Middle East Expert Links Issues of Politics and American Foreign Policy
On any given day, chances are that Assistant Professor David Mednicoff (Center for Public Policy and Administration/Social Thought and Political Economy) will be opining on radio and TV stations or in newspapers around the world about developments in Iraq, Israel and elsewhere in the Middle East. “American involvement there,” says Mednicoff, a specialist in international and Middle Eastern politics and law, “is so intense at the moment that my research and teaching on contemporary law and politics in this region are often of clear relevance to U.S. foreign policy.”
In fact, last fall Mednicoff was invited to present his current research on Arab law and politics to leading policymakers in Washington at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. That organization is one of the sponsors of his latest research project that looks at how diverse Arab ideas about the meaning and nature of law connect both to Middle Eastern democratization efforts and American policy in the region. And this spring he was awarded a Fulbright research and teaching grant to Qatar for the entire 2006-07 academic year. "I'll be continuing my research for a book on the rule of law and Arab politics," says Mednicoff, who will be lecturing on international politics, international law and US foreign policy at the University of Qatar. He is the first American Fulbright scholar to teach in Qatar in the field of international politics, and the first non-Muslim to receive a grant related to international law and Arab politics. Mednicoff will supplement his research in Qatar with fieldwork in Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia, with additional funding from a research grant from the American Institute for Maghrib (North African) Studies.
Mednicoff’s explosion onto the media scene as an expert might be traced not only to the way his research sheds light on current events, but also to his innovative methods of teaching about the September 11 terrorist attacks. “The College of Social and Behavioral Sciences,” he says, “encouraged me to develop my course ‘Explaining Terror: the Middle East and the US.’ Connecting Middle Eastern politics and American foreign policy. It encourages students to develop original ideas about how to address policy dilemmas in particular Middle Eastern countries in the aftermath of 9/11. The interdisciplinary nature of the material and my students’ thoughtful responses have helped me link issues of Middle Eastern politics, Islam and US policy in novel ways.” In 2004 Mednicoff received a national award—one of four presented by Dickinson College and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and the only one given to a university professor—for the course. The award, he notes, “was not so much about me, but about responding to the difficult post-9/11 climate with fairness and educational clarity. It also reminded me of the diverse, motivated and articulate UMass Amherst students who bring genuine curiosity and intellectual enthusiasm to all of my courses.”
So how did this American who grew up in Natick, Massachusetts, become a Middle Eastern guru? “I attended a Jewish high school and was very active in Jewish youth activities—a background that was useful in many ways,” Mednicoff explains. “In this environment, developing a strong interest in Middle Eastern politics was natural. My interest was amplified by time I spent living in Israel after high school during a particularly interesting time -- when the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat became the first Arab leader to visit Israel openly.”
At Princeton University a few years later, several faculty mentors encouraged Mednicoff to pursue Middle Eastern studies seriously. They pushed him to build on his knowledge of Hebrew by studying Arabic, Middle Eastern politics and law, which he continued at Harvard. Since then Mednicoff has traveled to 45 countries and lived in three Middle Eastern nations. “I don’t know that I have learned to approach the Middle East with analytic dispassion,” he comments. “But I hope that my enthusiasm for and experiences in the region encourage students to seek out similar opportunities in which to immerse themselves in other cultures. And the fact that my professors made a critical difference in my life is something I try to convey to them.”
Mednicoff believes very strongly that scholars and well-informed students have a critical role to play in trying to shape the debate in the U.S. about the Middle East in an open-minded, analytically rich manner. “This can only contribute to the well-being of both Americans and Middle Easterners,” he says. “I constantly assess and refine my teaching and research in light of this goal.”
Mednicoff came to UMass Amherst because “I wanted to teach at an outstanding public university with a diverse range of students. I really like the idea of serving the educational needs of my home state, and I really appreciated the foresight of SBS in hiring couples who are both in academics. (Mednicoff’s wife is Joya Misra, an associate professor of sociology and public policy.) UMass Amherst is a great place for students who want to be part of an intellectual community where professors want to work and think with them. Here they will develop crucial analytical skills needed to be global citizens. In fact, many of my students who have gone to the Middle East for study abroad, military service or other reasons have expressed their gratitude for how my classes have addressed complex issues that hold relevance to their lives."
May 25, 2006 (updated January 28, 2011)