Radicals strap suicide belt on MESA

This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on February 17.

The membership of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) has now passed a resolution taking the organization well down the road to endorsing the academic boycott of Israel. The resolution, which passed by a 561–152 margin, urges “MESA program committees to organize discussions at MESA annual meetings, and the MESA Board of Directors to create opportunities over the course of the year that provide platforms for a sustained discussion of the academic boycott and foster careful consideration of an appropriate position for MESA to assume.”

It isn’t too difficult to imagine just what sort of campaign the Israel-haters will launch during this “sustained discussion,” or where it’s likely to lead. And the overwhelming margin in favor of the resolution suggests that this is just where most MESAns want to go.

The vote constitutes a stunning defeat for MESA’s old guard. They invested decades in building MESA as the world’s preeminent professional organization for Middle Eastern studies, and they did it by maintaining at least a façade of scholarly neutrality. That MESA might blow itself up in a suicidal attempt to inflict some (marginal) political damage on Israel is a danger they repeatedly warned against in the closed online members’ forum that preceded the vote.

Consider these examples of arguments made by some of MESA’s past presidents. Zachary Lockman (2006–7), professor of history at New York University, is a strong critic of Israel with whom I’ve had the occasional run-in. He’s also signed a letter insisting that “those who support boycotts ought not to become subject to retaliation, surveillance, or censorship.” And he’s backed a divestment campaign directed at the firm which manages many university and college retirement funds. Yet Lockman doubted the wisdom of the resolution:

MESA has its own history, culture and vulnerabilities. What might be right for other associations will not necessarily serve MESA well. So we need to weigh the concrete difference MESA’s endorsement of a boycott resolution might make against such action’s potential downsides for the association, including the likely loss of some of its membership as well as of some affiliated organizations and institutions, but also possibly legal action, stepped-up attacks on MESA and Title VI by hostile organizations, legislative bodies and media, and conceivably even the loss of MESA’s home base at the University of Arizona.

Endorsing an academic boycott, wrote Lockman, “would seem to be inconsistent with MESA’s long-standing self-definition” as “nonpolitical” according to its own bylaws. He urged MESA members to step back and ask whether “abandon[ing] the association’s historically nonpolitical character” was “worth the potential costs.”

Fred Donner (2011–12), professor of Islamic history at the University of Chicago, is another occasional critic of Israel, whom I once took to task for his charge that the Iraq war was a “Likudniks’ scheme.” He’s also personally pledged to boycotting Israeli academe. Yet he described the MESA resolution as “utterly irresponsible,” for these four reasons:

  1. For MESA to take a political stand will lead to a loss of membership, as those who do not support what becomes MESA’s official position will no longer feel welcome within it.
  2. A stand on BDS will open the door to MESA being asked take a stand on the dozens of other political issues related to the Middle East, further fracturing its membership.
  3. For MESA to take a stand on BDS will endanger its tax-exempt status and therefore its long-term viability as an organization, since MESA’s 501(c)3 tax exemption depends on it remaining non-political.
  4. MESA’s endorsement of BDS will hand MESA’s enemies, who have persistently (but, until now, wrongly) claimed that MESA has been politicized, exactly the evidence they need to make their case against us—which they will not hesitate to do, to our representatives in Congress, to the I.R.S., and to the University of Arizona, whose support of the MESA Secretariat is vital to the organization’s well-being.

Yet another former MESA president, Jere Bacharach (1999–2000), in whose honor MESA has named its service award, argued that the resolution,

irrespective of its careful wording, is a step toward MESA making a political statement as an organization. Thus the resolution risks leading MESA to take a political stand at odds with its bylaws, mission statement, and history…. Other than making some temporarily feel better, passage of this resolution will only significantly put pressure on us to have MESA make a real political statement and, in the process, bring about its demise.

These reasoned and pragmatic arguments were of no avail. That’s because MESA has been invaded by hundreds of radicals, many from the Middle East, who can’t imagine a professional association that isn’t thoroughly politicized. In Cairo, Damascus, and Amman, the main function of such associations is to pass resolutions condemning Israel or anyone suspected of “normalizing” relations with it.

The radicals see MESA not as an American association for Middle Eastern studies, but as a Middle Eastern association for influencing America—that is, a kind of auxiliary of the Arab lobby, focused on the Palestinian cause. MESA has always been an arena for advocacy posing as scholarship, in panels and papers. But it’s the nature of such advocacy to push the envelope ever further. Those who silently accepted spurious scholarship under the guise of “Palestine studies” now find their own institutional legacy at risk—and there’s little they can do about it.

Now that MESA has embarked on a “sustained discussion of the academic boycott of Israel,” it’s time for others to start a sustained discussion of the boycott of MESA. I’ve already flagged the areas that deserve deepest exploration. (They’re precisely those that have the old guard worried.) Until now, the options have been discussed behind closed doors. Now it’s time to begin to talk of them openly, and to do what’s necessary to minimize the damage to Israeli academe and maximize the damage to MESA—if and when MESA’s members push the button on the suicide belt they’ve strapped around their collective waist.

If MESA self-destructs, the aftermath will create a huge opportunity to revamp the organized structure of Middle Eastern studies along completely different lines. I’ve already emphasized the existence of an alternative association of Middle Eastern studies, which is well-positioned to pick up many of the pieces. It’s easy to imagine still more initiatives. For MESA’s critics, such as myself, its “demise” (Bacharach’s word) isn’t a catastrophe at all. It’s an opportunity. MESA’s embrace of BDS will make no perceptible difference to the Middle Eastern equation, but it could shake the foundations of Middle Eastern studies in America.

Years ago, I tried to jolt Middle Eastern studies by writing a critical book, and achieved only limited results. Now MESA is about to inflict far more damage on the organized field than I inflicted. Who would have thought it?

Boycott fever at MESA

This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on December 3.

“It’s inevitable that MESA will adopt BDS,” announced Noura Erakat, Palestinian-American “activist,” to the members of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) last week. They had assembled at an open forum to discuss a boycott-Israel resolution scheduled for a vote the next day. “The question is whether MESA will be a catalyst or latecomer….  The importance of MESA adopting this cannot be underestimated.” Her plea was greeted by a round of applause. For a moment, I was tempted to join in myself.

As an Israeli educator, I’m strongly opposed to the academic boycott of Israel, especially by American academic associations. But there’s one exception: MESA, whose conference I attended last week. You see, I’m not a member or a well-wisher of MESA. I’d be perfectly content if it were finally exposed for what it’s mostly become: a pro-Palestine political society whose members just happen to be academics. If MESA were to decide in favor of an academic boycott, I’d have a field day, since I’ve been asserting for many years that MESA isn’t what it claims to be (a “non-political association” according to its bylaws). So I admit it: when MESA plunged into boycott politics before and during its annual conference in Washington, I figured it was a win-win. Boycott defeated? Win for Israel and scholarly freedom. Boycott adopted? Vindication of MESA’s critics, myself included.

You don’t have to take my word for it when it comes to MESA. More than twenty years ago, Edward Said (in Culture and Imperialism) declared MESA liberated territory: “During the 1980s, the formerly conservative Middle East Studies Association underwent an important ideological transformation…. What happened in the Middle East Studies Association therefore was a metropolitan story of cultural opposition to Western domination.” At almost exactly the same time, a MESA president informed the association that “our membership has changed over the years, and possibly half is of Middle Eastern heritage.” I’ll leave it to you to decide whether there might have been some link between the “ideological transformation” of MESA and the shift in the composition of its membership. For my purposes, what counts is that for a good part of MESA’s membership, boycotting Israel is just second nature. It’s practiced as state policy in their countries of origin, and practiced by them informally in their daily lives.

Given this reality, one might ask why MESA didn’t elect to boycott Israel years ago. Proposals were made. But the idea that an academic professional association should be situated outside politics isn’t dead yet, and it’s always had some supporters in MESA, even among some of Israel’s fiercest critics. The more farsighted members also suspect that if MESA were to boycott Israel, it wouldn’t be long before other boycott resolutions would pop up, against Egypt or Iran, Syria or Saudi Arabia. That’s because political grievances in the Middle East don’t end with Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians, and American “complicity” doesn’t end with U.S. support for Israel. Finally, Middle Eastern studies in the United States, at the higher-tier institutions, are addicted to subsidies authorized by Congress. These subsidies are already under heightened scrutiny and budgetary pressures. A boycott decision by MESA could turn into the rationale for Congress to do away with the funding altogether, and would represent a huge gamble with negligible upside.

So in the past, whenever the boycott demand percolated in the ranks, cooler heads prevailed. The problem is that the cooler heads are growing grey and losing authority. MESA’s more numerous militants are less likely to know that there’s any difference between scholarship and advocacy, and they have no clue what a “non-political” learned society does. Government funding has also been cut, so it’s less of a restraint, particularly among those who don’t share in it. And there’s no real need for MESA to be a place for the objective presentation of Israel, since Israel studies long ago moved out to a separate association. (Not surprisingly, nobody in MESA could be found to make the case for Israel in MESA’s open forum on the boycott; an Israel scholar who hadn’t been a MESA member had to be recruited to do the job. He was heckled and personally insulted for his trouble.) There are a few Israelis who study Arab countries and for whom MESA is a professional home, but their number is negligible.

All this has left MESA vulnerable to predatory BDSers, who are constantly on the lookout for openings. In the lead-up to this year’s conference, they targeted MESA with a stealth boycott resolution—stealth, because it doesn’t call openly for a boycott. Instead, it defends the right of members to advocate for a boycott, calls on MESA to sponsor forums to deliberate on a boycott decision, and “deplores” criticism of boycott resolutions by other academic associations as “intimidation.”

While the resolution may appear rather tame, it’s instructive to compare it to a 2005 letter that MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom issued in response to a British academic boycott of two Israeli universities (Haifa and Bar-Ilan): “We find thoroughly objectionable the call… to refrain from any and all scholarly interaction with the entire professional staff of two universities because of the policies of the state in which they are situated.” How far MESA has fallen! According to this new resolution, not only is such a boycott call no longer “thoroughly objectionable,” but even to criticize it is “deplorable” and an act of “intimidation.” Not only is the resolution intended to shut down criticism of boycotts (as Michael Rubin noted yesterday). It would actually reverse MESA’s past position.

People in the know, from among the cooler heads, have told me that the resolution would be still worse were it not for the heroic behind-the-scenes efforts of MESA’s current president, Nathan Brown, a George Washington University political scientist. He’s said to have steered a compromise: a resolution that the BDSers can cite as progress, but which falls short of endorsing a boycott. I saw him in operation in the “presidential forum” as a prelude to the formal vote. Brown scrupulously avoided taking a position on an academic boycott, but found subtle ways to hint at its possible consequences. MESA, he reminded the audience, is a small organization that relies largely on volunteers; defending a controversial boycott resolution could put huge demands on the secretariat. There might be litigation (read: legal costs). And of course, there’s that matter of funding (translation: Congress could punish us). I’ve heard that some of these same arguments were made by others in the next day’s business meeting where the vote took place. (I’m not a MESA member, so I couldn’t attend.)

It’s not hard to imagine Brown belonging to the cooler (greying) heads. It’s much harder to imagine his strategy (or any strategy) stopping MESA’s march toward some sort of endorsement of the academic boycott. At the business meeting, the resolution passed by a huge margin of 256 to 79—this, despite the fact that several former MESA presidents, known as severe critics of Israel, spoke against it. After the conference, Brown published an article meant to spin the “vote to vote to have discussions.” To read it, you would think that the resolution, now likely to be passed by a MESA-wide referendum, would merely “formalize” an endless BDS debate. “The list of questions such a discussion will entail is long,” he wrote, and “some of us will prefer to argue about these questions rather than answer them.” I actually think the majority of MESAns already have answers, before MESA’s “discussion” even begins. Tellingly, Brown omitted the vote tally for the resolution at the business meeting. If he was so effective behind the curtain, how is it that he found only 79 other cooler heads in all of MESA? The scene is now set for a denouement in a year or so, when the BDSers will propose a full-blown boycott resolution. Who’ll be in Brown’s seat then? MESA president-elect Beth Baron, a historian at CUNY, who over the summer signed a letter personally pledging to boycott Israeli academe.

Since MESA is beginning a discussion about boycotting Israel, it’s time to start a discussion about boycotting MESA. Back in 2007, the writer Hillel Halkin responded to British academic boycott resolutions with a call to shift gears. It is wrong, he said, “to turn the issue into one of the unacceptability of boycotts.… There is, in fact, nothing wrong with boycotts, academic or otherwise, if they’re aimed at the right targets.” Halkin called on supporters of Israel to “fight back” in “a massive and organized fashion—or, to call a spade a spade, by means of a counter-boycott.”

I’m doubtful whether a counter-boycott could be applied to individuals, as Halkin suggested, and not just because there are too many of them. But institutions? Why not? The BDS campaign claims that boycotting Israeli academic institutions is a perfectly legitimate response to their “complicity” in Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. Well, what about MESA’s complicity in promoting rabid hatred of Israel that some believe spills over into Jew-hatred? What about MESA’s complicity in the whitewashing of Hamas? In the spring, BDSers Rashid Khalidi and Judith Butler mobilized signatories to a letter insisting that “boycotts are internationally affirmed and constitutionally protected forms of political expression.” By the simplest logic, that applies equally to counter-boycotts. And why should the same bare-knuckle techniques used by the academic boycotters not be deployed against them in an academic counter-boycott?

How might a counter-boycott of MESA operate? Here are some preliminary ideas:

  • Individual members could be encouraged and persuaded to resign their membership in MESA. One of the most poignant moments in the MESA public forum on the boycott was provided by Norman Stillman, a historian at the University of Oklahoma and a renowned expert on the Jews of Arab lands. He said that he’d been a member of MESA from its inception, and he’d attended its annual conferences religiously since 1972. But if MESA passed a boycott resolution, he would leave it. Stillman, it might be added, is already on the board of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA), a seven-year-old rival to MESA which is growing steadily. A campaign to encourage disgruntled MESAns to resign and join ASMEA, combined with an expansion of ASMEA’s own activities, would be the simplest measure of all.
  • MESA publishes two journals. Faculty members on promotion and tenure committees could be urged to challenge the academic standing of all articles touching on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict published in these journals, with the aim of categorizing them as non-academic.
  • MESA’s secretariat and its website are hosted by the University of Arizona in Tucson, and employees’ salaries go through the university. A political organization that boycotts Israel has no place on a university campus, and should be exiled to an office park. Pressure on the University of Arizona administration, from within and without, to terminate the university’s hosting of MESA would be an obvious measure in any counter-boycott.
  • MESA has institutional members, most of them American universities represented by their Middle East centers. No self-respecting university should allow its name to appear as an institutional member of a political organization, a point that could be driven home by students, faculty, donors, and board members. (I would look to the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis to claim the honor of being the first to quit.)
  • Many MESA institutional members are National Resource Centers, funded by U.S. taxpayers through Title VI of the Higher Education Act. Some center directors are already personally pledged to implement an academic boycott. If MESA now mandates the same, it’s time for Congress to investigate whether an academic boycott is already underway, formally or otherwise, in Middle East centers that receive federal funds and belong to MESA. Now that the Higher Education Act is up for reauthorization, BDS-committed center directors could be summoned to testify before the relevant subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. (A subcommittee took testimony on Title VI during a previous reauthorization in 2003.)

Notice that these possible counter-boycott measures aren’t directed against individuals. Just as the boycott is (supposedly) directed only at Israeli institutions, so the counter-boycott would be directed only against MESA, its institutional projects, and its institutional affiliates.

Of course, I don’t advocate any of these measures yet, because MESA hasn’t passed a boycott resolution yet. But now’s the appropriate time to discuss them, in parallel with the discussion in MESA. Personally, though, I’ve already made my choice. I won’t ever join MESA, for reasons I’ve already explained. I attended this year’s conference as a non-member after a hiatus of sixteen years, and I think that’s about the right frequency. Yes, there are interesting panels at MESA—in between the rallies for Israel-haters and boycott-Israel agitation. On balance, MESA does more harm than good to the stature of Middle Eastern studies in America. That’ll be obvious after the MESAns pass their boycott resolution—and that’s why, in my heart of hearts, I eagerly await it.

Columbia’s slippery boycotters

This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on October 2.

In a post in late August, I asked whether Columbia University’s federally-funded Middle East Institute was boycotting Israeli institutions of higher education. Why? Its director, anthropologist Lila Abu-Lughod, has signed a pledge by some Middle East studies academics “not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions.” Did that personal pledge extend to the Middle East Institute, a Title VI National Research Center under her direction?

I posed the question to David Stone, executive vice-president for communications at Columbia, and received this reply from him:

If an individual faculty member chooses not to participate in events involving Israel, that is a personal choice that has no effect on the programs of the Middle East Institute or the rest of the University. The Institute itself is home to a broad range of teaching and research including a number of fellowships and grants that support faculty and student research and study in Israel; and its faculty members are engaged in a variety of projects with Israeli scholars.

Alan Luxenberg, president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, posed the same question directly to Abu-Lughod, and received this reply:

My decision does not affect the Middle East Institute where we welcome distinguished scholars and students from all over the world, fund language training for students in all Middle Eastern languages, support study abroad in all the region’s universities, and support, modestly, summer research for students in all the countries of the region, including Israel.

The Middle East Institute serves the Columbia community. It does not have any institutional partnerships with other universities, whether in the US or abroad.

I’m not surprised (or persuaded) by these answers. I think it’s telling that Abu-Lughod has not issued a public statement of her position, which might be deemed an unacceptable compromise by the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) cult. After all, if you really believe that Israel is South Africa (or worse), why not demonstrably abjure any administrative role in academe that compels you to treat it equally? What’s the worth of a boycott if it doesn’t mean sacrificing your access to something to advance a cause—whether it’s a home soda maker or the coveted directorship of a Middle East center?

But that’s neither here nor there. The taxpaying public has the right to expect that every signatory of the boycott pledge who runs a Title VI National Research Center issue an assurance that the boycott doesn’t apply during working hours. And the public has the right to expect an equal assurance from a university’s higher administration. Anything less than that should be automatically suspect, because it’s the bare minimum, and because it’s obvious that even these assurances don’t mean that there isn’t a stealth boycott underway.

A Title VI federally-funded National Research Center is committed by law to making sure that its programming will reflect “diverse perspectives and a wide range of views and generate debate on world regions.” Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Education, which administers the program, has failed even to define what this means. Consider this test case. On September 19, Columbia’s Middle East Institute co-sponsored (with the university’s Center for Palestine Studies) a panel entitled “The War on Gaza: Military Strategy and Historical Horizons.” (Notice the title, as though there wasn’t a war on Israel too.) It included three Palestinian-American boycotters: Columbia professor Rashid Khalidi, Barnard professor Nadia Abu El-Haj, and legal activist Noura Erakat. And that’s it. Read the live tweets from the session, and judge the tenor of the proceedings yourself. Did this event offer “diverse perspectives and a wide range of views,” and was it structured to “generate debate”? No. So just what must the Middle East Institute do now to assure that it meets its obligation?

My own view is that there’s nothing that a bureaucrat in Washington can do to assure that it does. No Department of Education official is going to detect a stealth boycott or do any serious follow-up on whether taxpayer dollars are going to political activists in academic guise. That means that the reform of Title VI, a creaking holdover from the Cold War, is impossible. If you think that Title VI, on balance, does more good than harm, you’re just going to have to accept that some of your tax dollars will go to agitprop for Hamas. If you think that’s totally unacceptable, you should favor the total elimination of Title VI from the Higher Education Act, now up for reauthorization. There is no middle ground.