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Does Harvard honor its crest: VERITAS/TRUTH?

At a panel (video) hosted by the Middle East Forum on May 17, 2023, Victoria Coates, former Deputy Assistant to the President and Deputy National Security Advisor, and Kenneth Marcus, former Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education for Civil Rights, discussed “Salvaging Our Universities in an Era of Intellectual Decadence” with MEF managing editor and Campus Watch director Winfield Myers. The following is a summary of their remarks:

Neither Coates, a Renaissance art historian, nor Marcus, an attorney, majored in Middle East studies. Yet Coates enjoyed great success in her career dealing with the Middle East, while Marcus has worked effectively to reform Middle East studies and curb the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement. Their success demonstrates, said Myers, the need for “outsiders to infiltrate” both “the federal government” and other areas where “the


Middle East is treated.”

Coates believes “we’ve gotten into something of a vicious cycle” in academe, because “we’ve gotten away from the rigorous teaching of the discipline,” both in art history and “more broadly in the humanities.” If you say that “Michelangelo’s David is the greatest work of art” ever, it “means something [else] is not as excellent.” While earlier generations accepted this obvious fact, today many today believe “this notion of excellence is somehow discriminatory against other traditions.” Therefore, “we can’t grade things anymore, and you can’t say that every undergraduate should be able to speak intelligently about the Mona Lisa.” As a result, students “don’t have many fungible skills.”

As a member of the Trump administration, Coates saw this weakness in graduates of Middle East studies programs “who were just utterly convinced of things that were not true” at that time, even if they were true years earlier. The “key example of that approach,” she said, is toward “Israel’s role in the Middle East.” “We had all been told for lo these many years that a Palestinian deal had to come before any additional peace deals.” Repeated endlessly, this had become “an article of faith.”

But Coates “spent a year working with [then-White House Middle East Envoy] Jason Greenblatt and [senior advisor] Jared Kushner on the so-called deal of the century,” a deal they knew “was possible because we had been talking to our friends” in the Gulf and broader Arab world. “We knew everybody was ready to get to what eventually became the Abraham Accords.” She and others working on the deal were struck by the “refusal on the part of the Palestinians to engage in any way” on a good-faith effort to reach a deal for them.

Finally, in 2019, the U.A.E. and Bahrain said of the Palestinians, “they don’t have a veto anymore.” That meant the “article of faith that the Palestinian deal had to come first was no longer true.” Coates said of the resistance that arose after the Abraham Accords were announced, “it was as if people’s . . . core beliefs had been threatened or undermined” by their success, another sign the Middle East studies graduates she encountered lacked the knowledge and imagination to see beyond their blinkered ideologies.

Asked about legal remedies to the misuse of federal funds by Middle East studies programs, Kenneth Marcus lamented that such programs “were supposed to be using federal taxpayer money in order to help build a pipeline of American workers who would be trained and motivated to support [the] U.S. defense and national security apparatus,” but were instead used “for a political indoctrination that was monolithically anti-Israel and often anti-American as well.”

He noted that to “some extent” in the Obama administration, and more under Trump, reforms made some progress to get “a little bit more consideration of the statutory requirement” that universities accepting federal funds must “have a balance of perspectives and a diversity of views.” Yet with the Biden administration, he said, “there’s really little or no monitoring of this continuing federal requirement.” Worse, “these Middle East studies programs are still monolithically anti-Israel, they’re still funded by the taxpayer, they are still contributing to a toxic environment on campus.”

Marcus said that whereas “just a few years ago” there were “six or eight or ten campuses” that were most problematic,” today “there’s really no campus that we can look at and say that it is not likely to be a trouble spot in the future.” There is also a “much more targeted, in-your-face attacks on individual Jewish students” or those “for whom Zionism is . . . a significant part of their identity.” Beyond BDS and antisemitic language and speakers, “what we’re seeing is more systematic efforts to exclude Jewish students” in many ways, including from student government and student judicial boards, “very explicitly because of their Jewish background,” or for “individuals who are not themselves Jewish but are perceived as being connected to Jewish people.”

Unfortunately, Marcus added, “what we’re seeing is the worst of what we were predicting, and we are seeing it spreading, getting more saturated.” Fortunately, though, “the pushback is stronger” than before. Still, “we have our hands full right now coast to coast.”

Asked about the Middle East studies and foreign policy establishments efforts to thwart the Trump administration’s novel approaches to the Middle East, Coates said it was clearest in the reaction to the decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. As the Trump administration people “who were pursuing this through the White House got into this morass of Middle East scholars, most of whom had come through these very specific, vaunted programs that feed into the foreign service primarily,” they received “very terrifying briefings.” If they moved the embassy, “the sky will fall, the Arabs will attack, the streets will run with blood, and you will counter-mine Israel’s security if you do this.”

“Literally with tears in their eyes,” she said, “they would tell us this because they were legitimately concerned that we were going to cause a cataclysm through our ill-advised adventure in Israel.” Much of the credit for overcoming such hysteria goes to Trump’s ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who “does not have a degree in Middle East studies,” but “was convinced that the circumstances that had shaped that thinking were no longer the case.” Yet “the people doing the thinking,” i.e., the foreign policy regulars, “couldn’t see the changed circumstances.”

Such institutional blindness “permeates the foreign service,” she said, which is staffed by “feeder schools” such as Johns Hopkins and Georgetown. This means “we don’t get people from what I would refer to as America.” Therefore, “what outreach we can do to other types of academic institutions” that are “less toxic” could help change the culture of the foreign service corps.

Asked about harnessing widespread national anger at higher education to effect reform in Middle East studies and other problem areas, Marcus said “there’s tremendous energy in the states.” As a result, “this is a good time to take some of the reformist energy and clean up all the problems that have to be cleaned up.” There are “huge opportunities to reform with some . . . outstanding legislatures,” including those of South Carolina and Virginia, that are passing reform bills aimed at de-politicizing public universities.

(Written by Winfield Myers, managing editor at the Middle East Forum and director of its Campus Watch project)

{Reposted from MEF}


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