A three-day conference entitled, “The Middle East in the 1950s: Historical Perspectives” ended earlier Tuesday. The conference began on Sunday in McCormick Tribune Auditorium, and continued in Hardin Hall. Elie Rekhess, a visiting professor of Middle East studies, co-chaired the event with Hendrik Spruyt, director of the Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies. Rekhess is also a professor at Tel-Aviv University in Israel.
The conference was part of the Buffett Center’s Middle East Forum, an “interdisciplinary group of faculty members interested in the study of the contemporary Middle East.”
North by Nortwestern sat down with Rekhess to talk about the conference, Palestine and why students should get involved with the Middle East Forum.
How did you conceive the idea of this conference?
For any academic institution, an integral part of academic endeavor contains teaching, research, and exchange. Exchange of ideas, which are mostly achieved through conferences, colloquia, workshops, and henceforth. We thought this element should be added to the academic activity at Northwestern. In this respect, the conference is designed to contribute to the discourse on the Middle East at Northwestern. Also, it is an expression of the growing interest in Middle East studies at Northwestern.
Are you speaking of the recent push for the Islamic Studies program or the recently founded Middle East and North Africa working group?
No, I’m talking about the fact that there have been new hirings of the faculty of the Middle East. And the fact that there is a growing number of students that are interested. [Based on] two things. Number one, there is interest. Seen by the growth of the number of students who take [Middle Eastern] languages. Number two, the university has been showing growing interest as one of the academic fields the university wants to promote and strengthen new hiring of faculty.
We have set up the Middle East Forum, which you can find on the Buffet Center website.
Can you explain the significance behind the title of the conference. Why exclude “Palestine” from the title?
The three key elements of the title are “Middle East,” “1950s,” and “perspectives.” The whole idea is that we look back at a very significant period rather than look at the customary. This is the major question. What can we learn from what was happening. Things were happening in ‘52, but then everything evaporated, everything was gone. The big ideologies of the 1950s disappeared and it was replaced by Islam as a force.
And to your question where’s Palestine. Palestine was dismantled in the ’50s. Palestine was not there. There is no identity called the Palestine in the 1950s. The Palestinians were there. One of the session is dedicated to these very questions. The issue is definitely on the agenda, very much so. If you may recall, I had mentioned [during the opening session] the “non-state actors,” it is exactly the people I am talking about.
So yes, we definitely want to look as to what happens to the Palestinians. [We will look at] the secular elites, refugees and Palestinians in Israel. When you study this area, the issue was hidden. It wasn’t on the agenda. It was contained to a refugee problem. Actually, here [at the conference] we shed light on these issues that were overlooked.
Seeing the nature of conflict in the Middle East, how do you seek to keep this conference even-handedly represented?
The speakers were chosen by their academic expertise. Each one has a specific expertise that pertains to the title of the conference. There are Israelis, Arabs, Palestinians. We did not go by equal numbers, this was not the criteria. The criteria was what do these people have to contribute. We’re not concerned with this; that it needs to be even-handed, in the sense that there should be “X” number of this and that.
As a student, why should I be interested in attending?
We want to provide the opportunity for students to intermingle with scholars outside of the university and to generate research because we have a volume coming out. A summary of the proceedings that would be available [...] We approached some 90 students. Here’s an opportunity, to have under one roof, at one time, a leading group of experts who specialize in the Middle East. It’s an opportunity to widen your horizons.
Physically, they [students] come to lectures, they speak to lecturers, they ask questions, and then there is a social event like the dinner [for you to further discuss].
What outcomes do you see from this conference? Are there any goals for holding conferences of this nature in the future?
[The goals are] to generate more interest, to place the question of the scholarship of the Middle East on the NU map, to get more students involved and hopefully to do more of this. Definitely not to present this topic as a political issue that we debate, but rather as a purely academic scholarly issue. This is a very important point, and one I’d like to highlight.