MESA: The Academic Intifada

Every three years, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) brings its annual conference to Washington, presumably to impress upon lawmakers the relevance of Middle Eastern studies. The conference is meeting in a Washington hotel right now. So it’s an appropriate moment to consider how the field’s priorities have shifted since 9/11 and the Iraq war.

One measurable indicator is the papers presented at the annual conference. In the four MESA conferences since 9/11 (2002 through this year), some 1,900 papers have appeared in the program. That’s a substantial sample of what interests people. But it’s more than a measure of pure intellectual interest. Like all such meetings, MESA is a place where grad students and untenured faculty display their wares, in the hope of attracting job offers. It’s also where the mandarins send signals to their lessers about what’s in and what’s out.

So just what do these people study? There are all sorts of ways to answers this question. One could look at different themes (e.g., gender, Islamism), categorize MESA papers accordingly, and come up with some trends. But that leaves a lot of room for subjective judgment, and some paper titles are so obscure as to defy easy categorization.

Sandbox takes a different approach. The Middle East is a large and diverse place. It includes many Arab countries, Turkey, Iran, and Israel. With the help of my research assistant, Sandbox has gone back over the last four MESA conference programs. We’ve looked through all paper titles for explicit mention of one of seven countries: Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. These countries are where where you would expect to find a greater focus, because of their large populations or geostrategic significance. We’ve added up the papers, and plotted the results here. (The vertical axis is the percentage of total papers; the figure next to the name of the country is the total number of papers in the 2005 conference.)

(Click here for the full tabulation.)

The conclusion of these findings is incontrovertible. For MESAns, the Palestinians are the chosen people, and more so now than ever. More papers are devoted to Palestine than to any other country. There are ten times as many Egyptians as there are Palestinians, but they get less attention; there are ten times as many Iranians, but Iran gets less than half the attention. Even Iraq, America’s project in the Middle East, still inspires only half the papers that Palestine does. Papers dealing with Israel are only half as numerous as those on Palestine, and only three of these are about Israel per se, apart from the Arab-Israeli conflict. More than half of the Israel-related papers actually overlap the Palestine category. MESA’s Palestine obsession has reached new heights, suggesting this: academe is gearing up for its next intifada.

To appreciate that, you have to go beyond the numbers, to the content of this “scholarship.” There you discover that many of the presentations, if not most of them, are blatant attempts to academize anti-Israel agitprop. Here are three quick examples, selected pretty much at random from the program.

There’s a paper by one Nasser Abufarha, University of Wisconsin-Madison, entitled “The Making of a Human Bomb: State Expansion and Modes of Resistance in Palestine.” It turns out that Abufarha, a grad student, is already well on his way to recognition as a one-man Palestinian propaganda machine. He made this speech at an April 2002 rally in Madison:

In 1948 the State of Israel stole Palestine of its people, its land… In 1967, the Israelis occupied the remainder of Palestine after stealing the nation as a whole….They came to Palestine and forced us, the Palestinians, to pay the price for their troubled history—and we are still paying with our blood and tears…. I salute my people in Jenin for defending our city in the face of the most brutal, murderous army, supported by the most lethal Amercan weapons…. Our message to Powell and Bush: join the world community that has called to impose sanctions on the apartheid state of Israel! (applause)

Abufarha also oozed this bit of sentimental syrup:

For over fifty years, cactus trees in stolen Palestine produce their fruit every season and don’t find the people to pick them (they are surrounded by strangers who don’t know how or when to pick them, or what they taste like, or if they are even edible). They are patiently blooming their beautiful yellow flowers every spring and fruiting every summer hoping that the people who know them would come the next season. We shall return.

With a Wisconsin Ph.D. in cultural anthropology, an “academic” paper on Palestinian “human bombs,” and the support of the MESA network, Abufarha is sure to land a spot teaching “Israel/Palestine” at a university near you.

Here’s another example, taken at random: Noura Erakat, law school at the University of California, Berkeley, offers a paper on “Non-State Parties in International Criminal Tribunals: A Case Study of Palestinian Refugees from Jenin Refugee Camp.” Noura Erakat is a campus agitator and co-founder of Law Students for Justice in Palestine, a pro-divestment group. This is how she describes herself (warning: this is not a parody):

I never hesitate to assert my Palestinian identity. I am frustrated by the U.S. government’s colonization of Iraq, its support of Israeli colonization of Palestinian land, and its economic and military domination of the Arab world in general…. I believe that imperialist ambition of conquest and the accumulation of wealth drive U.S. foreign policy. I believe that people of color within the U.S. and the Global South, generally, incur similar repression and marginalization due to U.S. imperial exercises; I, therefore, identify as a person of color from the Global South. Consequently, I share similar struggles with Latina women, but I am Arabiya [an Arab woman].

Erakat has a two-year fellowship at Berkeley to develop a litigation project to sue Israelis for alleged human rights violations, sue U.S. corporations doing military business with Israel, and protect pro-Palestinian activists and scholars in the United States. Now she’ll have a MESA conference paper on her resume—another “academic” fig leaf to cover her naked propaganda when she goes for her next fellowship.

Here’s another case: Lori Allen, a post-doc in anthropology at Brown University, offers a paper trendily entitled “Martyr Bodies: Aesthetics and the Politics of Suffering in the Palestinian Intifada.” Allen’s projects are textbook cases of how to disguise agitprop as scholarship. She did a doctorate at the University of Chicago which purports to be an “ethnography” of the second intifada. The Social Science Research Council funded her research in the West Bank, which was to “examine the role which discourses of pain and suffering play in the creation of Palestinian nationalism.”

While in the field, she wrote passionate reportage full of… Palestinian pain and suffering, which she made her own. “It is true that some have accused me of writing one-sided propaganda,” she admitted, “and others have warned me against publishing views in a necessarily simplified form that might be interpreted in credibility-wrecking ways. But writing about Palestine from a sympathetic point of view is always going to elicit such commentary, and the professional risks are outweighed by what I feel to be professional obligations and moral imperatives.” (I assure Dr. Allen she has nothing to worry about. If she keeps writing one-sided propaganda in simplified form, her academic credibility will increase. It’s a risk-free strategy. But I suspect she knows this already.)

One could go on and on in this depressing exercise. Paper after paper reveals itself to be elaboration of Palestinian nationalist ideology, “academized” into “discourse” by grad students and post-docs who’ve already given stump harangues, organized sit-ins, and written passionate propaganda pieces. This same kind of nationalism, practiced in any other field, would be dismissed as primitive pap. But exceptions are regularly made, and standards are regularly suspended, for crudely apologetic and celebratory analysis applied to (and by) Palestinians. Of course, no one dares to call any of this work mediocre, which is why so many mediocre pseudo-academics produce it. The appalling truth is that in the Edward Said-inflected, Rashid Khalidi-infested field of Middle Eastern studies, you dramatically improve your chances if you sell yourself as a Joseph Massad-in-the-making—someone likely to come up with the next great breakthrough to follow Massad’s ingenious discovery that Zionism is really a form of antisemitism.

The foundations of the next academic intifada are being laid right now. When the next major crisis comes in Israeli-Palestinian relations, dozens of Massad-like agitators will have taken up secure positions on campuses, having first established their polemical bona fides in the Palestine-fest of MESA. A few years hence, they will have completed the academic mainstreaming of the “one-state solution” and “apartheid Israel,” and they will have generated a vast literature, with theoretical prefaces and bloated footnotes, blaming Palestinian suicide bombings on their Israeli victims. When the sign is given from Palestine, Israel will be assaulted on campus by a veritable army of propagandists, who’ve been smuggled into the ivory tower because no one has had the courage to stop them, or even to call such smuggling a degradation of scholarship.

So remember MESA 2005 when the next intifada sweeps academe. Sandbox warned you.