The state of Middle Eastern Studies at Grinnell

The Middle East has captured international attention due to the United States’ current involvement and the revolutionary events occurring there. Currently, Grinnell offers some Arabic language instruction and several courses specifically about the Middle East. A Middle Eastern Studies Concentration could be a next step for this topic that has come to demand the attention of students and faculty alike.

“Given enrollments in Middle East related courses, we’ll be able to make a pretty strong case for adding resources to help make a concentration possible,” said Professor Caleb Elfenbein, History.

According to Elfenbein, Mervat Youssef, Arabic, Kathy Kamp, Anthropology, and Susan Ireland, French, are currently working to develop a program where the College would hire a recent graduate of the Teaching Arabic as a Foreign Language program at the American University in Cairo to come here for up to two years at a time.

Typically, at the College, most Arabic classes fall under French, and the History or Religious Studies departments usually offer courses related to Middle Eastern studies. However, much like the rest of the Middle Eastern world, change is coming and new borders are being drawn.

“At present, there are two core faculty members and then there are a number people around the College who teach related courses,” Elfenbein said. “Beginning next year, there is going to be a second Arabic language instructor, so that’s going to allow for an expansion of current offerings.”

Jon Cohen ’14, who created an independent major in Middle Eastern Studies, thinks a concentration would help students get recognition for taking these classes.

“Given that there is emerging demand for this sort of skill, it would be great on your transcript [to say—] I have these skills, the College has recognized these skills and now I can sell them to you, my employer,” Cohen said.

Since few regions are as necessary to the continuation of the United States’ current economic success as the Middle East, much study focuses on energy issues and conflict. With growing immigrant populations, however, Middle Eastern Studies at Grinnell hit closer to home than one might first think.

“The immigrant community in the States from south Asia and the Middle East is quite significant,” Elfenbein said. “Understanding the history from which these communities are drawing and how they understand their new locations is pretty important.”

Elfenbein emphasized that jobs that would make use of a Middle Eastern Studies Concentration do not necessarily fall under the umbrella of the United States energy interests. Areas of work that combine a social justice-oriented yet profit-minded occupation exist in several forms.

“At this point, the halal meat industry is huge for people who are really concerned about questions of sourcing and animal husbandry more generally, [it’s] really thinking about the relationship between conceptions of humane slaughtering and food justice issues,” Elfenbein said.

However, for those less enthused about the prospects of a job in the meat industry, areas such as finance and law will soon be demanding those with skills pertinent to the Middle East.

“Someone who is going into international finance will be very well placed to serve as a link between
people who are advocating a kind of Islamic economics and other folks in the financial sectors,” Elfenbein said. “Having an awareness of particular concerns that people might have can only help someone.”

There are also those on campus who see the concentration as a way to bridge the knowledge gap between two inherently connected groups of people.

“Having the Middle Eastern Studies Concentration would be really helpful for not only Americans, but for international students as well, [especially those] who don’t know much about the Middle East and have prejudices and misinformed ideas and stereotypes,” said Sahar Jalal ’14, an international student from Morocco.

Though the discussion surrounding Middle Eastern studies is coursing around the school, students will have to wait for further developments before they will have the opportunity to declare this concentration.
“We have to get through strategic planning and have to know what post-strategic-planning Grinnell is going to look like before we can think specifically about formalizing a concentration,” Elfenbein said.


'The state of Middle Eastern Studies at Grinnell' have 9 comments

  1. December 9, 2011 @ 11:38 pm alumnus

    I wonder how a Middle Eastern studies program at Grinnell College will cover the state of Israel.

    Oh wait.

    No I don’t.

  2. December 10, 2011 @ 8:39 am grinnell graduate

    I also question Grinnell College’s ability to protray Israel with a balanced perspective. As a graduate of the school, I am concerned that a multisided view of Israel would tend to be a debate between “Israel should have never existed in the first place” vs. “the sooner Iran wipes out Israel, the better”, etc. Based on my time at Grinnell, I seriously doubt that Grinnell College would be willing or able to present anything but an utterly anti Israel, anti Zionist perspective. And that is too bad for everyone who attends the college. It is too bad that being ‘open minded’ at Grinnell tends to actually mean ‘think exactly the way we do on all of our issues, or you are a racist/sexist/homophobe/uneducated person unworthy of respect’.

    A. Cohan

  3. December 11, 2011 @ 11:49 am Caleb Elfenbein

    Dear graduates,

    If you would like to hear a little more about how I incorporate Israel/Palestine into my courses I would be happy to share. Short of that, though, I am a little surprised at your willingness to make assumptions about what goes on in the classroom.

    Respectfully,

    Caleb Elfenbein
    Assistant Professor
    Departments of History and Religious Studies

  4. December 11, 2011 @ 8:38 pm David Nathan

    Professor Elfenbein,

    I graduated from Grinnell College in ’01, and I have not been back to Grinnell since my then girlfriend (no wife) Laura graduated in ’04. I am Jewish, and a supporter of the idea that Israel should exist, and I do not donate to Grinnell College.

    One of the biggest reasons I do not donate is because of an atmosphere of profound anti-religious, anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment that I saw constantly at Grinnell. I attended a meeting at one point in which a professor stated that he did ‘not understand why anyone who was religious would admitted to the college, because someone who was religious is clearly not intelligent enough to benefit from a higher education.’

    In the fall of 2008, my sophomore year at the colleg, death threats towards Jews were written on the hallway walls of a dorm. When I and other members of Chalutzim (the Jewish campus orginization) asked the administration to make a statement, we were told that the administration does not get involved in “student affairs”. When I personally contact leaders of various student groups to make a statement, I was told by one student organization head “Dave, Jews kind of deserve it for how they treat the Palestinians.” No student group ever condemned what happened.

    When contacted by a concerned parent, the College President initially stated that he did not feel is was appropriate for him to get involved in a student issue. Eventually, the College President was persuaded to make a statement after being told by the concerned parent that the parent would contact the Governor of Iowa, the New York Times, the Anti-Defamation League and that the College President would spend the next 10 to 20 years repairing the reputation of Grinnell College if the president did not make a statement.

    The next day, the President sent out an email to the student body condemning what happened.

    And these are but the highlights of the highlights of the experiences I personally enjoyed while a student for 4 years at the school. I recognize that other students who were Jewish may not have had the same experiences as myself, and that reasonable people can disagree. As I said, I have not been back to Grinnell since 2004. But I do keep up with the S & B, for which I reported and edited, and I am a member of GrinnellPlans, the online social media group for Grinnell students, and I do have many friends who from Grinnell who have gone back to campus in the years since we graduated and have told me about the environment there, and I see no evidence from these sources that much has changed at Grinnell in terms of how Israel is portrayed inside or outside of the classroom.

    I think being concerned with the ways Israel would be portrayed in a Grinnell classroom is a highly reasonable view for someone to take. I am *very* pleased to hear based on Professor Elfenbein’s comment that there may be a class with a more nuanced views on Israel at Grinnell now than when I was a student there. Obviously, I am not the only former student who feels that Israel and Jews who do not profess to be ashamed of their heritage are acceptable targets for intolerance, ignorance and disrespect at Grinnell. I would love to see this change. But I can understand very well why people would doubt that this would happen at Grinnell.

    David Nathan ’01

  5. January 28, 2012 @ 12:14 pm Prof. Katya Gibel Mevorach

    I think a distinction might be made between a Concentration whose focus is on Muslim Studies Program (as at Michigan State University), or Arabic and Islamic Studies (as at Georgetown University). As a faculty member who is both Israeli and American (as well as a graduate of Hebrew University of Jerusalem, B.A. and M.A, in African Studies), I want to assume and not just hope that a Middle East Concentration at Grinnell will necessarily include Jews and Israel — and with particular and not parenthetical attention to the significance of Jews in the Middle East and North Africa. To invoke scholarly terms (always political), we may refer to this as an inclusion of Judeo-Arabic intersections in history, language, literature, music, philosophy and, yes, science (e.g. Maimonides also known as Mūsā ibn Maymūn موسى بن ميمون‎). It is perhaps too hopeful, but certainly not audacious, to suggest that Hebrew might someday be added to the curriculum and not just periodically offered within the (wonderful) ALSO program .

    In this context, permit me to invoke Hebrew Scripture as an account of history, and not just a text relegated to Religious Studies, and mention the Jewish presence in Iraq from at least 722 BCE and from Persia in BCE. Jews are not incidental to the written history of the region referenced as the Middle East — ancient and modern. Yet how fascinating to think of the evolution of the term “Judeo-Christian” which popularized in, and percolated from, the U.S. in the aftermath of World War II.

    If the phrase is considered within the context of revisionist history, one finds it serves a variety of interests which reflect and inform contemporary politics (e.g. binary conflicts and tensions simplistically rendered as: Palestinian-Israeli, Israeli-Arab, Muslim-Christian, etc). For this reason, being intentionally attentive to include rather than occlude the Jewish presence in the Arab and Arab Muslim world is also acting with intellectual responsibility. That taken into account, including Israel in a Middle Eastern Studies Concentration should be conceptualized more broadly than as an opportunity to study conflict. Rather, here is an opportunity to engage with the complexity and density of social, economic and political processes within and between each of the states that stand under the umbrella of the concentration.

  6. February 5, 2012 @ 6:35 pm Michael Schoelz

    This is frustrating to read and comment on. David Nathan, you raise some important points, but I also think that you’re not trying very hard to see how Grinnell has changed. As a student of Prof. Elfenbein’s, I can attest that he does an excellent job of presenting history focused on the area that can only only vaguely geographically described as middle east and the incredibly complicated present relations that are a result of that history. Prof. Mevorach presents this argument far better than I could, but I can assure you that students taking these classes understand that Israel is not just a conflict, but a part of a huge cultural system and is not taught in the same rhetoric of mainstream politics.

    Furthermore, At the very least acknowledge that the president that held those positions a.) isn’t here anymore and b.) made a policy change as a result of the experiences of the students affected. Both of these points have been pretty heavily covered in this paper, albeit not necessarily directly. I know this because I have written for this paper for the last four years.

    Something that you may not know, but I can also assure you is changing, is Grinnell’s relationship with religion. It is not as hostile as the environment that you described, although I’m sure there are still some large pockets of militant atheism. This campus is small and far from static.

    But most of all, it bothers me that you have all immediately jumped to this conclusion about israel on a rather unspecific article about the possible creation of a middle eastern studies concentration. I really don’t know what to say other than that it’s pretty disheartening.

  7. January 1, 2013 @ 1:42 pm Barbara Rosenow ('75) von Schlegell

    As a graduate of Religious Studies (’75), I am shocked by Mr. Nathan’s experience at my alma mater. Even in the high protest and post-hippie years religious groups were active and encouraged on the campus. Jewish students were organized; they were supported academically and socially in general and especially for holiday preparations and celebrations. Professor Harold Kasimow, a Holocaust survivor and one of Abraham Joshua Heschel’s closest students, had a large fan club at Grinnell for his courses in Jewish Studies. Professor Kasimow was my mentor and advisor. You should have sought him out when you had the opportunity. (He has an office on campus. You can find his many writings by googling his name.) My daughter Hanna graduated in 2010. She spoke often about different spiritual gatheirngs of many faiths on campus.

    I do not know who made the idiotic anti-religious comment to Mr. Nathan. I completed my graduate work at UC Berkeley in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. Believe me, Grinnell is bursting with honor and intellectual curiosity about religion. There is not even a department concentrating on religion at UCB, a major university of some 30,000 students. There I think one could say there is a definite prejudice among the older faculty toward anything but secularism.

    As for threats toward members of a religious group by fellow students, I have to say I am shocked and ashamed of any Grinnellian who would stoop so low as this. With regret, however, I can say that in my decades of teaching in the Ivy League as well as at a couple of small liberal arts colleges like Grinnell, I have seen civility slide among undergraduate students. One time someone drew the star of David and slurs in the snow on my own car because I had an Arabic sticker with a line from the Qur’an in my back window (?!).

    As I know intimately, what Mr. Nathan addresses as far as coursework goes is really a matter of academic discipline. Does one approach ideas based on a map? Then that is Area Studies. So, for instance, we have “Latin American Studies” and “Middle Eastern Studies.” If one looks at cultural history or the history of religions, the world might be better studied as beliefs and practice globally under the heading of a particular faith tradition. Thus, some colleges and universities have majors in Jewish or Islamic Studies that transcend the modern Middle East. I do not belive that everyone who wants to focus on Arabic or Hebrew and the Middle East is headed to the State Department or business.

    In sum, the world is a different place than it was when many of today’s senior administrators and professors came up. People nowadays recognize the importance of religion in life, whereas academics in the west once thought, in general, that religion was dead. Anti-religious attitudes(including current rampant Islamophobia) do not belong anywhere, but especially not at institutions of higher education.

    Sincerely,

    Barbara Rosenow (’75) von Schlegell, Ph.D.

  8. January 27, 2013 @ 10:56 pm Lisa Sergienko '84

    Along with several commentors above, I am dismayed at Mr. Nathan’s experience of antisemitism at Grinnell as well as the administration’s response to these heinous acts.

    I majored in Religious Studies as well. I’ve had the better part of 30 years to reflect on the focus and meaning of that education. What I decided is that RS as taught at Grinnell reflects a certain Western European/North American phronema; it’s end being how it affects “us” and our social aims/political goals. We can little afford to study religion through the filter of this mindset. The world is too volatile and immediate. At the basic level it comes down to getting to know people as they are rather than how their being affects us.

    One glaring example is apparent in current course offerings in religious studies viz Christianity, seemingly taking only one path after 431, 451, 1054, and 1517. This for a college with Russian & Eastern European Studies and Middle Eastern Studies concentrations? And worse…other religions relegated to single semester survey courses. Yes it’s a lot to ask that each of these be addressed but elimination of “pop” courses might be a start to taking the study of religion a little more seriously and respectfully.

  9. January 27, 2013 @ 10:56 pm Lisa Sergienko '84

    Along with several commentors above, I am dismayed at Mr. Nathan’s experience of antisemitism at Grinnell as well as the administration’s response to these heinous acts.

    I majored in Religious Studies as well. I’ve had the better part of 30 years to reflect on the focus and meaning of that education. What I decided is that RS as taught at Grinnell reflects a certain Western European/North American phronema; it’s end being how it affects “us” and our social aims/political goals. We can little afford to study religion through the filter of this mindset. The world is too volatile and immediate. At the basic level it comes down to getting to know people as they are rather than how their being affects us.

    One glaring example is apparent in current course offerings in religious studies viz Christianity, seemingly taking only one path after 431, 451, 1054, and 1517. This for a college with Russian & Eastern European Studies and Middle Eastern Studies concentrations? And worse…other religions relegated to single semester survey courses. Yes it’s a lot to ask that each of these be addressed but elimination of “pop” courses might be a start to taking the study of religion a little more seriously and respectfully.


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