Saturday, June 11, 2011

Shame on AUB Faculty and Students

I found the news that James Wolfensohn, former president of the World Bank, cancelled his speech at AUB amid accusations by faculty that he "supports Israel" deeply disturbing.  Before anyone accuses me of being insensitive to Palestinians, you can read my blog posts here and here.

Faculty have the right to express their view, of course. But this incident exposes something disturbing about the atmosphere at AUB and in Lebanon. It betrays a complete lack of intellectual depth, as well as an intolerance that borders on psychosis. You can read the whole thing here, but the main points are that:

 "We believe that honoring Mr. Wolfensohn – a former president of the World Bank[1], standing member of the international advisory council of the Israel Democracy Institute[2], and investor in a company (Better Place) that among other activities intends to build infrastructure to serve Israeli settlers in the West Bank[3]– symbolically undermines AUB’s legacy in the struggle for social justice and its historical connection to Beirut, to Palestine and beyond."

For [1] they argue that the World bank is no good because "Numerous books and scholarly articles have documented the devastating effects of World Bank policies in the global South." Global South? This is generally the vocabulary of dinosaurs like Clovis Maksoud.  As evidence they cite the work by anti-globalisation activist Danaher, a sociologist  that pretends to understand economics 101.

Item [2] is their big "gotcha" item. But this one is perplexing too. The Israel Democracy Institute, actually, sounds like a pretty neutral organisation on a lot of issues. They publish a "Peace Index" and reports that do not paint a flattering picture of Israel. This "gotcha" item is only relevant if you are a die-hard supporter of Hamas, because even Palestinian Authority is not disputing Israel's existence.

Finally, item [3] is that Wolfensohn invested in a company that has a subsidiary that is doing business in Israel. Really?? This is the sort of tenuous connection that I would bet you can make for most Arab leaders! I would not be surprised if the same professors that signed this petition have their pensions invested in funds that have invested in companies that have subsidiaries that are doing business in Israel.

In a normal country, this sort of frivolous protest would be heard but largely ignored. But Lebanon is not a normal country, unfortunately.  James Wolfensohn probably cancelled because he was scared of the atmosphere. I don't blame him.

UPDATE: AUB President Peter Dorman published an excellent statement regarding James Wolfensohn. I encourage you all to read it, as it highlights Wolfensohn's many contributions in support of Palestinians.


  1. Sad day indeed for the Lebanese academy, and for intellectual honesty and diversity of perspective. Thank you for taking AUB to task!!! I must disagree with you however on the faculty's purported "right to express their views." That is not entirely correct! Their job is to teach NOT advocate! And when they teach, their responsibility is to teach HOW, not WHAT to think, short of which they'd be engaging in political advocacy, in which case they'd be forfeiting freedom of expression. Freedom of expression in academe is meant to get the government and "thought police" off our backs; it is not a license to advance personal or partisan agendas, or pilfer witchhunts and agitprop as scholarship.

  2. Short of the above, who's to say we cannot teach that the world is flat, or that the holocaust never happened, or that the "Persian Gulf" is really the "Arabian Gulf"?? All under the guise of (the much prostituted) freedom of opinion!

  3. Unfortunately, you are right about advocacy. I know of one too many professors in Beirut whose mission is to preach the likes of Chomsky. But this happens everywhere, and the beauty of the American education system is that it makes room for everything, including such views. The problem arises in Beirut where the atmosphere is simply too charged, and people aren't merely content with expressing opinions, but often take lethal action. This is what's scary.