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.

Columbia boycotts Israel?

Several hundred Middle East scholars have put out a letter pledging to boycott Israeli institutions of higher education. The organized association of Middle Eastern studies has rejected boycotts in the past, and is likely to do so again if the issue even gets tabled at the next convention. So the boycott of Israel in Middle Eastern studies is being organized along the lines of a personal pledge by individual scholars.

Israeli institutions of higher education (including, presumably, the one over which I preside, Shalem College in Jerusalem), are deemed by these scholars to be “complicit in violating Palestinian rights.” The signatories thus pledge “not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions, not to teach at or to attend conferences at such institutions, and not to publish in academic journals based in Israel.” The pledge will remain in effect until these institutions call on Israel to end the Gaza “siege,” evacuate all territory “occupied” in 1967, and “promote the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes.” In other words, it’s a boycott until Israel dies.

I looked down the list of signatories, and mostly saw the usual suspects. Columbia, of course, is heavily represented. The boycotters include such tenured Columbia radicals as Rashid Khalidi, Nadia Abu El-Haj, Hamid Dabashi, Gil Anidjar, Mahmood Mamdani, George Saliba, Brinkley Messick, Timothy Mitchell, and Wael Hallaq. In fact, no university has more senior faculty boycotters signed on this letter than Columbia.

But one name in particular caught my eye: Lila Abu-Lughod, professor of anthropology. I remembered that she had become director of Columbia’s Middle East Institute a few years back. Why is that significant? The Institute she directs is a Title VI U.S. Department of Education-supported National Resource Center (NRC) for the Middle East. An NRC is supposed to “maintain linkages with overseas institutions of higher education and other organizations that may contribute to the teaching and research of the Center.”

The question I now have is whether this (taxpayer-subsidized) academic unit of Columbia is boycotting Israeli academe? Or are we to believe that Professor Abu-Lughod is only boycotting Israeli institutions personally, but is prepared to cooperate with them officially? Columbia should issue a clarification, and give a public account of the overseas institutional linkages the Institute does have, so that we can see whether a de facto boycott of Israel is in place at Columbia. You can even pose the question yourself, to Columbia’s Office of Communications and Public Affairs, right here.