In a move one would hope student groups nationwide might emulate, this past fall the College Republicans and College Democrats at the University of Delaware organized a panel discussion on “Anti-Americanism in the Middle East.” Participants for the October 24 panel were to include two UD political scientists, Muqtedar Khan and Stuart Kaufman, and a graduate student.
But the panel was ideologically imbalanced. Kahn is a nonresident senior fellow at the left-of-center Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, and Kaufman a former member of Bill Clinton’s National Security team. Both are on record as critics of American foreign policy in the region, and the graduate student was known to be sympathetic to their views.
So the students invited a fourth participant to offer a different perspective of the problem: Asaf Romirowsky, whose resume includes a stint at Campus Watch, a project of Daniel Pipes’s Middle East Forum, which defends American interests in the Middle East. A resident of nearby Philadelphia, Romirowsky could drive easily to Newark, Delaware, thereby keeping the logistics of his participation simple. Like most Israeli males (he holds joint American/Israeli citizenship), Romirowsky served in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF).
He agreed to the students’ terms, and everything seemed set and ready to go.
Then came the unexpected: a terse email from Muqtedar Khan objecting to Romirowsky’s addition to the panel. Written on October 23 from Washington, DC, where Khan had spent the day in his capacity as a Pentagon consultant, Khan offered what was to be the first of no fewer than four explanations for his objection to sharing the dais with Romirowsky:
I am also not sure how I feel about being on the same panel with an Israeli soldier who was stationed in West Bank. Some people see IDF as an occupying force in the West Bank. I am not sure that I will be comfortable occupying the same space with him. It is not fair to spring this surprise on me at the last moment.
But this self-evident, clear explanation—that Khan did not wish to appear with an IDF veteran—proved embarrassing for Khan and the University as word spread, first within the blogosphere, and then in the print media. Its bigotry was raw, and by extending his objections to other IDF vets, Khan’s example might lay the groundwork for a wider discrimination of Israelis from academe.
Fearing the implosion of the panel and the negation of all their hard work, the student organizer’s asked Romirowsky not to appear on October 24 and invited him to return, alone, the following week. He declined.
Khan’s Changing Story
Over the next six weeks, Khan was to mine the words of the four sentences of his October 23 email for excuses that might seem less odious than his stated reason: he did not wish to appear with an IDF veteran.
In chronological order, Khan’s explanations are:
- October 23: Khan objected to Romirowsky’s status as a veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces;
- October 30: Khan claimed he was only making a pun;
- November 9: Khan said he needed more time to prepare to debate Romirowsky;
- December 2: Khan objected to Romirowsky’s ties to Campus Watch.
Khan’s subsequent explanations are less credible, both because he appears to be running from his true objection, and because none of them withstand scrutiny. Indeed, they appear to derive less from Khan’s original meaning in his October 23 message than from a crude attempt at a hermeneutics of embarrassing emails.
An October 30 story in the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported that Khan “said he intended to make a pun on the word occupation and the space where he would be uncomfortable is the West Bank, not the panel,” and that he “showed up to the Oct. 24 panel as planned expecting to find Romirowsky there.”
In the context of the October 23 email, this explanation falls flat. The context of the email’s language isn’t the West Bank, but Newark, Delaware. It also side-steps the gravity of Khan’s objections to Romirowsky’s IDF service, and no one at the time, from Lara Rausch to numerous commentators, read it as a pun, as is clear from the students’ decision to ask Romirowsky to step down from the panel.
By November 9, when a story in the University of Delaware student newspaper, The Review, appeared, Khan drew on a line in his email—“It is not fair to spring this surprise on me at the last moment”—to claim that he was happy to debate those with whom he disagreed, but that he needed more time to prepare: “I would just need time to adjust my lecture and topic depending on who the people were on the panel, and I didn't have time to do so,” Khan told the Review. (Khan also claimed that he didn’t know that Israel practiced mandatory conscription—a widely known fact that one might expect any scholar of the region to know.)
Yet the panel was not structured as a debate, but as three short presentations on the topic “Anti-Americanism in the Middle East,” followed by a question and answer period. Panelists didn’t share papers in advance in order to critique them, as is frequently done in academic conferences, and it’s difficult to think that Khan, who has taught his subject for years, could not respond readily to anything that Romirowsky might say in such a setting.
Finally, by December 2, as reported by Lori Lowenthal Marcus, Khan dispensed with any reference to the language of his email and claimed that he objected to Romirowsky’s association with Campus Watch (he is an associate fellow), because CW is “dedicated to defaming” Muslim and pro-Muslim academics. He also bears a grudge against Campus Watch founder Daniel Pipes for his role in preventing Tariq Ramadan, whom Khan calls a “good friend,” from obtaining a visa to teach in the U.S.
Khan’s unfounded attack on Campus Watch, which in fact has many Muslim allies and does not engage in defaming anyone, is of a piece with his original smear of Romirowsky’s character: associating with organizations Khan dislikes disqualifies one from academic society. But Campus Watch, of which I am director, is not the IDF, and smearing it won’t bring on same degree of moral opprobrium as did his original attack on IDF veterans qua veterans.
Moreover, this latest excuse comes well over a month after Khan’s initial explanation for his objection, and after two intermediate attempts to explain away the morally untenable reason he took issue with Romirowsky’s presence: his service in the IDF.
Back to the Beginning
Khan’s previous statements on Israel’s West Bank policies, made over several years, support his original, October 23 explanation as the real reason for his objection to Romirowsky’s presence on the panel:
- The West Bank as an Israeli “atrocity”: In a July 30, 2007 post to a message board for the World Association of International Studies at Stanford University, Khan listed three “US atrocities in the Middle East,” among which was:
Supporting the Israeli occupation of 3 million people in Palestine.
- The settlements (and Ariel Sharon) as “Machiavellian”: Commenting in October, 2005 on a meeting with then-Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes, Khan wrote:
If Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon goes ahead with the enlargement and expansion of settlements with U.S. financial, political and moral support, then all other endeavors to win Muslims hearts and minds may seem Machiavellian — and perhaps even disingenuous.
- The Palestinians as “subjugated” and “without human rights”: In November, 2004, Khan wrote:
Since 1967 Israel has occupied the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem, and has held now over three million Palestinians as subjugated people without basic human rights.
Khan’s attempted retreat from his own words, clumsily executed through stories that changed with each reporter’s call, demonstrates that moral outrages are still recognized as such not only by external observers, but by the actors who themselves perpetrate such outrages. Were no stigma attached to Khan’s objections to Romirowsky’s IDF veteran status, we would surely have been spared his excuses that followed the publicizing of his initial objection—excuses that are themselves undermined by his own publication record. Khan’s only candid moment in this sorry tale came when he fired off the October 23 email; all that followed is smoke.
Winfield Myers is director of Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.