Indulge me if you would and spare me a few minutes to recount the following little tale about an academic department in a leafy, red brick outer-suburban university in the Antipodes. This story has a ring to it so palpably real that were it not for the certain knowledge that it is a fictional account, an imaginative invention of my mind, I could almost feel I was there, observing it first-hand! Indeed, I shall put myself into the story (as a mute, peripheral onlooker) as it unfolds. The setting for this narrative is a second generation middle-ranking tertiary institution in the early 1980s. For purposes of imprecise identification lets call it Governor Bligh University … that’s got a nice colonial ring to it!
At the beginning of the 1980s I commenced what I refer to in a jocular fashion as my undergraduate career at Gov Bligh University. I did have earlier brief tertiary false starts at Kenso Tech Uni and Warrumbungles CAE but the less said about these the better … and I won’t even mention the University of Central Australia (he says mentioning it!). I came to GBU as a cod-ordinary arts student very keen to study politics. In particular what was starting to catch my attention was the evolving political situation in the Middle East.
This newfound fascination with Middle East politics was, admittedly, partly motivated by an extrinsic factor: I had a Coptic Egyptian girlfriend at the time, but that aside I definitely had an intrinsic interest in the political dynamics of this crucial and volatile region of the world (and yes, my interest in Middle East politics did outlast my interest in my Middle Eastern girlfriend!). So, wanting to get a handle on the complex, endlessly convoluted politics of the region, I signed up for MEP269. In doing so, I unwittingly became an observer of an engrossing little political (and personal) duel between a brace of antagonistic academics.
The study of Middle East politics in the Department of Political Science at GBU at that time worked like this: two lecturers took turns to run the introductory UG course on a year-to-year basis. In the year that I took the course it was the turn of Dr Noam Mordecai-Ryka. Had I taken it the year before or the year after, the Middle East course would have been run by Professor Dwayne Boemsteenboer. Boemsteenboer and Mordecai-Ryka were poles apart in so many aspects of their views and personalities. Each of them were driven by a passionate, some would say partisan, commitment to one particular side of the Middle East debate. From this clash of personalities came a mutually personal and increasingly bitter enmity. Boemsteenboer was a very self-confident, somewhat intimidating mid-west American Arabist with Iraqi Ba’ath Party sympathies, whereas Mordecai-Ryka was a liberal Australian Jewish scholar of East European ancestry with an entrenched commitment to the cause of Zionism (albeit from the standpoint of a small ‘z’ Zionist).
The consequence of this pedagogic bifurcation was that if you were taking MEP269 one year you would get Boemsteenboer’s pro-Palestinian slant on the Middle East situation, one heavily critical of his own countrymen’s (America’s) complicity in the imbroglio and sheeting home the blame for a lack of progress toward peace to the intransigent Israeli bullies, buttressed by US superpower, and unwilling to negotiate a just solution. Boemsteenboer’s homeland, the US, would be lambasted for using a non-Arab, alien, Western implant (the state of Israel) for Cold War gains, as a proxy military force to gain a hegemonic advantage over the Soviet Union in the region.
But if you took MEP269 on the alternate year you would get the avowedly Israeli perspective of Mordecai-Ryka and his young female Jewish tutorial assistants, and an emphasis on Israel’s isolated position in a hostile sea of surrounding, undemocratic, authoritarian Arab States intent on the destruction of the Jewish homeland. Israel’s continued hard line on West Bank Palestinians would be justified on the grounds that the small ‘underdog’ Jewish state was fighting for its very survival. Indeed, I well remember during this period Mordecai-Ryka being interviewed on ABC TV just after Israel bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor. Noam’s response to a question from interviewer Murf Paulfry was to justify Israel’s use of this dangerous pre-emptive strike option on the grounds that Israel would never be the second state in the ME region to launch an attack against its enemies.
Less I give a distorted view of these two academics’ teaching styles, let me hasten to add that for either of the combatants we are not talking here about the crass arguments and wholly transparent bias of, say, a David Irvine trying to rewrite the history of the Nazis’ Jewish holocaust. Both Mordecai-Ryka and Boemsteenboer were well respected scholars with a string of insightful and critically well-received papers on the Middle East to their names, but the reality is that both had a political axe to grind, and so any expectation one might have of an objective, neutral, down the centre account of the Middle East conflict was out the window.
The task of the inexperienced undergraduate politics neophyte taking the course would be to try to read widely on the topic at hand and reach a well-reasoned conclusion which balances the robustly-argued critique on the conflict presented to them by the convenor (be it a pro-Palestinian or a pro-Israeli one) and the countervailing arguments from the other side of the debate. Great if it happens and a terrific learning skill to acquire, but the question that poses itself is how many first year students fresh from Year 12 would have the experience and sophistication to pull it off? Inevitably, the endorsement of a partisan position on the Middle East also had a polarising effect on students taking the course.
When I came to Gov Bligh University and enrolled in the Politics Department in the first semester, it was not long before I discovered a state of fraught and increasingly icy relations between Professor Boemsteenboer and Dr Mordecai-Ryka. The personal tensions seemed to have built up over the previous two years, ever since Mordecai-Ryka arrived as a fresh-faced lecturer at GBU with his recently minted National University PhD and some ‘intelligence’ work background.
What started off conceivably as a simple difference of opinion or value-systems, a rigorous intellectual debate between two superbright scholars within the same department, eventually developed into an antagonism that became very personal. Everyone in the Department (and many outside) knew that the atmosphere between the two was quite toxic, both were inclined to avoid each other where possible. The ill-will between the two was clearly discernible to colleagues (Mordecai-Ryka himself when I encouraged him to reflect on his differences with Boemsteenboer described him in highly disparaging terms).
There was nothing dramatic, no observable verbal exchanges or confrontations between them, but an on-going, lingering war of words which extended beyond Mordecai-Ryka’s departure from GBU. The feud between them eventually spilled out beyond the department and the University and into the wider academic community. Even the Sydney Morning Herald ran articles about the heated, personal conflict, depicting it somewhat over-statedly in boxing terms as a sort of head-to-head public slanging match.
Someone in the Department of Political Science obviously had a wickedly mischievous sense of humour about the Mordecai-Ryka/Boemsteenboer animus. When Mordecai-Ryka returned from OSP the last time before leaving Gov Bligh for good, he was re-officed into a room right next door to Boemsteenboer! I could almost visualise the sparks of vitriol being projected from both sides against the adjoining wall!
I can’t speak with any certainty about Boemsteenboer’s motives or the emotional and intellectual drivers that propelled him to hitch his colours to the Palestinian mast. He remained an elusive figure around the campus, not very visible except for classes. My personal contact with the American don was restricted to observing his slick and authoritative lecturing style in the International Relations course, and to a singular encounter at enrolment where he dismissively and unreasonably (to my mind) refused to sign my program to take extra semester units. Whereas with Mordecai-Ryka, who was convenor for both poli-sci courses I took that year, Middle East Politics and Australian Foreign Policy, I was able to get some insights into what was firing his engine.
What came across clearly enough to the interested observer was the outward appearance of the personality differences between the two exceptional Middle East scholars. Boemsteenboer was fairly stiff and colourless, blunt-talking, seemingly without humour, and unnervingly robot-like in his rapid delivery of facts and cogent arguments in lectures. He was not given to any visible warmth or friendly disposition, and you would certainly never call him exuberant (the term “charisma by-pass” comes to mind). You had to readily concede that he really knew his stuff, but you were not likely to be charmed, or inspired even, by him in conversation.
Ryka on the other hand always came across as far more approachable, personable and engaging (very PR conscious), got on with the other Governor Bligh academics apart from those with a political axe to grind. Noam made himself very available to his students – he freely gave out his home number to students! I recall talking to him at home on the phone on a number of occasions. Mordecai-Ryka certainly connected with students in a way that the remote and aloof Boemsteenboer could or would never do. It was apparent that Mordecai-Ryka was keen to progress up the academic ladder, conscientious in his work and committed in putting his hand up for the little administrative tasks (committee participation, academic advising, etc) that many, less motivated academics, would try to avoid like the plague! This made Mordecai-Ryka popular, getting on well with the head of department and it was no surprise that he was rewarded by being promoted to senior lecturer in minimum time.
Mordecai-Ryka left Gov Bligh a couple of years later with his ambitions enlarged to go on to great (vain)glory in the US. No doubt, had Mordecai-Ryka been satisfied to stay on the academic treadmill in Australia, he would easily have made professor. In any circumstance he was never one to understate his academic accomplishments, as a memorable interview he gave several years ago to Australian television reinforced. An enthralled female interviewer gushing over the Australian background of the now American power player, referred to him as having once been a lecturer in a modest regional city university, pointedly Mordecai-Ryka was super quick to correct her minor, inconsequential inaccuracy with the self-satisfied words,”Senior lecturer, Jana”.
Talking at length with Mordecai-Ryka after classes made me acutely aware of the depths of his ambitions. I asked him once why the Middle East was his bag, the focal point of his intellectual energies, his answer, sidestepping the obvious personal element of his Jewishness, was to declare that he was only interested “in the big picture”, the global dimension! His background gave a clue to his ambitions, with fierce sibling rivalry playing its part. Mordecai-Ryka’s older brother, Moshe, had already made a name for himself in academic circles and literary publications, so the younger Noam always felt he had a lot to emulate, a lot of ground to catch up (significantly the older Mordecai-Ryka brother did eventually become a full professor in Australia – unlike Noam).
Intra-university disapproval of the young Jewish politics lecturer was not confined to Professor Boemsteenboer. After a history class given by an abstrusely intellectual and flaky Marxist lecturer one day, I was walking along the Humanities Building corridor with the same academic, when Mordecai-Ryka walked past us from the opposite direction. I acknowledged Noam who I was on good terms with. The left-wing dogmatist, let’s call him Dr Mervyn Picklewhiting, stone-facedly ignored Mordecai-Ryka (works for him!), then straight after he had passed us leaned over conspiratorially to me and murmured sotto voce, “he’s a spy!” The academics in the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Gov Bligh, at that time described as ranging the full ideological gamut from “a Marxist orientation to those whose political critique of post-industrial society was informed by Marxism”. Picklewhiting and his lot, with paranoiac zeal, outed Mordecai-Ryka, as a ‘spook’ – supposedly to do with his having previously been employed within the Australian intelligence network in an agency allied to ASIO.
After a couple of years Mordecai-Ryka decided both the Gov Bligh and the Australian pond was too small for his aspirations and left the University to reside permanently in Washington and work for American think tanks and Israeli lobby groups. Within a short period he had done a ‘Rupert Murdoch’, trading his Australian citizenship for a glossy American one. This was a necessary step in the Mordecai-Ryka grand plan, opening the door for him to the US State Department and swift promotion to high diplomatic and consular US posts in Israel.
When I eventually heard about the ‘Americanisation’ of Mordecai-Ryka it made me chuckle! I recalled that Noam had once mentioned in class his overseas’ experiences of meeting strangers who responded positively to him when they discovered that he was Australian. Mordecai-Ryka waxed lyrical with pride about the high regard this identity was held in internationally. Vaulting ambition and expediency can bring about a complete turnaround in values and in allegiances!
In the end both Boemsteenboer and Mordecai-Ryka seemed to overreach through injudiciousness or perhaps a touch of hubris, and got a bit burnt, Icarus-like, by their outspokenness and capacity to polarise. Boemsteenboer found himself in the hot seat during the 1st Gulf War copping flack from the Australian Government for voicing public opposition to its decision to invade Iraq. This incident prompted conservative political commentators and the Australian Jewish lobby to vilify him for what they saw as bias against Israel and inevitably, and expression of the American’s anti-Semitism. Eventually Boemsteenboer left Governor Bligh and Australia to return to his homeland.
For his part, Mordecai-Ryka’s smooth pathway through the corridors of power in Washington received a jolt when he was recalled from his post in Tel Aviv and denied a security clearance relating to irregularities in the handling of administrative matters under his charge. His star did eventually rise again, such was the determined nature of the Jewish political dealmaker, but he was much more chastened and wide-eyed about the world of politics second time round.
With Boemsteenboer and Mordecai-Ryka back in the US, although based in widely disparate parts of the country (both of them still “rusted-on” to their opposing ideological standpoints), the corridors of Governor Bligh University must seem a much more mundane and comparatively ho-humdrum milieu these days – especially in the Department of Political Science.