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.

Why academics boycott Israel

What if I told you that the academic boycott of Israel isn’t about Israel at all? What if I told you that its purpose is to isolate and stigmatize Jewish academics in America? That it serves to push Jewish academics out of shrinking disciplines, where Jews are believed to be “over-represented”? And that it isn’t meant to keep Jews out of the faraway West Bank, but to keep Jews out of the downstairs faculty lounge? 

That’s exactly what I argue in this new article, “The Unspoken Purpose of the Academic Boycott.” Download it here.

(The article appeared in an issue of Israel Affairs devoted to antisemitism, BDS and delegitimization. Consult the full issue here.)

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?