'Arabist mafia' is news to us 1

September 27, 2002

Your front-page article "Arabist mafia claim sparks row" ( THES , September 20) is misleading. The only "row" is that sparked by The THES . Israeli academics and Arabists were both attacked in The Jerusalem Post by Neill Lochery, director of the Centre for Israeli Studies, University College London.

Research bodies must be surprised to hear his claims that they are "quasi-governmental", "crammed full of Arabists" and channelling resources away from non-hostile study of Israel. The Middle Eastern and African studies 2001 research assessment exercise panel, for example, was chaired by a noted Hebraist. Most material on Jewish-Israeli studies was assessed by the Hebrew-Jewish sub-panel, on which there were no Arabists. It is absurd to suggest that the Economic and Social Research Council and the Arts and Humanities Research Board show bias. A cursory look at the AHRB website reveals that of the eight peer review panels, only one contains an Arabist, a specialist in Islamic studies. The assumption that Arabists lack intellectual integrity is unwarranted.

The ESRC and AHRB reject partisanship in decision-making and insist that conflicts of interest are declared. Not a single "Israel-bashing" project has been financed by either. Arabists do not skew appointments against pro-Israeli academics. The Israel-Palestine issue constitutes a minute part of Middle Eastern studies. Most appointments covering Israel-Palestine are in politics or history departments, not in Middle Eastern studies. Arabists are generally not represented on the appointment panels, let alone being in control of them.

The implication that money from Arab sources has been used to support anti-Israeli academic activities is groundless. Most support is to cultural studies. Arab donors tend to eschew political overtones, being aware of how comments about "Arab money" are used to reinforce racist stereotypes.

There should be debate about how the study of Israel can be promoted, but to do this by blackening the reputation of Arabists is not the way.

Tim Niblock
Director, Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies
University of Exeter.

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