Rasmea Odeh and Fake Academics

Rasmea Odeh is unfairly maligned, according to a paper showcased on Reed College’s online journal. Fake academia at its best! This critique was prepared in honour of Odeh’s deportation from the USA scheduled for today (19 September 2017).


Providing an outlet for publishing student papers is a wonderful apprenticeship for budding academics. Misused, however, it can raise a new generation engaging in “fake academia” that I think is even more insidious and dangerous than “fake news”. Here is what Reed College says about its student journal, called Radicle (the part of the seed that sprouts):

Reed Anthropology Review is the student-powered and peer-reviewed annual journal of anthropology at Reed College. Sponsored by the Department of Anthropology and operated by students, for students, it is a space for highlighting Reed’s undergraduate work that is informed by anthropological method and theory.

Now, to be sure, I am not educated in anthropological method and theory, but I do know a thing or two or more about the Middle East and I think I am able to understand an academic paper, even one filled to the brim with jargon. If there are particular terms with which I am unfamiliar, I have no problem accessing definitions on the Web. Therefore, I anticipated an interesting read when I discovered that two articles in the 2017 volume of Radicle pertained to my favourite topic, Israel and the Middle East. Both articles were written by Sophie Spencer-Zavos.

One thing I am not sure of, however, is the meaning of “peer-reviewed” in this particular context: are the peers one’s students or are they faculty? If one’s fellow students, then it may be a case of the blind leading the blind, something that would seriously down-grade the value of this journal to anyone other than the authors’ proud parents. If faculty are the ones doing the peer review, then I would expect more rigourous adjudication of papers than is evident in the two examples I am critiquing here.

From her public Facebook timeline, all I was able to glean about the author is that she began studying at Reed in 2015, apparently for a BA degree. That means that she wrote these articles as a second-year undergraduate. It also appears that she is Jewish, judging by the photo with her bubbe and what look like Shabbat candles:

I have no issue with Spencer-Zavos but with the faculty who let these articles see the light of day on the Internet. Even if an undergraduate paper receives a good grade, that does not necessarily mean that it is a good idea for the college to show-case it. The criteria for grading and for publishing should be different.

First Article – The Case of Rasmea Odeh: The parallel biopolitics of the US and Israel

Here is the abstract:

Using Foucault and Agamben’s theories of the state’s project of nation building through the inclusive exclusion of bodies, the author casts the Israel-Palestine conflict in different light. The forcible removal of Palestinians is reexamined and situated in the larger narratives surrounding both the creation of the Israeli state and the nature of US biopolitics.

That’s quite a mouthful – Foucault and Agamben and inclusive exclusion of bodies! Sounds like quite the challenge for the undergraduate . . . she’s going to examine all of this in a 9-page double-spaced student paper where one page is the bibliography. Of course, “forcible removal of Palestinians” clearly indicates her political leanings and hints at some lack of academic neutrality. But let’s see what she actually writes. (You can read the entire paper here.)

First the author quotes Moustafa Bayoumi, award-winning writer and English professor at Brooklyn College, in a piece referring to the Nakba and Israel’s trampling of Palestinian Arab rights to the land. For the next four pages, she expounds upon the theoretical writings of Foucault and Agamben regarding nation-buiding, ending that section with another rant against Israel, before finally getting to the case of Rasmea Odeh. She describes Odeh as a Palestinian refugee who was forcefully removed from her home in “Palestine” and is now being forcefully removed from her home in the USA.

The parallel experiences of being expelled from land and territory in both Israel and the US expose the connections between the two violent state regimes, both with histories of expelling indigenous people from territory and land, and suspending the rights of those people in order to maintain the state project.

I suppose it is too much to expect of a student who delves into the complex writings of those such as Foucault and Agamben to devote some time and cognitive efforts into examining the definitions of two terms that are fundamental to her paper: refugee and indigeneity.

Had she done so, Spencer-Zavos may have discovered the interesting fact that the UN defines Palestinian refugees radically differently from how it defines all other refugees – it was sufficient to have been living in the Palestinian Mandate (note: not “Palestine”) for a mere two years before 1948 in order to gain that “valued” status of refugee, a status that stripped the economic migrants among them of their former citizenships simply because they had had the temerity to move to the territories under dispute (under dispute because Jews claim to be indigenous to them). Why is the special refugee status afforded to the Palestinian Arabs not part of the discussion?

Spencer-Zavos may have also discovered that the Jews are the indigenous population of the land in question and that the Arabs, other than the more recent economic migrants, are long-time inhabitants who consist of the following mix: Jews who had been forcibly converted to Islam, Arab economic migrants from previous eras, and the descendants of Muslim conquerors and colonists who arrived in about 650 CE and onward. Any attempt by her and others to conflate the Palestinian Arabs with the American Indian is specious at best and deliberately manipulative at worst.

Spencer-Zavos takes at face value a report in Electronic Intifada written by anti-Zionist Ali Abunimah wherein he describes the torture that Odeh underwent in order to extract her confession of guilt in having blown up a Jerusalem supermarket and killing two and injuring many others. The implication is that she does not believe Odeh guilty. That is her right, but then she would need to bring more than a post on an anti-Zionist non-academic website as support. Based on Spencer-Zavos’ “expert” opinion regarding Odeh’s innocence, then, she can trash the American court that determined that Odeh committed immigration fraud and stripped her of her citizenship.

After having devoted a full two paragraphs to Odeh, she concludes her paper with this:

This manifesto is a reminder that while naive optimism or historical revisionism is not an option, critical engagement can provide potential for alternative futurity.

If you understand what this statement is getting at, please use the comments section to explain it to me. Sounds like gibberish to me. (Perhaps I am not as smart as I thought I was.) For one thing, why is her paper a “manifesto”? Seems rather arrogant to call it that, in my opinion. It would be nice if “historical revisionism” really was not an option; however, it seems to me that the Arabs and other pro-Palestinians (so-called) engage in it all the time and call it a “narrative”. And pardon me if I do not understand why she has to use terms such as “alternative futurity” when “a better future” would do just as well.

All I get from this article is that one can use highfalutin jargon to sound academic and smart in order to promote your favourite political agenda. And this is the kind of material Reed College is proud to display?

Second Article – History as a Discursive Process; the case of the middle-eastern narrative

Here is the abstract of this article:

Pushing back against James Gelvin’s linear progression towards modernity that he charts in his history of the middle east, Spencer-Zavos’ use of Michelle Campos’ Ottoman Brothers (2015) and Daniel Monterescu’s Jaffa Shared and Shattered: Contrived Coexistence in Israel/Palestine (2010) shows readers alternative representations of history; one that is informed by systems of emergent processes and contingent historical actors. The writer advocates for a history that is sensitive to intracommunal complexities and the agency of historical actors.

In this even shorter piece, Spencer-Zavos adds nothing more to our understanding of the history of the Middle East than providing me with another three books I may consider putting onto my reading list. That is something, I guess. (You can read the entire article here.)

Interestingly, She quotes Gelvin, who wrote:

. . .the only way to understand Middle Eastern history is to place that history within its global context.

I would add, that placing that history within its historical context is also indispensable. All three books referred to in Spencer-Zavos’ discussion proceed as if history began with the Ottomans.  Without at least reference to the waves of populations and conquests that surged into this land over the centuries, the impression that the Arabs who now call themselves Palestinians were always there, always a nation, is consolidated for the reader who does not know how false this is. From this temporal (mis)perspective, it is easy to claim that the Jews coming from Europe, northern Africa and Asia in the early to mid-1900s were colonizers and not part of an indigenous people reuniting with their fellows in the homeland at long last. And for this reason, it is easy to claim that there are competing, equally valid “narratives”. But that was probably her purpose all along.

This article first appeared on Israel Diaries.

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