Israel: 74 years of independence

On Israel’s last Independence Day, Mosaic ran the first installment of my series on Israel’s declaration of independence. Since then, it’s published all seven parts. This Independence Day provides a splendid opportunity to read the whole series, and reflect on the subtle text of the declaration, as well as the dramatic events surrounding its drafting and proclamation. 

If you subscribe to Mosaic, you can do that right here. If you don’t (why not?), you can download the series right here. The series originated in lectures I gave under the auspices of the Tikvah Fund, and you can still watch them (they’re illustrated!) right here.

If you want to hear a stirring reading of the declaration (by my son Adam), go here. He does a splendid job.

Happy Independence Day!

The incredible shrinking MESA

The membership of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) has endorsed a resolution to boycott Israeli academe. The general referendum took place over nearly two months, and the final count came to 768 for a boycott, 167 against.

My longtime readers won’t be surprised. I saw it coming eight years ago, and just wish it had happened sooner. That’s because I’m not a member or a well-wisher of MESA. I’m pleased it’s finally been exposed for what it’s mostly become: a pro-Palestine, anti-Israel political society whose members just happen to be academics.

I’m not the only one who saw it coming. MESA has a category for institutional membership—mostly university Middle East centers, which pay $1,100 a year for the privilege. A growing list of institutional members has always been a badge of prestige for the association. In 2013, MESA’s institutional members included 53 North American universities and university-based programs. As of this moment, there are no more than 31, and maybe less.

Most of the dropouts are state universities. Over the past decade, many state legislatures have adopted anti-boycott laws, which prohibit state funding for boycotters. Paying dues to MESA with taxpayers’ money might become a problem, and while the anti-boycott laws are open to interpretation, who wants to contest one over MESA? I imagine many of these institutions saw the MESA boycott coming, and decided to slip out the back door, by not renewing their membership. 

As a result, MESA has been totally swept out of the southwest. The universities of Texas, Utah, and Arizona, all seats of major Middle East centers, left MESA, as did Brigham Young, a major center for Arabic study. Arizona, it’s worth noting, had hosted the headquarters of MESA since 1981; in 2016, it gave MESA notice. (The state of Arizona has perhaps the strongest anti-boycott legislation in the country.)

The situation in the south is similar. The public universities all have left: Georgia State, Florida State, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, and William and Mary are gone from the list, and the University of Arkansas is reportedly wavering. Duke has also left; the only southern member is Vanderbilt. 

In the midwest, too, MESA has retreated. The University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Ohio State have dropped off the list, and Indiana University says it won’t renew. That leaves only one public university: Michigan at Ann Arbor. Also gone: Marquette, Washington University in St. Louis, and Notre Dame.

MESA has held its own in California and the Pacific northwest, but there’s been erosion in the east. In Massachusetts, it retains only Harvard, having lost the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Boston College, Brandeis, and two units at Tufts. Other notable losses in the east: the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Princeton’s Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, and the U.S. Naval Academy. (What led them to join in the first place?)

No doubt there are different explanations for specific cases, but the trend is obvious. MESA’s standing as a national organization is in a free fall, and this coincides with its final slide down the muddy slope of politicization. Now that the boycott banner is flying from its mast, the list of remaining institutional members can only do one thing: shrink. Maybe that’s why the list has disappeared from MESA’s website. It probably won’t ever be made public again.

Not that individual membership is doing much better. It’s also fallen by about fifteen percent from its high. For individuals, MESA still performs a function, as a job market and a place to network. If MESA passed a resolution saying the moon is suspended over Mecca, many of these people would remain. But it’s telling that even here, there’s been a retreat. Now that MESA has earned infamy as an academic boycotter, it may not mean as much to deliver an academic paper at its annual conference. Expect further attrition.

Ghost of MESA past

MESA was founded in 1966 by 51 distinguished scholars of diverse backgrounds, who knew that politics would poison their plan. They sought to gain respectability for Middle Eastern studies, and raise standards of scholarship. If they wasted time arguing over politics, they’d break up into warring cliques, tarnishing one another’s good names. MESA would wither. So they checked their politics at the door.

A MESA president drew the line clearly in 1970, when some gate crashers tried to introduce a political agenda:

We are a young organization, especially if we compare ourselves with the other area associations. There are some terrible lessons that we can learn by looking at what has happened to some of them—internal strife, and takeovers by political factions and a severe challenge to the concept (which some hold to be outmoded) of objective scholarship. If there is any task that our organization can perform it is to serve as a forum for objective scholarship on the Middle East. For those who wish political action, there exist any number of groups representing every faction and every shade of opinion. More than ever before, MESA must be the free meeting place of ideas—ideas that can clash and that can be argued about. We do not seek an end to controversy, but we must realize that the price we will pay for political involvement is the destruction of this young Association and the disappearance of a precious meeting place of ideas and of one of the only bases for action of a positive nature.

As a warning, this worked, and MESA remained pretty much above the fray for its first few decades. But it also reads as a prophecy for exactly what has come to pass today. 

Who’s to blame? It would be easy to point a finger at the predatory BDSers who targeted MESA. But they were only doing what they always do. MESA had grown large and prestigious, so it was bound to attract activist hackers. I find it harder to understand the real scholars who allowed MESA to be subverted. These people didn’t build anything. They inherited their Middle East centers and MESA from the pioneering generation. All they had to do was hold the fort and fend off the insurgents. In this, they totally failed.

The moment to take a stand wasn’t the anti-Israel boycott referendum. By then, it was a lost cause. It was when the radicals plotted to remove the main obstacle to their plan: the provision in MESA’s mission statement, defining the organization as “non-political.” 

In 2004, the phrase disappeared from a draft revision of the statement. Influential members expressed their strong disapproval. “Given your thoughtful responses,” wrote MESA’s then-president, “it seems not only appropriate but quite important that language about MESA’s non-political purpose be reintroduced in the mission statement…. There is no desire on the part of the board to turn MESA into a political organization.” MESA had no plan to “endorse political positions or play a political role. This, quite simply, is not part of MESA’s mission.”

But by 2017, the tide had turned. MESA’s membership approved by referendum the deletion of “non-political” from the mission statement. This is where the seasoned veterans should have made a heroic stand, because it’s there that MESA finally crossed the line. A political MESA is antithetical to its original purpose. Some members did warn against the move. One former MESA president, personally committed to BDS, called it “utterly irresponsible.” Maybe they would have done better had they threatened to resign, but they didn’t, and the herd trampled them.

The way forward

That’s all water down the Tigris. MESA today is a political advocacy group, one of many, with an expressly anti-Israel agenda. The boycott resolution is something that can’t be rescinded, so it will remain a permanent blight on MESA. That’s no cause for tears. The resolution is wonderfully clarifying. No more pretense: however MESA tries to spin and parse its boycott resolution, it is what it is. Those who share MESA’s political agenda should stay. Those who don’t should leave. It’s really that simple.

My recommendation, for scholars who pine for the original MESA, is to consider joining ASMEA, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa. Its founders, Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, were prescient. Fifteen years ago, they saw where MESA was headed, saw room for an alternative, and created one.

ASMEA has survived the passing of its two founders, and has established a bridgehead in academe. Like MESA, it has an annual conference, a journal, and scholarly prizes. It’s been running against an incumbent with a half-century’s head start, so it has a way to go. But unlike MESA, it’s growing, not shrinking. If ASMEA can expand its services to members, and remain welcoming to all without discrimination, it can narrow the gap, and even push MESA aside. If something is worth doing in America, at least two competitors should do it. Studying the Middle East is that important.

Ivory Towers and Twin Towers, 20 Years Later

• This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of the Middle East Quarterly.

In 2001, my book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America became a part of a much bigger and heated discussion over what made the United States vulnerable on 9/11. The main argument in the book was that Middle Eastern studies in America had consistently missed the most important developments in the region. One of them was the rise of very radical forms of Islamist extremism. That claim is why the book took off.

The book does not argue that academics or anyone else could or should have predicted 9/11. Even the greatest experts cannot predict such things. Winston Churchill once said, “It is not given to human beings … to foresee or to predict to any large extent the unfolding course of events.” In fact, nearly all the events that have transformed the Middle East since I started to study it, were surprises: the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, the Iranian revolution, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, 9/11, and the “Arab Spring.”

However, the book does show that when events failed to conform to academic models, the academics disregarded or distorted the evidence. Still worse, they poured scorn on anyone who dared to propose another way forward. Every intellectual endeavor, to stay credible, has to correct itself. This was the problem: not that Middle Eastern studies got some big things wrong, but that they would not acknowledge it and then revisit their assumptions. This was the greater sin.

New Experts for Old

So much for what preceded 9/11. What has happened since, and what is happening now?

The market share of academics in interpreting the Middle East for Americans is now much smaller than it was right after 9/11. Up until then, studying the Middle East and writing about it were very much a niche industry. The lead producers were university-based academics and a few specialized think tanks. If you were smart and ambitious and did not have a stake in some Middle Eastern fight, you usually specialized in something else. Sure, the Middle East erupted every so often, but it did not stay on the front burner or the front pages for long.

Following 9/11, Americans demanded to know “why they hate us,” and “how do we change them.” At the time, the academic experts were swamped with invites from television producers, newspaper editors, and senior officials. They performed unevenly, to say the least. That was because the academics tended to sound one repetitive note: America is to blame. This was not so much an analysis as an ideological profession of faith.

But very quickly, the whole ecosystem changed. The main effect of 9/11 was to make the Middle East a matter of very wide concern. That meant that smart people who had not given the Middle East much thought made themselves into experts—some, quite credibly.

Not only did the region-specific think tanks grow large. The all-purpose, general think tanks built out large shops to deal with the Middle East. These alternative experts drove the academics out of the limelight. Generally, the non-academic voices ignored the “blame America” narrative and searched for deeper causes. And they discovered a whole world of rage and grievance that the academics had overlooked.

Especially impressive was the way top journalists rode 9/11 to become some of America’s leading interpreters of the Middle East. There is, today, a large shelf of books about al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, Afghanistan and Iraq, Islamism and the “Arab Spring,” written by journalists. Many made the best-seller lists and won prizes.

Then there were the military commanders, diplomats, and intelligence officers who served on front lines from Afghanistan to Iraq to Syria. Before 9/11, few of them had much on-the-ground experience in the region. They took an over-the-horizon view. But the wars cycled several million Americans through the Middle East, and many of them developed a high-resolution knowledge of politics, society, and culture. If one looks today at the people summoned to comment on the region, the proportion who had their boots on the ground is very high, and it is likely to stay that way for years to come.

In sum, very little of what the public reads or hears about the Middle East today comes from academics. This is evident in the 9/11 documentaries that have been broadcast in the general media on this twentieth anniversary. Among the quotable talking heads, academics are almost entirely absent. They mostly write for and speak to each other in a narrow circle, or for the slightly wider circle of the farther left.

If one wants more proof, ask this: Does anyone in the field, any credentialed professor of Middle Eastern studies, enjoy any broad name recognition in America? The answer is an obvious “no.” The last one was the late Bernard Lewis. Lewis had two New York Times bestsellers right after 9/11: What Went Wrong and The Crisis of Islam. They were quick, readable syntheses that filled an immediate void and that flew off the shelves.

But Lewis, and to some extent also Fouad Ajami, were the exceptions that proved the rule: The academic study of the Middle East does not produce high-profile public intellectuals.

America has not looked to academics for its ideas about the region in a long while.

A Classroom Monopoly

And yet, Middle Eastern studies still matter, not because of what the academics say or write but because of what they teach.

The most prestigious universities are no longer the beacons on a hill they once were, but their degrees are still coveted. One still gets mileage from a Princeton degree, or one from Harvard. These are the most durable brands in America, some predating American independence. So it is not surprising that young people still compete ferociously to get into these schools. And from there, they will go on to make policy, form opinion, and command U.S. power in the world.

The best guess is that the indoctrination in these places is as bad as ever. It is a “guess” because the classroom is not public domain. But if academics teach in the classroom what they say and write in the public domain, then it is still a closed circle. Back around 9/11, there were maybe half a dozen universities where a student could find enough balance to get a credential worth having. Today, one would not need all the fingers of one hand.

Previously, the government might have been able to balance things in institutions subsidized by the taxpayer, such as university Middle East centers. Now, that is doubtful. Higher education has an effective lobby in Washington, and the White House and Congress do not care much because, in relative terms, the money is quite small. So yes, by all means, let us have accountability for biased outreach programs. And let us have universities disclose foreign funding as required by law. But let us not delude ourselves because this will not make much of a dent.

What does seem to work, at least in certain cases, is shaming. Of course, much of academe is shameless, and in those places, the game is long lost. But even in this era of rampant “wokeness,” there are university administrations that care about quality. Calling out error and bias in these settings—as Middle East Forum’s Campus Watch does—has some value. It is not going to reverse the trend. It is not going to stop it. But it might slow it down.

Taking the Initiative

But criticism can only do so much. Just as important is creating alternatives. For example, on the disciplinary level, there is the alternative to the Middle East Studies Association, named the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, or ASMEA. The Middle East Quarterly also makes room for dissenting views. In the field of international relations, including the Middle East, there is the Alexander Hamilton Society. And there are some initiatives at individual universities and colleges.

Creating alternatives is labor-intensive because it involves swimming against the prevailing currents in academe. Success requires cunning, tact, and money. And there is no packaged formula: Every campus is a planet unto itself. What flies on one will crash on another.

But this is the only way left open. We are not going to witness a revolution in Middle Eastern studies. A generation or more will have to die out before that has a chance of happening. The objective must be more modest: to create some space for alternative views and free debate on the Middle East. To some extent, that has been achieved over the past twenty years. The challenge of the next twenty years is to enlarge that space and fill it.


Editor’s note: The following is excerpted from a Campus Watch webinar interview by Winfield Myers, September 10, 2021.

Campus Watch: You mentioned the disappearance of star professors of the caliber of Bernard Lewis. With all due respect to journalists and other non-academic commentators, has anyone really filled those shoes? Has the quality of information that is available to the public today regarding the Middle East, regardless of its source, increased or decreased over the past twenty years?

Kramer: My overall impression is that it has probably increased in terms of firsthand familiarity with the situation on the ground. Hundreds of people were sent out to “cover” the region, and they accessed information that even people like Bernard Lewis couldn’t access.

For example, prior to 9/11, the bookshelf on Saudi Arabia was virtually empty. Academics didn’t work on it, either because they couldn’t get access, or they were afraid that if they wrote something uncomplimentary about Saudi Arabia, it would forever block their universities from ever getting any Saudi funding. After 9/11, journalists began to pick up the story, and now we have a very impressive accounting of Islamic extremism in Saudi Arabia, the leading actors in the Saudi royal house, and so on.

So yes, there’s more out there, in absolute terms of quantity. What we don’t have is what the likes of Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami provided: the longer historical perspective. That was something that could only be done by academic scholars. No one is doing it for a wider public today. So we get a lot of reportage of a very high quality. But we haven’t had a major book or even a major article in a mass circulation outlet like The Atlantic or The New Yorker putting things in the broader historical perspective.

CW: To what practical extent does foreign funding, particularly but not exclusively from Saudi Arabia, impact the agenda of Middle Eastern studies? Does this funding play the same role that it did twenty or twenty-five years ago?

Kramer: There is still some money coming in. But I think the more interesting development isn’t so much the funding of Middle Eastern studies, but the satellite campuses that have been created by American universities in some of the Persian Gulf states. These universities are internationalizing and creating dependent relationships on certain governments.

I think that many gulf states play a positive role overall in Middle Eastern politics. The Abraham Accords represent a signal breakthrough. But I’m always wary of partnerships between institutions that pride themselves on promoting the pursuit of truth and the free and open exchange of ideas, and governments for which these things are anathema, or at least not priorities.

If you’re in the Middle Eastern studies department in a university that is avidly pursuing a relationship with a moneyed Middle Eastern state, you’re likely to pull your punches. The effect is not so much to generate scholarship that is sympathetic to these countries but to take unbiased study of those countries off the agenda. No one who wants to advance a career is going to focus on these countries if that’s going to alienate their dean or provost.

So you get black holes of research, which no one ventures to fill. It’s the non-academics who have managed to keep up our understanding of what goes on in these black holes. I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon. We’re just going to have to live with the fact that the flow of foreign money is a force that constricts the range of study of the Middle East in the American academy.

CW: Does anything remain of the role of the liberal Arabists of old? Is that still a viable school of thought within Middle Eastern studies? If so, how does it affect views about Israel’s existence?

Kramer: The liberal Arabists were pushed out of Middle Eastern studies a while ago. One of the last of them was Malcolm Kerr from UCLA, later president of the American University of Beirut, where he was assassinated. He wrote a very sharp critique of Edward Said’s Orientalism.

There was some degree of fair-mindedness about the liberal Arabists. They had their biases and prejudices, and they certainly regretted the creation of Israel. But they understood that Israel had to be accommodated, provided it made far-reaching concessions to the Arabs and the Palestinians.

But these liberals were pushed aside long ago. The people who determine the pace of Middle Eastern studies today tend to be radical leftists. And they aren’t focused on the terms of accommodation with Israel. They seek to delegitimize it completely; they lend their support to BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement], and they champion the “one-state solution” in a form that would end Israel. If only there were still some liberal Arabists around, we could have a meaningful dialogue with them. But instead, we’re stuck with radicals, many of whom come from radical political traditions within the Middle East. The Middle East Studies Association resembles nothing so much as a semi-official union of academics in some benighted dictatorship in the Middle East.

CW: Just to segue into that, you have over the years noted the increase in the share of those professors whose origins are in the Middle East—not simply by ancestry, but who were themselves born there, and who have come to the United States to work. Do you see that trend continuing? Are we going to continue to import faculty at the rate we have over the past twenty or thirty years?

Kramer: I don’t know. I don’t have the statistical basis on which to answer that.

As a general matter of principle, people coming from the Middle East to teach in American universities could be a huge asset. Fouad Ajami, an immigrant from Lebanon, was one of my undergraduate teachers, and later my close friend. He made a major contribution to America’s understanding of the Middle East.

There is potentially huge value here. The problem is when people bring along, in their baggage, the very same ideas in which they were indoctrinated in their countries of origin. Ajami was a good example. As a young man, he was indoctrinated as a Nasserist. But through his long engagement with American values, American mores, American politics, and Americans, he had a change of heart.

And so it’s really a question of acculturation. We want an amalgam of people with regional knowledge. Sometimes the knowledge of individuals who come from the region can’t be surpassed. But are they acculturated to the values that America generally shares, such as openness, tolerance, and the free exchange of ideas? That’s a problem for those who remain embedded in another culture and have not adapted to the norms that make intellectual life in America tolerable.

CW: You have written that when you received your PhD in 1981, so grim was the situation that you didn’t bother applying for jobs in the United States. That was forty years ago. It doesn’t seem to be getting any better in hiring. The gates are still controlled by the people who are as hostile to someone with your viewpoint as they were when you came out of Princeton. Do you agree with that? Can anything be done about such ideological homogeneity?

Kramer: I hate to end on a pessimistic note. But I have a hard time even getting invited to speak on American campuses today.

I come back to the point I made in my remarks, about creating alternatives. I see shoots coming up from the ground that have the potential to create alternatives even within an academic setting. And remember, while the top tier institutions are the same as when I was a graduate student, once you get down to second and third tier, there’s a lot of room for entrepreneurs to try new approaches.

I said earlier that no one can make predictions about the Middle East. I don’t think anyone can make predictions about Middle Eastern studies and be sure that they’ll come to pass. So, I’ll just end on an optimistic note and say that, hopefully, in another twenty years on the fortieth anniversary of Ivory Towers on Sand, I’ll be able to report on more progress.