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Malcolm Kerr's Middle East

Malcolm Kerr's Middle East

The family of a famous Bruin peacemaker, assassinated 25 years ago while serving as president of the American University of Beirut, has remembered him by seeking truth about his killers and reconciliation between nations.

By Kevin Matthews
Senior Writer

A shorter version of this article was published in UCLA Magazine.

After Israel began a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip in January, Mideast analysts writing in Forbes and the Indianapolis Star separately invoked the late political scientist Malcolm Kerr to set the fresh calamities in context.

The famous Bruin peacemaker would not relish his continuing relevance. Because instead of "The Arab Cold War" described in Kerr's classic 1965 study of inter-Arab conflict, in which pro-Western monarchies worked to sideline Nasser's Egypt—both writers contended—we now have a broader Middle Eastern cold war in which pro-Western Sunni Arab states are on one side, Iran is on the other, and the people caught in the middle, as ever, suffer and die.

Kerr himself was murdered in front of his office at the American University of Beirut (AUB) 25 years ago, apparently by a Hezbollah gunmen acting on Iranian orders. He had spent two decades at UCLA, successively heading the political science department, the Division of Social Sciences, and the von Grunebaum Center for Near Eastern Studies. The son of Americans who'd gone to work in 1919 for Near East Relief in Turkey and ended up teaching at AUB, Kerr spent his boyhood on the campus, met his wife Ann Zwicker Kerr there on her junior year abroad from Occidental College, took his first teaching job there, and saw three of the couple's four children born in Beirut.

Malcolm and Ann Kerr in the bleachers at the AUB field.

Malcolm and Ann Kerr in the bleachers at the AUB field.

Kerr understood the dangers in Beirut in 1982 as well as anyone. He left the family home in Pacific Palisades during the Israeli invasion, shortly after the kidnapping of AUB acting president David Dodge.  Ann Kerr, now Fulbright Coordinator at UCLA's International Institute, says the lure for both "was AUB.  It represented the very best of this country in a sea of misguided policy…a meeting of the best of East and West. I wanted to go back every bit as much as he did."

AUB "attracted a variety of ethnicities, and they really got along together. That was why he went back. And that was precisely what the Iranians wanted to get rid of," says UCLA emeritus professor David Rapoport, an expert on political violence and a Kerr family friend. "The attack on him, while it was not really a personal attack—the symbolism was really quite obvious."

Times Like These

In the days and years after Jan. 18, 1984, the public mourning for Kerr reflected the roles he'd played and the places he'd loved. Four hundred people turned out for a UCLA memorial service more than two weeks after the assassination. AUB, the American University in Cairo, and Princeton University all held services. Half of Kerr's ashes were interred at AUB and half in Southern California.

University of Arizona freshman Steve Kerr, who would go on to win five NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs, scored his highest point total of that season at a game dedicated to his father two days after the killing. Historian Nikki Keddie took a salary cut and managed to have it diverted to pay three Malcolm Kerr Memorial postdoctoral fellows for a year apiece at UCLA; and the Middle East Studies Association renamed its dissertation awards for Kerr, a founding member and one-time president.

For emerita historian Afaf Marsot, an Egypt specialist, one thing that stands out in memory is Kerr's "sense of right and wrong that one did not infringe: 'right is right and wrong is wrong.' This was the kind of thing that one admired about Malcolm." Three of his prominent former UCLA colleagues in political science penned an appreciation in 1986 that focused on the same qualities. They wrote, "Being a highly visible authority on the Middle East in the 1960s and 1970s was not an enviable task: in fact, it was more than onerous and someone of lesser stature than Malcolm would find it most tempting to equivocate, compromise and avoid taking sides." Marsot puts it differently: "He seldom took sides, but he would call the shots as he saw them."

Either way, at public debates on campus Kerr would represent an Arab view of the Arab–Israeli conflict. Political scientist Steven Spiegel, who directs the UCLA Center for Middle East Development, recalls regularly sitting across the table to represent the Israeli side.

"It was much easier to do that then," says Spiegel, adding that, today, "you could have a whole debate between pro-Israelis" or among Arab elites of various stripes. Preferring dialogue to intellectual cold wars, Kerr worked with people with a range of views; one of his first doctoral students at UCLA was Itamar Rabinovich, later an Israeli negotiator and ambassador to the United States.

In part because regional tensions are high today, Kerr's writing has a contemporary texture. "Even his more historical work about the nineteenth century or about the early reformists in Egypt and the Muslim world, Muhammad Abduh and Rashid Rida," says Keddie, an expert on Iran, "raised many of the questions about the nature of Islamic reform and even relations of Islam and the West which still are relevant to the kind of discussions that intellectuals have today."

Seeking Truth and Reconciliation

"You do want to make the most of life, and you have to take risks," says Susan Kerr Van de Ven, eldest of the four children, of her father's decision to return to AUB amid civil war. The decision was hard for some at UCLA to assimilate. Ann Kerr wrote a memoir, Come With Me From Lebanon: An American Family Odyssey (1994), which weaves together Lebanese and Southern Californian strands of a shared life story, partly in order to explain it to her grandchildren.

But another set of questions and decisions would occupy the Kerr family for much of the second decade after 1984, as information finally emerged about the identity of the assassins. Van de Ven details this search for answers in her recent book, One Family's Response to Terrorism: A Daughter's Memoir. Investigations by academics and by the journalist and former hostage Terry Anderson yielded results, while information came slowly from the U.S. bureaucracy.

"We discovered after 20 years … that our government had known within three weeks who had killed my father," Van de Ven said at a book talk on campus last fall.

With its ties to the Middle East, the family aimed not for retribution, but to pressure the United States and Iran to talk. In a vote for diplomacy and legal process, the Kerrs after much deliberation used a Clinton-era antiterrorism law to sue Iran in U.S. federal court over the assassination. At the same time, in the interest of reconciliation, they declined to pursue large punitive damages.

"Their prime object was to find out what happened," says Rapoport. "And the second object really was to hope that that could be used to reconcile, rather than destroy a relationship. It's a remarkable attitude when you think about it. I suspect very, very few families would go that way."

The Kerrs won their judgment in 2003, but the case could not be formally settled in Iran's absence.

"The only thing that's left now is for our new president to go and talk to the government of Iran, and I hope he does," said Van de Ven last fall.

UCLA International Institute