he was not romantically involved with his Iraqi interpreter. Iraq is not part of the Mediterranean world; Baghdad is more than 500 miles from both Tel Aviv and Beirut.
Cole: Even medieval Islamic law recognized the right of Christians, Jews, and other monotheists to practice their religion and enjoy rights to their lives and property. This relative tolerance has often been enhanced in the twentieth century by the rise of nationalism, wherein Arab Christians sometimes are privileged as symbols of national authenticity because Christianity predated Islam in the nation's history.—August 3, 2004 
MEQ: As Martin Kramer points out, "Iraqi nationalists perpetrated massacres against Iraq's Christians in 1933 and against its Jews (who also predate Islam in Iraq's history) in 1941." Cole's understanding of medieval Islam is also selective. Harun al-Rashid (786-809) originated the practice—revived by the Nazis more than a millennium later—of requiring Jews to wear yellow patches. The eleventh century Saljuq dynasty also required Jews to wear yellow patches and shuttered Christian-owned taverns. Both Christians and Jews had to pay extortionate taxes until they converted "voluntarily" to Islam. In nineteenth century Iran—within Cole's self-declared scope of expertise—Islamic clerics whipped up anti-Christian pogroms. Only in the early twentieth century, did Jews and Christians win equal rights within Iran, and then only briefly.