The decline of Palestine studies

Middle East Studies AssociationThis weekend, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is meeting in its annual conference in Boston, on the organization’s fiftieth anniversary. It was also exactly thirty years ago, at a Boston MESA conference, that Edward Said debated Bernard Lewis. This was the last substantive debate about the state of the field at a MESA conference—that is, a debate with two clearly opposing sides. The bearers of the tradition of scholarship represented by Lewis (and Fouad Ajami) subsequently seceded from MESA. Some of them eventually found a home in an alternative association of Middle Eastern studies, known as ASMEA—the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa. On October 28, I delivered the keynote address at its annual conference in Washington, on the state of Middle Eastern studies. (Watch it here, or read a transcript here.)

One of the points I made in my keynote was that the study of the Palestinians in American academe seemed to me to be in decline, at least quantitatively. I’ve since gone back to collect some data. Specifically, I’ve looked at the last program of a MESA conference convened in Boston (it was in 2009), and compared it to this year’s (2016) program. Why Boston? It’s a popular venue for MESA conferences, and it usually draws a larger number of participants than, say, Denver or New Orleans. The sample is correspondingly large. My interest is in the geographic skew of American scholarly interest across the Middle East. So I’ve looked for the names of countries in the titles of papers, a data field that provides a rough measure of what’s up and what’s down in Middle Eastern studies. (The MESA website also categorizes papers by geographic area, but I’m not certain about the criteria used, so I don’t rely on it. Still, I ran those numbers too, and the results were very similar.)

Below are the totals. After the name of each country, you’ll find the number of papers delivered at the 2009 conference, followed (after the slash) by the number of papers to be delivered at the 2016 conference. In the first set of parentheses is the absolute increase or decrease in numbers of papers between 2009 and 2016. In the second set of parentheses is the increase or decrease in percentages from 2009 to 2016. I’ve ordered the countries according to the percentage of increase/decrease. In 2009, there were 850 papers presented at MESA, and this year, 1,012, so you’d expect an average increase for each country of 19%. Anything below that points to underperformance of a country in inspiring new research. (I’m excluding the countries where the number of papers this year falls below twenty.)

Tunisia: 9/45 (+36) (400%)
Syria: 23/55 (+32) (140%)
Egypt: 48/83 (+35) (73%)
Lebanon: 31/38 (+7) (23%)
Iran: 43/50 (+9) (16%)
Turkey: 79/89 (+10) (13%)
Kurds: 27/26 (-1) (-4%)
Palestine/Gaza/West Bank: 56/48 (-8) (-14%)
Iraq: 31/22 (-9) (-29%)
Israel: 32/22 (-31%)

This is a very rough measure, and paper titles don’t capture everything. But the trend is obvious. The dramatic growth since 2009, which was before the “Arab Spring,” resides in researching the “Arab Spring” and its effects. (It would be even more obvious if I’d included the smaller clusters. Papers on Bahrain went from zero to eight; on Libya, from one to thirteen.)

So the upheavals since 2011 are stirring this generation of younger scholars. Palestine? Passé. (So is Iraq.) Papers on Israel have also dropped sharply, but the consequences, overall, are greater for Palestine than Israel studies. Why? MESA is still the largest clearinghouse for Palestine studies. It isn’t for Israel studies, which have their own association (the Association for Israel Studies) and a separate annual conference. And since, for the last couple of years, MESA has been formally debating the possibility of passing a BDS resolution, not a few Israel scholars have packed up and left the organization. Israel studies are expanding—just not at MESA.

Another factor contributing to the relative decline of Palestine studies is BDS. Because the old guard, such as Columbia’s Rashid Khalidi and Lila Abu-Lughod, have so totally immersed themselves in identity politics and BDS activism, Palestine studies are regarded as tainted by advocacy. Why would a promising young scholar enter such a field, when the first thing he or she must do is sign an ideological pledge of allegiance? And why enter it if you can make a bigger mark in a more visible, faster-growing, and less politicized area of study? BDS is driving ambitious young scholars away from Palestine studies, which have become a closed echo chamber.

This is the context for understanding the BDS drive in MESA. It’s a last-ditch effort to assert the primacy of Palestine, by insisting that Israel uniquely deserves condemnation (in a Middle East mired in gross human rights violations), and that the Palestinians uniquely deserve sympathy (in a Middle East awash in refugees and suffering). In the past, there was no need to run such a campaign. Back in 2005, I did a similar paper-count on MESA’s conferences, and found that papers on Palestine and the Palestinians outnumbered those on any other country. Edward Said had turned the Palestinians into MESA’s chosen people. But over the years, that special privilege has been eroded. BDS activism at MESA now functions as a substitute for the conference papers and panels, as a rear-guard tactic to keep the Palestinians from falling further down the scale.

I have no idea what will come out of MESA this year or next—probably nothing good, and possibly some sort of precursor to a BDS resolution. But the easy privileging of Palestine in Middle Eastern studies is over. That’s a good thing. The over-concentration of a whole branch of area studies in one highly politicized corner did inestimable damage to the field’s reputation. The Middle East keeps changing, so does America, and new realities generate new priorities. I can’t predict how Middle Eastern studies will be reconfigured as the ground shifts. But a quiet transformation is underway, even if no one has the courage to acknowledge it. Happy fiftieth, MESA.

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