'Arabist mafia' claim sparks row

September 20, 2002

A "British Arabist academic mafia" is suppressing research and blocking appointments to protect a predominant anti-Israeli agenda in the field of Middle Eastern studies, a leading scholar has claimed.

Neill Lochery, director of the Centre for Israeli Studies at University College London, said that Arabists had found subtle ways of "securing their ideological hegemony" and "covering their tracks". In an article for The Jerusalem Post , he says: "These are worrying times for the academic study of Israel."

His comments, which will reopen the wounds caused by the academic boycott of Israel, have been attacked as inflammatory and unfair by other scholars. But, speaking to The THES this week, Dr Lochery stood by his article and said that "unwarranted" academic criticism of Israel went beyond the specialist field and was an issue the whole of academe must address.

Dr Lochery said the case of Mona Baker - the professor at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology who sacked two Israeli scholars from the board of journals she owned as part of an academic boycott of Israel - was "a blatant case of racial discrimination". "This, however, was really only the tip of the iceberg," he said.

"The new generation of Arabist scholars is much more sophisticated at covering their tracks than the likes of Baker," he said.

He said anti-Israelis secured their dominance through several means. "The first lies through the staffing of quasi-government research bodies." He said the bodies awarding research grants are "crammed full of Arabists who are reluctant to fund any Israel project that does not include a degree of Israel-bashing".

He claimed that prejudice skewed university appointments. "Here it helps to have Arabist friends in high places and be ideologically on message. In short, don't forget toI argue that Ariel Sharon is an enemy of peace."

Dr Lochery questioned the generous endowments left to Exeter and Durham universities by rich Arab former PhD students. He said: "Though it is clear today that universities do not sell PhDs, some academics are so keen on having rich PhDs that they even help the students translate their work into English [a requirement for a PhD in the UK]," he said. "In other instances, the supervisors rewrite the thesis to a degree that makes it difficult to argue it is the sole work of the original author."

A spokesman for Durham said: "It is true that a former PhD student from the Gulf has been a major donor [but] it is completely without foundation to suggest that academic work or appointments at Durham are influenced by anti-Israeli consideration."

Tim Niblock, head of the Centre for Arab and Gulf Studies at Exeter, was Dr Lochery's PhD tutor. He said Exeter had been funded by Sultan Bin-Muhammad al-Qasimi, the ruler of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates - "but he never pushed us in any political direction whatsoever".

There were many people in the field critical of Israel, "as there are in the country as a whole", he added.

Amira Bennison, secretary of Cambridge University's Centre for Middle Eastern Studies, said: "I am very surprised to hear that someone I assume is a reasonable academic would make such claims. That kind of comment seems to be deliberately inflammatory, and I think everybody in the field needs to rise above this sort of thing. It is a blanket statement about Middle Eastern studies and is highly unfair. Personally, I have not heard of examples of Israelis or Jews finding it harder to get posts or research funding in the field, and the vast majority of academics I know would not behave in that way."

Dr Lochery, speaking to The THES , said: "There is a major crisis in the study of the state of Israel at the moment, and it is important to provoke a serious debate."

He said the problems affected "the wider field". "I sense that Israel is becoming quite a target for certain unwarranted criticism. We live in a democracy, and criticism is fine, but I'm not sure what some of the criticism is based on."

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