Joel Beinin Doesn’t Deserve Tenure
Tenure is a gift, or perhaps a right, bestowed upon professors so that they can present their work on its merits, free of political interference. Professors, uniquely among professionals, cannot be fired simply for disseminating unpopular ideas. This is, we are told, how Great Ideas are formed.
Joel Beinin, a tenured history professor at Stanford, has at times accused others of trying to silence him. However, since a tenured professor, by definition, cannot be silenced, the irritation felt by him must be based on something else than the fear of being stifled. Perhaps Beinin fears exposure of inaccurate or dishonest ideas that he has propagated since he received tenure.
Beinin has taken on, in the last few years, President Lawrence Summers of Harvard, Dr. Daniel Pipes, and Paul Wolfowitz. He has defended Sami Al-Arian, the alleged al Jihad terrorist operating out of the University of South Florida. He has been photographed by the Stanford Daily carrying placards on “Nakba Day” (the “catastrophe”) a day that is known elsewhere as Israel’s Independence Day. Thus, any complaints he has about criticisms needs to be considered with the idea that he can give as well as get.
Beinin teaches an online course sponsored by Stanford, Oxford and Yale entitled “Palestine, Zionism and the Arab-Israeli Conflict.” Beinin prepared a syllabus and a videotape that was mailed to students that introduced the material for each of the ten weekly classes. The rest of the class consisted of readings, a weekly online chat, and an open bulletin board, that was monitored by a young Ph. D.
The bulletin board allowed students the opportunity to correct countless mischaracterizations by the teacher. A few examples are mentioned below. In the video narrative by Beinin for the first week, Beinin stated that, following the destruction of the Jewish Second Temple by the Romans in the year 70, C.E., Jews had next come to Palestine in the sixteenth century, at the invitation of the Moslem Turks, “to study religious books and to be buried there.”
A poster noted that, in fact, the past two millennia in Palestine that Beinin had implied had little Jewish history were actually chock-full of events. These included Jewish revolts, for over five centuries; the writing and the publication of the Jerusalem Talmud and later, the Shulhan Aruch; and the establishment of a synagogue in Jerusalem by Nachmanides after 1270, a city in which Jews have lived since. Only during the First Crusades, when the Jewish community was burned alive, was there a brief period in which Jerusalem did not have a Jewish community.
Beinin lectured that the “only” remnant of the Herodian Jewish Temple was the “Wailing” Wall (an archaic term) and that the Haram, or the Moslem holy site, was located above. A post reminded the class that, actually, the whole Western and Southern Walls were remnants of the Herodian temple, and that the area above had been the Jewish Temple seven centuries before Mohammed was born. A link was presented to pictures of excavations with Hebrew inscriptions such as the Trumpeter’s stone covering an area about ten times larger than the one Beinin incorrectly described.
In week two, Beinin stated that “Jewish identity before the twentieth century was not rooted in a nation-state,” but did not add that the premodern version of Jewish identity included daily prayers for Jerusalem to be restored-- and had included these prayers for centuries. For example, the prayer after meals, said three times daily, has one paragraph about Jerusalem and another about the land.
In week three, Beinin alleged that Jewish and Palestinian nationalism developed at “about the same time.” In fact, Zionism restricted to its most modern form began at least a generation before Palestinian nationalism. Most Arabs regarded Palestine as part of the sanjak of southern Syria at least into the 1920’s, when King Faisal of Syria was deposed, twenty years after the First Zionist Congress of Theodor Herzl. No historical account of Palestinian nationalism predates the Zionist Congresses.
The same week, Jewish historical claims were compared to the Palestinians, who, Beinin claimed, might have descended from the Canaanites. In fact, whereas Israel is regarded as the third Jewish commonwealth, there is no basis for ancient claims of a Palestinian state emanating from Canaan. Even the Palestinians who engage in denial of Jewish claims are rarely willing to take that one any distance.
Beinin even said “it does not really matter,” who was first. Beinin is wrong. A professor who is an admitted activist for a cause who presents incorrect facts deliberately should be exposed.
What about more recent events, for example, those since Beinin was hired by Stanford in the early 1980s?
During the Israeli War for Independence, about 700,000 Arabs fled or were driven from their homes, creating the Palestinian Arab refugee problem.
A group of historians who came of age in the 1980’s, known as “The New Historians,” “exploded the birth myths” about what really happened in 1948 and after Israel’s creation.
They analyzed the policies of David Ben Gurion towards the Holocaust survivors and towards Palestinian Arabs. The group includes Tom Segev, Benny Morris, and Ilan Pappe.
The fact that Ben Hecht, a former Irgun member, had already criticized Ben Gurion from the right in the 1960s was not mentioned. Neither was the fact that Benny Morris wrote a scathing review of another, Ilan Pappe, in The New Republic, accusing Pappe of slovenly research. Another historian, Efraim Karsh concluded that Morris himself was as inaccurate with the facts as Pappe. These details were unearthed during unassigned private reading.
In the later weeks devoted to the United States and Israel, Beinin erroneously stated that the US had spent a trillion dollars on aid to the Jewish state since 1948. Since the true number was about eighty billion, or eight percent of the amount claimed, I questioned Beinin’s integrity. He had been challenged on this amount previously, on the Internet, highly publicly, in a previous incarnation of the class and yet still had not changed the videotape for subsequent classes. While our class did not get an apology from Beinin, the administrator of the class summarily announced that the wrong tapes had been sent, and mailed the class new videotapes, identical to the old, except with the editing out of the “mistake.”
Nobody who truly champions freedom wants to stifle the expression of those who disagree with them. The issue is not Beinin’s positions in favor of Palestinian claims over Israeli ones, but of his mediocrity as a historian. Beinin’s protected speech only protects him from being fired. Tenure cannot protect his reputation, or validate scholarship based on lies and mistakes. Stanford students who want to learn about the region should insist on better for their tuition. They also should hold the university accountable for its tenure decisions, and the history department for the decision to allow the class to be taught.