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UCLA

Malcolm Kerr's Middle East

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By Kevin Matthews

Published Apr 1, 2009 8:00 AM


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 UCLA political scientist and president of the American University of Beirut Malcolm Kerr to set the fresh calamities in context.

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Kerr and his wife in the bleachers at the AUB field.

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, we now have a broader Middle East 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 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. He collected political Arabic jokes when traveling to the region and country where he had been born and met his wife, Ann Zwicker Kerr, now a Fulbright coordinator at UCLA's International Institute.

Kerr knew the dangers in Beirut were impossible to ignore. He left Pacific Palisades for AUB during the 1982 Israeli invasion, shortly after the kidnapping of AUB acting president David Dodge. Even more than Beirut, says Ann Kerr, 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."

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Historian Nikki Keddie, UCLA professor emeritus and a specialist on Iran, believes that, today, Kerr would have wanted the Obama administration to follow through on promised talks with that government. In its own vote for diplomacy, the Kerr family after much deliberation used a Clinton-era anti-terrorism law to sue Iran in U.S. federal court over the assassination. They won a judgment in 2003, the culmination of a search for truth detailed in Susan Kerr Van de Ven's recent book, One Family's Response to Terrorism: A Daughter's Memoir. The case could be decided in Iran's absence, but not formally settled.

"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 at a book talk on campus last fall.

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