On the face it, the CUNY Award for Archivist of the Year doesn’t exactly grab one’s attention. But this year the award, given by the Scone Foundation, and held at the CUNY Graduate Center on 34th Street and Fifth Avenue on Monday night, came with some star power.
Rashid Khalidi, the Middle East studies professor at Columbia, often attacked by pro-Israel watchdogs, was invited to give a keynote address. His topic: the state of Palestinian scholarship. His counter: David Myers, a professor of Jewish studies at UCLA, who spoke about Israeli scholarship.
Khalidi made his case sharply. There is no reliable history of the Palestinian people, he said, “because there has never been a Palestinian state.” Archives, throughout history, owe their existence to a state government, which sees it as its job to affirm and legitimate its own existence. “The aim is to highlight their history and glorify the nation,” he said.
He was being deliberately provocative, toeing a right-wing-friendly argument that Palestinians do not deserve a state because they were never a distinct or unified people. But that was just to get people listening: “The PLO,” he went on, “has tried to create archives, recently in Beirut, but they were destroyed in 1982 — three times,” he said, in reference to the first Israel-Lebanon war.
He criticized Arab and Palestinian leaders for failing to make the protection of archives a priority, but was forceful in his attack on Israel, which he said often prevented Arab scholars from accessing their archives. Ending on a doleful note, he said scholars should look to private funds and religious organizations to help maintain precious archival material, since a Palestinian state “I fear is not likely to see the light of day anytime soon, if ever.”
Myers struck a less indignant tone, but was no less political. He repeated the main arguments of the New Historians — Benny Morris, Avi Shlaim, Tom Segev, among others — who began arguing in the 1980s that earlier Israeli historians neglected the Arab presence in Israel. But the work of courageous historians and archivists, “the unsung heroes of the historian’s work,” Myers said, allowed for previously suppressed documents to emerge.
Notably, he added, if it were not for these historians and archivists, Al Naqba, or “The Catastrophe,” would still be little known to a broader public. “It was the result,” Myers said of Al Naqba, “at least in part, of the forced expulsion of Arabs from the land.”
Before the award ceremony, Stanley Cohen, founder of the Scone Foundation that gives out the award, said in an interview: “Look, it’s necessary to debunk myths on both sides.”
A former banker and attorney, Cohen set up his foundation with no particular aim or purpose except to fund projects he thought important. An old friend and lawyer of Alexander Calder, Cohen recently created the Calder Prize for young artists. The winner gets a $50,000 check and six-month stay in Calder’s former studio, in France.
And because Cohen is also a history buff, with a penchant for Jewish issues, he wanted to do something for the field. “We think that the archivist is, you’re quite right, an ignored profession,” he said. “They need to be recognized.” Each winner gets a cash prize, but he would not say the amount. Travel and hotels for a week in New York were on the house. “But really,” he said, “it’s about the recognition.”
Cohen said he chose the two winners — Khader Salameh, the archivist at the Al-Aqsa Mosque Library, and Yehosuah Freundlich, director of the Israeli State Archives — after consulting with several prominent scholars, from the right-wing friendly Bernard Lewis, to the liberal Israeli New Historians Shlaim and Morris. Khalidi, among others, helped with the Palestinian side.
Both archivists gave brief speeches that more or less echoed the problems of access and archival disarray noted by Khalidi and Myers.
Salameh lamented the chaotic nature of Palestinian institutions, which contributed to the vast dispersal of important Arab texts.
And Freundlish noted the lack of Palestinian documents held by Israeli institutions. “I say this with enormous regret.”