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        Saree Makdisi

            Professor Saree Makdisi’s nominal task at UCLA is teaching English literature, with a particular concentration in Romantic Period work.  But his true burning passion, Palestinian activism, is never far from hand.  Indeed, how could it be?  Makdisi is not just a third-generation Lebanese academic, but also the late Palestinianoid Edward Said’s nephew.

            Makdisi was born in Lebanon, but by the so-called “war years” was safely ensconced at the Northfield Mt. Hermon School, a school whose tuition, at least for the 2005-2006 year, stands at $35,000 for boarding students.  His grandfather, Anis Makdisi, was a professor of Arabic literature for 40 years at the American University in Beirut, while his father Samir Makdisi has served as an economics professor at AUB, with a stint in the 1970’s for the International Monetary Fund.

            Much like the self-mythologizing Robert Watson, Makdisi’s lineage is pure top-shelf academia, and like Watson, Makdisi has a desperate sense of noblesse oblige.  Thus, despite not actually being a Palestinian (itself not an actual ethnic group), Makdisi would grow up to become a raving Palestinian irredentist just like his famous uncle Edward.

            Makdisi has rolled up an enviable string of well-placed op-eds during the past four years, and has been especially prolific in the most recent two.  His hatred of Israel is at all times present.  Makdisi has stated repeatedly that “racism is, and has always been, at the heart of what Israel stands for as a state,” and, echoing his uncle Edward, argues, “it was inevitable that mainstream “political” Zionism…would articulate its vision according to epistemological terms provided by or borrowed from a racially and ethnically fueled imperialism.”  In other words, Israel’s founding philosophy marks the nation as a colonial oppressor.

            On no fewer than three occasions, (August 21, 2005, Los Angeles Times; January 27, 2005, Electronic Intifada; November 21, 2004, Los Angeles Times), Makdisi has slammed the Gaza Strip as a “gigantic open-air prison” or similar words.  Makdisi also derided Israel’s attempt at bringing military security to various occupied territories as nothing more than a “regime of walls and ghettos.”  True to his habit of framing every issue from an “Israel bad” perspective, Makdisi claims the Palestinians are “a people that…have [been] brutalized for decades on end,” courtesy of Israel’s “total disregard for international humanitarian law.”

            Makdisi also advances his arguments through the typically repugnant academic practice of moral equivocation.  The April 12, 2002 International Herald Tribune carried Makdisi’s response to Ellen Goodman’s question about Palestinian terrorism, specifically, “What kind of adults raise suicide bombers?”  Makdisi replied,

“What kind of adults raise the soldiers of a racist army of occupation?  Suicide bombings are the terrible and deplorable recourse of desperate people who are resisting a brutal military occupation. Instead of indulging in racist platitudes about the supposed cultural failures of Palestinian parents, Goodman should reserve her sermonizing for the Israeli parents who have raised the bomber pilots who drop high explosives on densely populated neighborhoods, the snipers who murder stone-throwing children, the soldiers who prevent ambulances from saving lives, and the crews of bulldozers who raze people's homes, sometimes with their residents still inside.”


            If Makdisi had any moral honesty, he would, at bare minimum, recognize that Israel and the Palestinians are fighting a low-grade war, with all of the unpleasantries that such a conflict entails.  To feign ignorance about reasonable justification for the many Israeli practices he mentions is to invite dismissal.  Why do “soldiers…prevent ambulances from saving lives”?  Because Palestinian terrorists are notorious for traveling via ambulance as a means of avoiding detection at Israeli security checkpoints.  Why do Israeli army soldiers allegedly “murder stone-throwing children”?  Let us ask instead what mother or father sends their little Ali or Yousef into the street to throw stones at armed soldiers?  And what kind of parent would do this knowing full well that Palestinian gunmen use these stone-throwing children as cover for sniping real bullets at Israeli troops?

            Ah, but we should not be expecting moral honesty from Palestinian advocates, least of all the likes of Makdisi.  Makdisi spits upon every Israeli hand extended in peace; even the slightest Palestinian rapprochement is scorned by Makdisi as unconscionable cooperation with a murderous, racist group of interlopers.  In short, as Makdisi declared at a 2005 Al-Awda (Right of Return) conference at UCLA, “Israel is a fantasy of the Jews.” 

            In similar irredentist spirit, Makdisi has disparaged the “so-called” 1994 Oslo peace accords as a sham because (as he wrote in the February 16, 2005 issue of The Press of Atlantic City) “the most significant result of the Oslo negotiations was the consolidation of Israel's stranglehold on the land it conquered in 1967, little of which it has demonstrated any real interest in actually relinquishing.”  Makdisi, in typical style, makes the 1967 military engagement sound like a Jewish blitzkrieg undertaken by an insuperable fighting force.  In fact, while reasonable people can disagree about the appropriateness of Israel’s military preemption in 1967, the Israelis had just been blockaded by a bordering nation, and were vastly outnumbered militarily (50,000 to 280,000).  Yet they still extracted a victory.  Further evidence arguing against Makdisi’s framing of the story is that the Arab countries surrounding Israel attacked six years later in 1973 in an attempt to wipe Israel from the map.  Once again, the Arabs boasted vast numerical superiority (over 1.1 million Egyptian and Syrian troops to Israel’s 415,000 troops).  Only after a massive per-capita loss of life for Israel was the attack beaten back, with Israel trading captured territory for an Egyptian peace.  But Makdisi won’t talk of these facts because it interferes with his victim/attacker-oriented narrative.  Instead, Makdisi scorns any peace process that does not require Israel to withdraw “its army and its settlers from the territories it captured by force in 1967.  Period.”

            It is this hard-liner attitude that makes Makdisi such a perennial in the op-ed pages.  When all other partisans on both sides are expressing hope over a possible breakthrough, Makdisi is the lone voice denying that anything has changed.  The September 2005 Israeli troop pullbacks yielded Makdisi’s snarl that “Israel’s so-called disengagement from the Palestinians – whatever its short-term benefits for the people of Gaza – is not designed to bring peace to anyone. It is designed to cement Israel’s grip on the core of the West Bank around an artificially expanded and systematically de-Arabised Jerusalem.” 

 Even the creation of a security wall, acknowledgement of the Palestinians’ complete unwillingness or inability to stop their own terrorist elements from attacking Israel, comes in for Makdisi’s scrutiny.  In a November 21, 2004 Los Angeles Times op-ed, Makdisi claimed that the wall would be constructed of “concrete slabs three times the height of the Berlin Wall.”  This was too much even for the Times, which later ran a correction noting, “the material that will be used to construct future portions of the barrier is unknown, as is their eventual height.”

Unfortunately, a broader corrective for the entire controversy never came.  Comparisons of wall heights and construction materials implicitly endorse the idea that Israel was constructing a modern-day Berlin Wall.  However, the Berlin Wall was the work of an East German communist government trying to keep East Berliners from escaping into West Berlin, and from there to capitalist freedom.  The Palestinians interdicted by the wall have no ambitions of living in and being citizens of Israel, only of slaughtering as many of its inhabitants as possible. 

            Makdisi, as might be imagined, feels that the Western view of the Arab world is based on lies and misconceptions.  Discussing an “Orientalism” exhibit at UCLA, he complained, “We still portray the East as a mishmash of religious excess, superstition and despotism, whereas conventional wisdom holds that the West stands for truth, good and justice. Of course, nothing is that simple.”  Less restrained was his dismissal of the Iraq War as the West’s effort to (as he told the Los Angeles Times on September 7, 2005) “reassure[e] itself that it’s still there, that it still stands for reason and civilization.”

            As the readers of the August 1, 2005 issue of the Los Angeles Times and other publications would find out, Makdisi ascribes no reason and civilization at all to the United States or the war in Iraq.  Admitting that while “I am angered and sickened by the bombings in London,” Makdisi declared, “I am equally angered by the unthinking reactions in the United States and Britain to those disgusting attacks.”  To Makdisi’s way of thinking, “The usual self-congratulatory contrast between “our” civilization and “their” barbarism has set the stage for a cycle of moralistic inquiries into the motivations of suicide bombers and the supposed duty of “good” Muslims to restrain “bad” ones.”

If that sounds like moral equivocation, it is.  As Makdisi continued, “Few people have noticed that suicide bombing is merely a tactic used by those who lack other means of delivering explosives. Fewer still seem to notice that what happened in London is what occurs every time a U.S. or British warplane unloads its bombs on an Iraqi village.  “Collateral damage” is the inevitable result of choosing to go to war. By making the choice to go to war in Iraq, we made the choice to kill tens of thousands of civilians. It does not matter to bereaved parents whether their child was killed deliberately, as the result of a utilitarian calculation of “the greater good” or of the callous indifference of officials from a distant power.” 

            Then, getting off one of his more sparkling lines, Makdisi points out that the “American and British media have devoted hours to wondering what would drive a seemingly normal young Muslim to destroy himself and others. No one has paused to ask what would cause a seemingly normal young Christian or Jew to strap himself into a warplane and drop bombs on a village, knowing full well his bombs will kill civilians (and, of course, soldiers).  Because “our” way of killing is dressed up in smart uniforms and shiny weapons and cloaked in the language of grand causes, we place it on a different moral plane than “theirs.””  Well, the line was sparkling unless you had already read Makdisi’s rendering of the same perverse equivocation in the previously mentioned 2002 International Herald Tribune letter to the editor. 

            Makdisi continues his article in this execrable vein.  He defends the guerilla fighters of Fallujah as “young men who were defending their city from an invading army,” and keens for the “Tens of thousands [who] have been slaughtered by U.S. and British forces in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2001.”  Makdisi feels empathy for the armed gangs trying to take back Iraq for their own corrupt rule, concluding,

“At no point has peaceful protest, persuasion, demonstration, negotiation or remonstration made so much as a dent in the single-minded U.S. and British policy. If all legitimate forms of dissent go unheeded, illegitimate forms will be turned to instead. Some people will resort to violence, which does not produce the desired result but may, by way of unthinking reaction, give vent to the inhumanity with which they have been treated for so long. Paine was right: People who are treated brutally will finally turn into brutes.”

            What a foolish piece of argumentation.  Did the U.S. in the past treat Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden, or their Islamofascist supporters like brutes?  The left has spent the last five years excoriating the U.S. for having helped both Bin Laden and Hussein when the U.S. faced bigger enemies (respectively, the Soviet Union and Iran).  Now Makdisi wants it the other way, arguing that we created these two murders not through realpolitik but by bruising their fragile, fragile egos.  This playground-level psychological theorem (that merely calling someone a tyrant will push them into becoming one) would be laughable if it weren’t clear that Makdisi is deadly serious.

            Makdisi also mentions having read the story of a “Marine sniper who was given a medal at a California ceremony for having shot dead 32 Iraqis during the battle for Fallujah last year.”  Stunned by the soldier’s disregard for the dead Iraqi soldiers, Makdisi is forced to conclude, with a nearly-audible gasp, that for American soldiers, ““our” lives are all that matter and “their” lives don't count.”  In WWII, would Makdisi have G.I. Joe crying crocodile tears for the German and Japanese soldiers he killed?  We’re in a war against people who would not only kill our soldiers, but also eagerly destroy our country and way of life.  Only someone with Makdisi's warped sort of worldview would be shocked to discover that to soldiers and Americans alike, the lives of the Iraqis and Afghanis fighting us “don’t count.”

This worldview of moral equivalency runs a predictably wide stream through Makdisi’s psyche.  He complains that the current conflict against Islamofascism is “not a war between “civilization” and “barbarism” but a war between one form of zealotry and another, one form of ignorance and another, one form of barbarism and another. More of the same, underwritten by ignorance, will not yield solutions.”  If we didn’t already know Makdisi’s history and partisan motivations, we might take him for another Marxoid ivory-tower relic like Douglas Kellner, someone who really does not see a difference between good and evil, between Western democracy and Islamic theocracy.  But Makdisi is too much of an Arab partisan, too much of a Palestinian radical, to disguise himself as a universal non-judgmentalist.

  While a strident equivocator when it suits him, Makdisi has made more than a few comments that indicate that the only “ignorance” and “zealotry” that concerns him is localized in the West, not the Arab world.  His distaste for all things American is broad.  Makdisi spent the 2001-2001 academic year at the American University in Beirut, virtually the family business of the Makdisis.  Speaking early in the semester to the AUBulletin Today, Makdisi expressed dismay (in the paraphrase of the publication) over the fact that AUB students are “almost worryingly Americanized.”  Pointing out their “strong American accents, Makdisi expressed regret at not encountering “greater diversity on campus.”  Even more helpfully, the AUBulletin directly quotes Makdisi’s view that “life is definitely fuller here” [than in America], and his conclusion, “I just feel more part of the world here than I do in America. Also less isolated.” 

            Isolated though he might be, Makdisi burns the midnight oil on behalf of his adopted homeland of Palestine.  Makdisi offered a Fiat Lux English seminar titled “Palestine and Israel: Roots of Conflict.” in both Fall and Spring of 2005.  Outside the classroom, Makdisi gave a talk on April 21, 2005 titled “Where the Roadmap Went Wrong.”  The speech was part of the “Justice for Palestine Week” put on the terrorist-associated Muslim Student Association of UCLA.  Makdisi also appeared at a June 27, 2004 showing of the film “Selves and Others: A Portrait of Edward Said,” which was a fundraiser for the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions.  The event, according to invitations, was produced by “The L.A. Palestine Labor Solidarity Committee” and a so-called “¡Café Intifada!”  At ¡Café Intifada!, it need hardly be said, the customer does not send back any food, and never, under any circumstances, should you fail to tip your waiter. 

            Whatever else you might say about Makdisi, he doesn’t muzzle himself for anybody.  When he appeared on the Dennis Prager show August 1, 2005, Makdisi was his usual irrepressible self.  The show notes ask the question, “Who are the Barbarians?  Is it the US and Britain or Bin Laden and the London terrorists?  Dennis talks to Saree Makdisi, professor of literature at UCLA who believes that there is no essential difference.”  Were it any other guest than Makdisi, we might assume the host was exaggerating for inflammatory effect.  But this is Makdisi.  The review is only too accurate, as Makdisi’s students can unfortunately attest.