Book flap a real-life lesson for U Texas Middle Eastern Center
The University of Texas is home to the presitigious Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
June 18th, 2012
12:40 PM ET

Book flap a real-life lesson for U Texas Middle Eastern Center

by Joe Sterling, CNN

(CNN) 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 Israelis 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 can not 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 Centerf or 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 theUnited 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 says 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 inSan 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.

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soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. GunnerGA

    Fernea was one of my professors when I was a student at the university of Texas in the mid 80's. While she did help promote in many cases a non-scholarly history of the region, she was someone who welcomed my differing views and was open to listening to opinions that did not sync up with her own. As such, it is shameful that those in the Arab community would act in such an immature way. Their act help not one Palestinian. Their act did not improve the lives a single Palestinian. Their act DID, however, help diminish the opinion of non-Arabs towards Palestinians simply based on such a stupid act. When their egos need stroking more than their desire to promote better understanding of their people, then it is clear what agenda is being promoted... and it is not that of the Palestinians.

    June 22, 2012 at 12:16 am |
  2. hypatia

    Typical Arab-–their way or the highway. In this case, they just don't get read. I fail to see the downside.

    June 21, 2012 at 1:33 pm |
    • The Bird Is The Word

      Spoken like a typical Christian.

      June 22, 2012 at 2:58 am |
  3. Hugh Jass


    June 20, 2012 at 8:48 am |
    • Ivanna Tenkle


      June 20, 2012 at 10:51 am |
  4. wagnertinatlanta

    "It is an unfortunate reality that in Middle Eastern Studies sometimes politics trumps academic ideals,"


    June 19, 2012 at 8:45 pm |
  5. QS

    Ah religion – the world's ultimate dividing force.

    June 19, 2012 at 8:14 pm |
  6. Biggie

    I've fapped to several books in my day.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  7. lindaluttrell

    Just proves that bias is everywhere, even in the academic world. Sad! I would hope that intellectuals would bridge this gap, not widen it.

    June 19, 2012 at 2:26 pm |
  8. Loren

    When will Palestinians take responsibility for their diaspora? To continue to blame Israel for the plight of the Palestinians is to refuse to acknowledge the role that Arabs and other Middle Easterners have played in numerous attacks on the people of Israel. Palestinians who left in 1947 did so by choice, they were not forced out by Israelis, so they have no cause for complaint and should stop their bitter harangues for their poor choices.

    June 19, 2012 at 11:25 am |
    • KAS

      "Palestinians who left in 1947 did so by choice, they were not forced out by Israelis"

      BS! BS! BS! BS! They did not all leave by their own choice, they were forced out by the Jewish terrorist group, Irgun, as well as the nascent Israeli military. David Ben Gurion directly ordered entire Palestinian villages to be emptied so he could move his people into them. This is a fact and has been written about by several of the original Israeli leaders.

      Shimon Perez wrote about this in his book, "The New Middle East". IDF cables from 1948 from Major General Carmel stated, "Do all you can to immediately and quickly purge the conquered territories of all hostile elements in accordance with the orders issued. The residents should be helped to leave the areas that have been conquered.”

      Yitzhak Rabin, the president who was assassinated by an Israeli, wrote in his diary about him questioning Ben Gurion on what to do with the Palestinian villagers in villages they had conquered. Ben Gurion responded, “Drive them out!.”

      Nor were there any radio messages from Arab stations telling the Palestinians to leave. The undisputed source for this is the BBC who recorded everything during that time. Not one transmission, from anyone, has ever come out telling anyone to leave, so don't bother trying to bring that up.

      When you're done spouting lies, go look at what really happened, as written by those who were there and wrote about it, and you will see the Palestinians did not leave by choice. It was ethnic cleansing, the very thing Israel keeps throwing back in people's faces as to what happened to them. But that's ok, because it's Israel, right?

      June 19, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
      • It'sallthesame

        KAS: You are perpetuating a myth to support Palestinian violence. Palestinians left the region for a number of reasons. The Arab leaders told the Palestinians to leave because of the impending war. Some left, some didn't. You are absolutely wrong when you say that the Arabs did not ask the Palestinians to leave.
        Palestinians also sold land to the Israelis.
        Some left after the war started to avoid being caught in the cross-fire and never returned.
        And some, yes, some left as a result of Israeli aggression–just as some Israelis suffered as a result of Palestinian aggression.

        June 20, 2012 at 9:15 am |
      • GunnerGA

        There were as many Jewish refugees from Arab countries – expelled with only the clothes on their backs – as there were Arab refugees from the 1948 war zone – Arabs who DID leave voluntarily. By voluntarily I mean that they were not ordered to leave by the Israelis. Some did flee fighting while others fled at the insistence of the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, and other still due to reasons of their own. Jewish refugees were settled in Israel just as Hindu refugees were settled in India from Pakistan and just as Muslim refugees settled in Pakistan from India. ONLY the Arab states refused to settle their own people. The dictators in those areas chose to leverage the refugee crisis for their own political purposes. THAT IS FACT not opinion. As long as the Arab world choose to perpetrate the myth of return, there will never be peace. As long as children are told BS such as a Jew took your home, there will never be peace. Perpetrating a myth without any first hand evidence of the accusation does not create better dialogue. It kills it just as the Arab authors did through their action in the above story

        June 22, 2012 at 12:29 am |
  9. Winnie-ther-Pooh

    Just another example of how off-balance the Muslim world view is, and how dangerous. Legal issues or no, UT should have published without the permission of the Arab authors. I am truely fed up with Islam's passive-aggressive behavior.

    June 19, 2012 at 7:45 am |
    • Mike

      They would have lost in court. The right answer would be to find other Arab writers who aren't so childish.

      June 20, 2012 at 12:40 pm |
  10. Ed

    Orly Castel-Bloom is far too generous when she says that as an Israeli she might have to take some of the responsibility for the acts of the Israeli government. That's not at all how we think of writers (or, for that matter, how we think of any person who is not a government official). If a publisher can't publish an Israeli writer because of the actions of the Israeli government, then how could a publisher ever publish a writer from Syria, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt, Libya, etc.?

    June 18, 2012 at 5:46 pm |
  11. robert144

    Elizabeth B.J. Warnock Fernea–"B.J." to those of us who had the privilege of knowing and working with her–will be remembered with respect and honor, with or without, this attempt at a "festschrift." In a rightly ordered world, her book "Guests of the Sheik" would be read in every American high-school. My belated sympathies to her husband, Bob Fernea

    June 18, 2012 at 3:00 pm |