MIT’s Jerusalem Contest: A “Veneer” of Neutrality Can’t Conceal Bias

The university is a place for the exchange and exploration of ideas. And so, at first glance, there is nothing especially remarkable about the Just Jerusalem competition at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The competition, according to its executive summary, is meant “to generate new ideas and discussions about Jerusalem as it might be in the future — a just city shared in peace by all residents” and to lead to a “plurality of ideas and design visions that will make the competition a starting point for future deliberations over the city.”

If that description seems straightforward enough, another comment about the contest might seem somewhat more odd. Diane Davis, director of the steering committee of Jerusalem 2050, the MIT group running the Just Jerusalem competition, stated that the competition’s affiliation with MIT brings “a veneer of neutrality because we have a reputation for using serious, scholarly methods, not political ideology, when facing difficult problems.” Is it really possible for a contest about the status of Jerusalem to be free of “political ideology”? Or, rather, is the purported neutrality of the competition really just a “veneer,” as Davis bizarrely asserted? (The American Heritage Dictionary defines veneer as “a deceptive, superficial show.”)

It is first worth noting that Just Jerusalem literature steers potential participants (the contest is open to anyone) away from submitting certain ideas. The contest’s executive summary, for example, calls for ideas about a “shared” city and visions that “transcend nationalist discourses.” Three members of the Jerusalem 2050 steering committee, including its two directors, wrote an article explaining that the competition arose from a sense that “it may be time to try a new approach to Jerusalem, one that entails envisioning this city as transcending the constraints imposed by nation-states,” and more specifically, “a city that is institutionally autonomous from competing nation-states.” A solution to Jerusalem’s problems, they suggested, would be one that would “emancipate” the city from “nationalist blueprints” (Common Ground News Service, “Just Jerusalem: Vision for a place of peace,” 4/19/07).

These implied criteria seem to preclude, or in the very least discourage, proposals that leave even part of the city under Israeli sovereignty, including proposals along the lines of the one suggested by Bill Clinton in December 2000. The so-called Clinton Parameters, which represented the culmination of long and painstaking negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, called for what is Arab in Jerusalem to be Palestinian and what is Jewish to be Israeli. (Israel accepted the proposal and the Palestinians effectively rejected them. For details about the Clinton Parameters, see Dennis Ross’s The Missing Peace.)

By seemingly ruling out solutions that divide sovereignty in Jerusalem while calling for the city to be “institutionally autonomous from competing nation-states,” the MIT competition, sponsored by the school’s Department of Urban Studies & Planning and the Center for International Studies, appears instead to encourage proposals that wrest Jerusalem from Israeli sovereignty and turn the area into an international or binational “corpus separatum,” or separate entity.

One might wonder, though, notwithstanding that the results of the competition appear predetermined to sever Jerusalem from Israeli sovereignty (and putting aside the question of whether any such contest could possibly do any good for the region), might it still be true that the contest will be free of political ideology, as Diane Davis claimed? Can we reasonably expect it to promote solutions fair to both Israelis and Palestinians? After all, according to the contest’s executive summary, the steering committee overseeing the project “represents … a diversity of national, religious, and political perspectives,” and the competition’s jury includes both an Israeli and a Palestinian.

A closer look at the competition’s steering committee members and jurists, however, raises serious questions about the supposed neutrality of Just Jerusalem. (The list of steering committee members “past and present” and jury members can be found on the Just Jerusalem Web site. Because past members are still involved in the project — “We still contact and receive opinions from everyone listed on the past and present steering committee,” member Amy Speltz explained — this article [with one exception] does not differentiate between present and former members.)

Steering Committee Members Past and Present

Although it is not especially clear what Diane Davis, director of the Jerusalem 2050 steering committee and MIT professor of political sociology, thinks about the Arab-Israeli conflict, her views on the future of Jerusalem are more apparent. In the article cited above, for example, she made clear her belief that the city should be shared and autonomous from nation-states.

Further insight into her views can be gleaned from the graduate-level class she co-taught as part of the “preparatory coursework” for the Just Jerusalem competition. (The spring 2004 course was entitled “City Visions: Past and Future.”) On the course’s final day, which was focused specifically on Jerusalem, Davis turned the podium over to guest lecturer Menachem Klein.

Klein, a professor of political science at Bar Ilan University in Israel, is also a board member of B’tselem, a self-described human rights organization known for its politically driven, harsh, and often specious criticism of Israel. (See, for example, here.) In a November 20, 2003 article published on the Jordan-based Jerusalem Forum Web site (, Klein accused Israel of following a “classical colonial approach” in eastern Jerusalem — a most bizarre contention considering Jerusalem’s historical and contemporary status as the political and spiritual capital of the Jewish world, and the nearly continuous presence of Jews in the city since biblical times. But, not limiting himself to accusing Israel of colonialism in Judaism’s holiest city, he also charged Israel with practicing apartheid in eastern Jerusalem — another absurd charge, not least because Israel offers full citizenship to Arabs in that part of the city. (For a rebuttal to the charge that Israel practices apartheid, see, for example, professor Gil Troy’s “On Jimmy Carter’s False Apartheid Analogy,” published online on George Mason University’s History News Network).

If one can infer pro-Palestinian sentiment from Diane Davis’s decision to promote Menachem Klein’s views, no such guesswork is needed with her co-director on the Jerusalem 2050 steering committee, Leila Farsakh. For the Palestinian political scientist, no accusation against Israel seems too outrageous. She accuses Israel of being colonialist — not only in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but also within its pre-1967 boundaries — and of practicing something analogous to South African apartheid (“The Economics of Israeli Occupation: What is Colonial about it?,” pre-event attachment to Feb. 26, 2006 lecture at Harvard Center for Middle East Studies conference).

Farsakh also was a si gnatory to a letter effectively supporting a British academic boycott of Israel (“Open Letter to MESA Members,” May 20, 2005).

Moreover, judging by a piece she wrote for Le Monde Diplomatique, Farsakh has few qualms about misleading the public with blatantly pro-Palestinian spin. She wrote that

The Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) had accepted by 1974 the idea of partition as the way to fulfil Palestinian rights to self-determination. Although it took 19 years more, and the Oslo process, for Israel to recognize the PLO as the only negotiation party, Israel accepted the idea of partitioning the land with the Palestinians. (“Israel: an Apartheid State?,” November 2003)

But the PLO in 1974 did not agree to peacefully share the land with Israel or to accept that country’s right to exist. Its June 9, 1974 political program — widely know as the “Phased Plan” for the destruction of Israel — reaffirmed the Palestinians’ rejection of United Nations Security Council Resolution 242, which establishes the land-for-peace concept and calls for the recognition of Israel. The PLO plan further noted that the Palestinians would establish an “independent combatant national authority” to rule over any “liberated” land, but would consider that merely as a step towards “liberating” the rest of Israel. The Jews, by contrast, had accepted partition plans not only 19 years later, as Farsakh notes, but even before Israel was created (for example, the 1947 UN partition plan), and in fact forwarded their own proposal to divide the land in 1938.

Like Davis, Farsakh has preconceived notions about what the future of Jerusalem should be, stating in a press release that Jerusalem should be an international city (“University of Massachusetts Boston Political Scientist Focuses on New Civic Blueprint for Jerusalem,” April 10, 2007).

Also on the list of steering committee members is Naomi Chazan, a former Israeli lawmaker. Far from being a mainstream Israeli voice that might counterbalance Farsakh’s inflexible pro-Palestinian position, Chazan, who represented the extreme-left Meretz in the Knesset, also devotes much of her energy to criticizing Israel. Her biweekly “Critical Currents” column in the Jerusalem Post, for example, is almost without exception devoted to excoriating Israel and excusing its neighbors.

The views of MIT lecturer Yosef Jabareen, another steering committee member, are also quite clear. Jabareen, in his writings, parrots the Palestinian propaganda line that dubs Israel’s security barrier — over 95 percent of which is a fence — as a “wall.” He also toes the line that says Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip should not be seen as a concession to the longtime Palestinian demand that Israel withdraw troops and dismantle settlements, but rather as an act that made Gaza “the largest jail on earth.” And like some of his other colleagues on the steering committee, Jabareen brands Israel colonialist — the country, he says, is guilty of “widespread colonization” and of being on a “colonial mission” (Jabareen, Arab Studies Journal, book review, Fall 2006).

Another anti-Israel member of the steering committee is former MIT student Hania Maraqa. Maraqa has promoted campus lectures by two extreme anti-Israel activists — Ali Abunimah, cofounder of the Electronic Intifada Web site, and Norman Finkelstein. And she is apparently the same Hania Maraqa who, commenting on a Lebanese blog, recently accused Israel of adopting since 1948 an “ethnic cleansing strategy” and of being a “racist state” (Nov. 17, 2006 comment on blog).

A sixth member of the steering committee is Jennifer Klein, the national vice president of Brit Tzedek V’Shalom, a US-based advocacy group that often adopts controversial and pro-Palestinian stances. In a March 23, 2004 press release, for example, the organization “deplored” Israel’s killing of Hamas arch-terrorist Ahmed Yassin, and the organization’s president has gone on the record promoting the revisionist position that it was not Palestinian rejection, but rather “intransigence on both sides,” that doomed the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations brokered by President Clinton (Marcia Freedman, Brit Tzedek V’Shalom Web site, “Are 40 Years of Occupation Enough?”). That stance, of course, is at odds with the assessments of chief US negotiator Dennis Ross and even Clinton himself.

Harvard professor Everett Mendelsohn is also on the steering committee and — is the pattern becoming clear yet? — also has a history of controversial positions on the Middle East that skew toward the Palestinian perspective. Mendelsohn is affiliated with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), an organization that “is considered by many in the Jewish community as leaning consistently toward a pro-Palestinian perspective” (Tom Tugend, Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, Oct. 7, 2005). Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, has described the organization as being biased against Israel (The Forward, Rebecca Spence, Oct. 13, 2006). Indeed, in a 1989 book published by the AFSC, Mendelsohn accused Israel of state terrorism (“A Compassionate Peace: A Future for Israel, Palestine, and the Middle East”). And in 1982, while the PLO still openly called for the violent destruction of Israel, Mendelsohn called for the US to engage with the terror organization. (Barry Schweid, Associated Press, March 22, 1982).

Steering committee member and MIT student Zeina Saab, who was born in Lebanon, has expressed her disagreement with American support for Israel’s retaliation against Hezbollah’s rocket attacks and deadly cross border assault in the summer of 2006, and equated Israel and Hezbollah as both being sources of “hate, violence, extremism, and fanaticism” (Beirut-Los Angeles Web site, July 18, 2006).

Committee member Richard Sennett was one of the signatories to a letter that comments on Israel’s “brutal occupation” and the “violations [by Israel] of academic freedom in Palestine,” and explains that, even if they question the effectiveness of an academic boycott of Israel, the signers “do not oppose a boycott in principle” of Israeli academia. (So much for the university being a place for the exchange and exploration of ideas.) While the letter urges British academics to “think carefully before developing research links and exchanges with Israelis,” and first to “[ascertain] whether they are part of the military machine or work to sustain the occupation; whether they are prepared to address and criticise infringements of Palestinian rights and willing/able to work with Palestinians,” it says not one word about Palestinian terrorism, incitement, violations of human rights, and other activities that undermine peace, and not a word about the responsibility of Palestinian academics to stop supporting these terrible acts. (The Guardian, April 19, 2005)

Although committee member John Tirman claims to be a “strong supporter of Israel,” he also calls on the US to engage with Hamas, a group responsible for scores of suicide bombings and sworn to the destruction of Israel, lends his support to the hypothesis that the “pro-Israel lobby” acts against American interests, blames Israel for “overreact[ing]” to Hezbollah’s attacks, and blames American support of this so-called overreaction for stimulating Muslim rage. Moreover, he recommends turn to extremist Israel-basher Juan Cole for information about the Middle East (“The New War in the Gulf,” Sidney-Pacific Lecture, Ma ssachusetts Institute of Technology, December 7, 2006; “Muslim Rage”: A Problem, Not a War,” John Tirman’s Web site, Sept. 23, 2006; “References for 100 Ways America is Screwing Up the World,” John Tirman’s Web site).

Finally, there is MIT professor Philip Khoury, who though not on the online list is a member of the steering committee. Middle East scholar Martin Kramer had the following to say about Khoury and a journal with which he is associated:

MIT [has] the historian Philip Khoury, a star of Arab-American academe, chronicler of modern Syria, and dean of humanities, arts, and social sciences. …
In the spring [of 2001], the MIT Electronic Journal for Middle Eastern Studies made its first appearance. Khoury chairs the advisory board, a who’s who of the Middle Eastern studies establishment. The editor is a graduate student of architecture.
According to the “statement of purpose” of the e-journal, its editorial board “is committed to non-partisanship.” To judge from the first issue, this claim is utterly false. As the editor puts it, the journal’s “alternative” approach “is directly connected to issues of justice—of acknowledging the repressions, physical and psychological, which accompanied the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.” And she means it: the first issue is comprised almost entirely of indictments of Israel. (The Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2002)

Something similar might be said about the Just Jerusalem contest. Many will find the views held by members of the Jerusalem 2050 steering committee to be false or unfair. Others might agree with some of those views. But regardless of what one believes, it should be clear that the diversity of perspectives and political neutrality said to apply to the MIT competition does not exist in reality. Of the 20 members of the steering committee, 11 have shown themselves to be at best critical of and at worst extremely hostile toward Israel, while having little, if any, public criticism of the Palestinians.

By contrast, only one person on the MIT’s online list of committee members past and present has unequivocally pointed to Palestinian violence rather than Israel’s response to that violence as the key obstacle to peace. The main theme of poet and journalist Daniel E. Levenson’s Oct. 20, 2006 column in the Jewish Advocate is that in order to “demonstrate to the region and beyond that the [Palestinian Authority] can be a real partner for peace and that it has finally learned to put the value of the security of people (both its own and those in Israel) above its previously violent political agenda,” the Palestinian president must openly confront Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel and work for secure boundaries between Palestinian areas and Israel. (Jewish Advocate, “Better Borders, Better Peace,” Oct. 20, 2006). Interestingly, Levenson — the one person who clearly laid the onus of change primarily with the Palestinians — is among those who are past members of the committee.

The remaining seven committee members (plus another one who isn’t on the online list) have said very little publicly about the Arab-Israeli conflict.

A Biased Jury

With pro-Palestinian views dominating the steering committee, it is little surprise that the competition’s jury includes similar partisans. Most telling are the positions held by the Palestinian and the Israeli members of the Jury.

Mirroring the views of many of the steering committee members, Palestinian jury member Salim Tamari, who is the director the Institute of Jerusalem Studies and professor of sociology at Birzeit University, accuses Israel of racism, refers to Israeli settlements as “colonies,” and argues that the Palestinians are living in an apartheid situation (Online Newshour interview with Salim Tamari, PBS Web site, February 2004; PBS Newshour, Feb. 9, 2004).

On the other hand, as with the Israelis on the steering committee, the Israeli jury member does not represent Israeli mainstream. In fact, political scientist Meron Benvenisti advocates a position more extreme than that of his Palestinian counterpart. Israel’s current status, he argues, is that of an “occupier of Palestinian territories and oppressor of nearly 4 million people.” The Israeli security fence is not so much about security, but rather is “built to conceal the Palestinians and erase them from awareness.” Benvenisti even suggests that Israelis are not truly victims of Arab violence, asserting that “Jewish immigrants settled on the lands of Arab natives, met with violent resistance and responded as if they were the victims and the natives the aggressors” (The Nation, June 18, 2007). In the August 7, 2003 Ha’aretz, he summed up his argument this way: “… the basic story here is not one of two national movements that are confronting each other; the basic story is that of natives and settlers.” (Benvenisti uses the word “settlers” here to refer to all Israelis, not just those living in the West Bank.)

But Benvenisti goes even farther. He compares Israel and apartheid South Africa and concludes that the two are dissimilar — not because the comparison is outrageous, as anti-Apartheid activist Benjamin Pogrund has argued, but because he believes that in a number of respects Israel is even worse than the bygone South African regime. And he argues for a single binational state over the entirety of Israel, the West Bank and Gaza Strip — a solution that most of his fellow countrymen would not even begin to consider, and that is shunned even by fellow jurist Salim Tamari.

The point here isn’t that a handful of individuals hold pro-Palestinian and often extreme anti-Israel points of view. It is that the Just Jerusalem contest, which bills itself as neutral and non-partisan, is institutionally dominated by such views.

The effect of this partisanship is already apparent. A section on the Just Jerusalem Web site about “The Political Geography of the City” refers to Jews living in east Jerusalem as “settlers” living in “settlements,” thus clearly endorsing the Palestinian viewpoint while rejecting the Israeli view that Jews in east Jerusalem, including in the Jewish Quarter, are not “settlers.” And the Web site’s section on “The Socio-Economic Geography of the City” misleadingly claims that “Palestinians who live in East Jerusalem are considered residents of Israel, not citizens” and that “they don’t have Israeli passports and cannot vote in national elections.” In fact, Israel offers citizenship to all Arab citizens of eastern Jerusalem. Although most have chosen not to accept this citizenship, those who do hold Israeli passports can vote in national elections.

Whether the anti-Israel tilt of the steering committee and jury will influence the contest’s results in the same way it influenced the Just Jerusalem Web site remains to be seen. The winning entries will be announced on April 2008, four months after the Dec. 31, 2007 submission deadline.


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