To boycott or not to boycott?

In the fall, I delivered the keynote address at the annual conference of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). The topic: “The State of Middle Eastern Studies, Revisited.” In that address, I assessed the state of Middle Eastern studies according to three parameters first defined by ASMEA co-founder Bernard Lewis: standards, politicization, and funding. In all three areas, the field remains plagued by endemic problems. 

A video became available almost immediately; the address has now been published in ASMEA’s journal. It’s open access, so you can read and share it by going to this link

I can now add a footnote. In my address, I criticized (or more precisely, ridiculed) the academic boycott resolution adopted by the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) last spring. (March 22 will be the first anniversary of that resolution.) I mentioned that one of MESA’s past presidents, the University of Chicago historian Fred Donner, had consistently argued against such a resolution. Donner called it “short-sighted in the extreme” and “utterly irresponsible.” But in the end, I said, “serious scholars like Donner were shunted aside” by the “determined militants [who had] infiltrated MESA’s ranks.”

What made Donner’s stand all the more interesting is that he himself did sign a boycott letter back in 2014. There the signatories pledged “not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions, not to teach at or to attend conferences and other events at such institutions, and not to publish in academic journals based in Israel.” The letter argued that Israeli academic institutions were “complicit in the occupation and oppression of Palestinians.” So Donner supported the boycott as an individual, although he thought that MESA, as an academic association, should have nothing to do with it.

Imagine my surprise when I read that Donner would be speaking today in person at Tel Aviv University, my university. His topic: “Further Reflections on Islam’s Origins.” I attended the lecture, delivered in a packed seminar room to about fifty faculty and students, Jews and Muslims. Donner made an elegant presentation, and while his core thesis is controversial, he showed the requisite humility of a historian handicapped by a paucity of reliable sources.

In my ASMEA address, I said this:

I imagine there are hundreds of people in MESA… who recoil at this sort of politicization [BDS], and think it is a travesty. But I only imagine it because they haven’t spoken up. Where are the scholars with the courage of their convictions? The majority of MESA’s members didn’t cast a vote in the BDS referendum. Do they believe that such self-imposed silence is a counterweight to the BDS vote?

I didn’t take into account the possibility that MESA members could counter the boycott resolution simply by participating in the intellectual life of Israel’s universities. Actions sometimes do speak louder than words.

Below: Fred Donner delivers his lecture (my photograph). The sponsoring host was the Zvi Yavetz School of Historical Studies, Professor Miri Shefer-Mossensohn in the chair; the venue, the seminar room of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.

Israel boycotters convene in Denver

As you read this, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is meeting in its annual conference, the first since its membership passed a resolution calling for the academic boycott of Israeli universities. These universities, so the resolution claims, are “imbricated” by “their provision of direct assistance to the Israeli military and intelligence establishments.” The vote was 768 to 167, a lopsided count reminiscent of referenda held in parts of the Middle East.

MESA, in its conference, will deliberate on what the boycott means in practice. One can find a preview in a 2014 boycott letter signed by “Middle East studies scholars and librarians.” The signers pledged “not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions, not to teach at or to attend conferences and other events at such institutions, and not to publish in academic journals based in Israel.” 

This will now become the policy of MESA, and while MESA’s leaders will disavow any intention to enforce it, the resolution will have a chilling effect. The sanctions are most threatening not to Israel’s high-powered and innovative universities, but to vulnerable American scholars and students (many of them Jewish) who would like to join conferences and programs in Israel, but fear being stigmatized.

It is ironic that an association for the study of the Middle East should boycott the freest universities in the Middle East. According to the Academic Freedom Index, 2022, Israel is the only country in the Middle East to earn “A” status for academic freedom.

For comparison, Tunisia earns a “B,” Iraq, Kuwait, and Lebanon receive a “C,” while Jordan, Libya, and Sudan earn a “D.” Most of the other countries in the Middle East get an “E,” including Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. (The Palestinian Authority, operating under the “yoke” of Israel, scores a “B.” Israel must not be all that effective in suppressing academic freedom there.) In fact, Israel’s score is higher than those of the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Australia.

If MESA really cared about academic freedom in the Middle East, it would hold up Israeli universities as models to the region. Instead, these are the only universities MESA thinks deserve to be boycotted. I see that later this month, Noam Chomsky will be participating (via Zoom) in a course at Tel Aviv University. Even he isn’t as extreme as the boycotters who now rule the roost at MESA.

I imagine there are hundreds of people in MESA who recoil at this sort of politicization, and think it is a travesty. But I only imagine it, because they haven’t spoken up. Where are the scholars with the courage of their convictions? The majority of MESA’s members didn’t cast a vote in the boycott referendum. Do they think that is sufficient? Do they believe that such self-imposed silence is a counter-weight to the boycott vote? 

If so, they delude themselves. In the words of Yeats, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” That’s why the center of Middle Eastern studies hasn’t held, and I fault not the militants, but those others who failed to stand their ground. They allowed an association founded with high scholarly purpose, built with sweat over decades, to be hijacked by rabid Israel-haters who have shackled it to their agenda. MESA is meeting in Denver. Perhaps next year it should meet in Damascus, out in Syria. MESA has become a place not where the Middle East is studied, but where the worst of it is replicated.

This is also the moment to question those American universities that are complicit in this ban on the freest universities in the Middle East. There are still Middle East centers, some subsidized by taxpayers, that are institutional members of MESA. A few even sponsor panels and throw parties at the annual conference. They should rethink, not because there will be consequences, but because it’s morally obtuse. 

These days, MESA is headquartered at George Washington University, to which MESA migrated after its boycott politics got it thrown off another campus. It’s a blemish on the name of the university, not just because MESA managed to infiltrate the campus, but because GWU’s administration knows that MESA is toxic, yet hasn’t acted. (In contrast, praise is due to the Association for Israel Studies, which terminated its affiliation with MESA, and the Crown Center at Brandeis University, which dropped its institutional membership. A few other centers have let their memberships lapse, without making a fuss about it.)

Last month, I participated in the fifteenth annual conference of ASMEA, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, co-founded by two departed giants, Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami. In Lewis’s memoirs, he wrote that the purpose of ASMEA was “to counter the straitjackets of MESA,” and “to provide a platform and a medium for ideas and opinions that deviate from currently enforced orthodoxy.” 

At ASMEA’s inaugural conference in 2008, scholars presented nineteen papers. In the 2022 conference, they presented more than 130. ASMEA doesn’t yet match MESA for size, but MESA has been around since 1966. More to the point, ASMEA’s membership is growing, while MESA’s membership, both institutional and individual, is in decline.

ASMEA is the true heir to the liberal, open-minded mission for Middle Eastern studies first defined by the founders of MESA—a mission cast overboard by their radicalized successors. This leaves ASMEA the only scholarly association for the study of the Middle East in America. What’s called MESA has become a political advocacy group. 

This may seem to you a brash assertion. I believe it will come to be acknowledged as fact in the fullness of time. 

Photo credit: Rally to boycott Israel, Columbus, Ohio, summer 2021, photo by Paul Becker/Becker1999, Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

The incredible shrinking MESA

See an important December 2022 update at the end of this post.

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.

Update, December 2, 2022. Since the boycott measure passed, MESA has worked to get its institutional members back on board, so that it can appear to have weathered the storm. The effort has met with some success. The University of Texas at Austin and the University of Arizona are back. So are the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and the University of Wisconsin at Madison. And the North Carolina Consortium is back; it includes Duke and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Why? MESA’s boycott resolution didn’t resonate as much as university-based Middle East centers feared. The lack of outrage was the theme of an an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. That piece probably gave some centers, especially at public universities, a sense that they could safely crawl back to MESA, and no one would notice. 

It’s definitely true that the MESA resolution didn’t cause the uproar of the similar resolution by the American Studies Association (ASA) back in 2013. But pace the Chronicle, it’s not because the academic boycott has been “normalized” in any way. It’s because presidents, provosts, and deans thought to themselves: Well, isn’t this an association made up mostly of Arabs, including a lot of fanatics? You needn’t explode in outrage when dogs bark or clouds rain.

If that’s what they thought, it’s not an excuse for their silence. These universities, which fork over institutional membership fees to an Israel-boycotting advocacy group, are complicit in a gross violation of academic freedom. Even if this carries no consequences, it hollows out their own moral credibility. And a business-as-usual approach to MESA is also a betrayal of their own faculty and students who want ties to Israeli universities and colleges. Institutional membership in MESA is a dent in their dignity, and friends of Israel should make sure these universities know it.