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        James Gelvin

            While most of UCLA’s radical professors concern themselves with a broad variety of issues, Professor James Gelvin’s preoccupation with the Israel-Palestinian question sets him apart from his more broad-minded extremist brethren. 

Gelvin is one of the dirty dozen UCLA professors who signed a 2002 petition calling for the University of California to sell its investments in any companies doing business in the state of Israel.  Struggling to rationalize why Israel deserved the same treatment as rogue nations like South Africa or Sudan, Gelvin explained to the Daily Bruin that Israel “is a government that is…committing an invasion.”  Gelvin also added, “In no way should it be interpreted that any of us signing this petition support the suicide bombers.”  That’s a clever sort of disclaimer,  but regardless of whether Gelvin and his fellow signatories intended to support suicide bombers, the natural outcome (had the petition succeeded), would have been just that.

Like nearly every other radical academic at UCLA, Gelvin makes no effort to check his politics at the classroom door.  Beginning (though certainly not ending) in 2001, former student after former student has complained about Gelvin’s one-sided treatment of the Israel-Palestinian conflictOne student fingered Gelvin “not [as] a historian but rather [as] an advocate of the Palestinian cause.”  Several reviews even contained specific anecdotes , which are exceptionally rare for BruinWalk.com reviews.  According to one reviewer, “Gelvin dutifully voices the political fault of both sides, but only by assigning a personal account from one side, leav[ing] the emotional and human aspect of the conflict off balance.”  Specifically, “The first paper, which focused on the Jews, asked for a very sterile and disinterested look at the difference between Reform Judaism and Zionism…The second paper asked for an emotional excavation into the heart of a Palestinian who lost everything because of the occupation.”  Another student noted that, in discussing the cause of the 1967 Israeli-Arab War, Gelvin dismissed out of hand one explanation solely “because the source was an Israeli government website.”

            Another more favorable student writes that Gelvin sees “Ariel Sharon as the terrorist he is and Yasser Arafat as the terrorist he is.  He sees where people were robbed of their land, and also sees where people were blown up in buses.  On top of everything, he sees all of it as caused by Western blundering, conservative powers that be.”  Gelvin must be unclear on the concept of recent calls for academic balance.  The point is to create balance by presenting both sides of a topic, not by demonizing both sides.

            Even Gelvin’s fans recognize his clear bias.  One student sniffs, “So what if Professor Gelvin is biased?  He is still a good lecturer.”  Another comments, “As far as having a bias, everyone has a bias.”  Still a third thrilled to Gelvin’s ability to “open[] my eyes to things that the media and US government try to cover up.”  This raises a reasonable question: how could Gelvin’s students hear his lectures over the roar of the black helicopters and the approaching footsteps of the ZOG storm troopers?

            Returning to complaints about Gelvin, one student pointed out his attempt to “blame the Iran-Iraq war on Israel.”  Another reviewer noted that Gelvin’s only mention of terrorism in Palestine is of the Stern Gang bombing campaign, the most notable (and presumably only) example of an Israeli terrorist campaign.  One problem, of course, is that the Stern Gang operated almost exclusively against the British military personnel enforcing the British Mandate of Palestine.  With a few largely inconsequential exceptions just prior to the broader 1948 Israeli War of Independence, none of the violence was conducted against the scattered Arabic population now collectively called “Palestinians.”  When asked why only Israel-on-Palestine violence merited his attention, Gelvin responded (according to the reviewer’s paraphrase) “that none of the Palestinian terrorism was on as grand a scale as the Stern Gang attack.”

            Even on issues directly relevant to the U.S.-led War on Terrorism, Gelvin demonstrates a disturbing lack of balance.  One student notes (with evident amusement) that Gelvin “repeatedly [stated] that in 20 years our generation would call the war in Afghanistan a quagmire.”  After Kabul fell, the student wrote, Gelvin “never mentioned the war” again.

            Students are left to grasp at straws in explaining the basis of Gelvin’s overwhelming bias.  Whether it’s a case of the chicken or the egg, one strong possibility is that (as one reviewer helpfully advises), Gelvin’s wife is Palestinian.  Another student offered no conjecture as to Gelvin’s specific motivation, but attested that “my grade on the papers definitely went up after I started to write them pro-Arab.”  Favorable reviewers, by contrast, treat this situation as a natural state of affairs.  After all, one of them chided, Gelvin “has a little disclaimer on the first day, so all those who complained should have just dropped!”

            In student interaction, Gelvin brooks as little dissent as he introduces in his teaching.  One student noted that “if you catch him in a lie he stares at the floor and tries to change the topic, or [tries to] razzle-dazzle you with some useless info to confuse you, while he is still avoiding eye contact.”  And, the student continued, “If you don’t agree with him, he will stop calling on you.”  Another heretic noted the futility of challenging Gelvin, testifying that “he will take a puff from his pipe, tell you, “you are wrong,” and even when you show him in the book that he himself assigned, that there might be another way of looking at this situation, he will tell you that the book is wrong.”

            One student provides the best overall view of Gelvin and his unique brand of scholarship:

“If you take his History of the Arab/Israeli Conflict class you will understand why this conflict is so hard to resolve: because of people like Prof. Gelvin who choose sides and then attempt to [sell] their views to students who know no better. Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with having your beliefs about something, and you may even feel very strongly about them, but to bring them into a classroom, to deny a vulnerable student of having the option to hear the truth of both sides, is just plain wrong.”

            Based on the voluminous evidence of Gelvin’s unprofessional behavior, Middle East scholar Martin Kramer wrote a critical review, ending with the suggestion that perhaps a partisan of Gelvin’s stature was not ideal for teaching Middle East issues.  Referring to such criticism in comments to the Daily Bruin, Gelvin made the stupendous assertion, “What really irks those guys is that I don't use my classroom for political purposes, and thus my lectures don't advance their political agenda.”  Even Kramer wouldn’t dispute the argument that Gelvin’s lectures don’t advance Kramer’s political agenda.  But Gelvin’s claim that he doesn’t use his classroom for political purposes at all is contradicted by voluminous student testimonials.  Look at the reviews: almost none complain about tough tests, dull lecturing, or too much reading.  The only seeming concern, across the board, involves Gelvin’s chronic classroom promotion of his personal pro-Palestinian views.  While there undoubtedly are professors who are unfairly savaged by a handful of disgruntled former students, Gelvin is not one of them. 

            It’s no surprise, given the vociferous complaints of his in-class conduct, to find that Gelvin is an activist outside the classroom.  In addition to his support for Israeli divestment, Gelvin has given a lecture titled “Understanding the Roots of 11 September,” at five different Southern California universities, and appeared at an October 8, 2001 UCLA History department forum on the 9/11 attacks.  Gelvin and follow radical professor Joyce Appleby were balanced against the (presumably) more conservative take of registered Republican history professor Henry Yu.  The panel reflected on questions including “Why did the attacks of September 11 occur?  What were their historical roots?  How will America [and Americans] react to the attacks?”  Lastly, the March 14, 2002 Orange County Register reported that Gelvin was appearing that night at a Chapman University forum.  Gelvin and his co-panelists reflected on whether “Islam a violent religion” and the imponderable question, “Is a culture clash between Islam and the West inevitable?”  Gelvin was joined by two Muslim community notables.  The first was Imam Sadullah Khan, then the chief cleric of the Islamic Center of Irvine and now the Director of Muslim Affairs at the University of Southern California.  Khan’s worldview is summarized by his past declaration, “It is not Islam that contributes to terrorism, but rather the forces of injustice, oppression and greed that leads to terrorism.”  The second panel participant was University of California, Irvine political science professor Lina Kreidie, whose research on Islamic radicalism has included interviews with members of the terrorist groups Hezbollah.

            The views which Gelvin shops around to various academic conferences are no doubt similar to the views he expressed at the 2005 Annual Meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  As reported by Rick Shenkman, the editor of the academic-oriented History News Network, Gelvin used his panel appearance to present an “astonishingly fresh analysis of the American responsibility for Islamists and extremists” that was actually a deeper indictment of America than that of Michael Moore and other radicals. According to Gelvin (via Shenkman's writeup), America had since the 1950’s slowly been creating the Islamofascist monster we battle today.  It all started with our “demand [in the 1950’s] that Middle Eastern countries modernize.”  Unfortunately, Gelvin’s long theory goes, the costs of modernization we encouraged in Arab countries opened budgetary wounds that could only be patched by the healthy oil revenues of the period.  When this cash flow declined in the ‘70s, we then encouraged Arab countries to trim government expenditures in order to qualify for IMF and World Bank loans.  As these countries moved away from providing a welfare state for their citizens, Islamic organizations filled the social service void – the same organizations that eventually morphed into terrorist groups. 

This sounds like an airtight theory so long as you accept the idea that non-governmental charities, in the Islamic world or elsewhere, will inevitably become radical religious groups.  But this theory simply doesn’t hold up.  If it were universally true, the 1996 “end of welfare as we know it” in America would have led to widespread domestic terrorism and anti-government paramilitaries.  Now, Gelvin’s theory may well be true of the Middle East.  But if so, then there’s a further question that must be asked – is there something about the Muslim religion such that Islamic charitable organizations naturally morph into terrorist groups? 

            In the 2002-2003 academic year, Gelvin was the Sheikh Zayed Visiting Professor of History at the American University in Beirut, immediately following his UCLA colleague (and fellow Palestinian irredentist) Saree Makdisi.  Upon Gelvin’s return, he gave an interview to the UCLA International Institute that was illuminating about Gelvin’s own views of America.  Gelvin dismissed as “complete garbage” commercials (of unspecified but presumably U.S. governmental origin) touting the good Muslim life in America.  Gelvin dismissed the ads as unnecessary, even faintly ridiculous, since Lebanese people are “already well acquainted with American life, mostly from television.”  Need it really be pointed out that television is a poor substitute for teaching viewers (American, Lebanese or otherwise) about real American life?   Or that television could well teach any foreign people false lessons about the level of sex, violence, and poverty in America?

Then, as if concerned about the prospect of completing an entire interview without knocking Israel, Gelvin expressed amazement at Lebanon’s supposed blinders regarding Israel’s messy 1982 invasion of the country.  History records that the Israeli military incursion was necessitated by the presence of the Palestinian Liberation Organization militia operating with impunity just across the border in Southern Lebanon.  To Gelvin’s dismay, “most of [the Lebanese] he spoke with blame the Palestinians for the war.  It is as if the warlords that dominated Lebanese society for 15 years dropped from outer space,” Gelvin moaned.  “There was no responsibility on the part of the Lebanese for this war.”

            A March 2004 incident involving Gelvin proved once again that the Israel-Palestinian issue is never far from his heart.  On March 16th of that year, Dean Norman Abrams of the UCLA Law School issued an invitation to a reception honoring Ambassador Alan Baker, the Legal Advisor and Deputy Director General of the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs.  Baker, Abrams noted, “headed Israel's legal team that prepared Israel's statement submitted to the International Court of Justice regarding the Security Fence issue that is now before the Court.”  To Gelvin, a man who disregards an entire theory on the causes of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war because it appears on an “Israeli government website,” Abrams’ e-mailed invitation must have been galling.  Never one to self-censor, Gelvin quickly fired off a response to Abrams expressing his “disappointment.” 

In his e-mail, Gelvin cast the “quest for Palestinian rights [as] equivalent to the American civil rights struggle of the 1960s or the anti-apartheid struggle of the 1980s.”  Calling the security fence an issue of “suffering inflicted on over 700,000 residents of the West Bank, [and an] illegal annexation of land by the Israeli government,” Gelvin complained that “feting an apologist for Israeli actions can only undermine the reputation of UCLA.”  Not surprisingly, Gelvin’s arguments fail on basic factual grounds.  American civil rights marchers of the 1950s and early 1960s who reacted passively when physically attacked by authority figures seeking to preserve the old order.  And, despite excesses like “necklacing,” and the lawlessness which followed South Africa’s end of apartheid, both the American civil rights and South African anti-apartheid movements were at least philosophically non-violent.  The same cannot be said of the Palestinian cause, supported by ululating mothers who send both pre-teen and adolescent sons into the streets to pursue martyrdom among gun-wielding militants.  Moreover, unlike the well-dressed black American youths who endured verbal taunts and physical abuse from angry whites at lunch-counter sit-ins, there is nothing Ghandian about detonating explosives (and oneself) in crowds of Israel civilians. 

As for Gelvin’s claim that UCLA was “feting an apologist” for Israel actions, remember the February 2003 campus appearance of Saree Makdisi’s uncle, the Palestinian irredentist Edward Said.  Said spoke not at intimate receptions attended by a handful of unsympathetic professors, but to two large, rapturous, public crowds.  Gelvin’s self-righteous comments were, in short, completely divorced from reality.  This, as it so happens, is a useful state of mind when you’re backing the terrorism-fueled cause of Palestinian statehood.