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 ASA’s next boycott!

Dear Fellow Members of the American Studies Association (ASA),

We are pleased to report our progress toward our next boycott resolution. As you know, our president, Professor Curtis Marez, gained some notoriety from a quote given by him to the New York Times. He had been asked why, given the widespread abuse of human rights around the world and especially in the Middle East, the ASA had chosen to boycott only Israeli universities. His answer: “One has to start somewhere.”

This prompted questions as to where we would go next. So we took our lead from a statement by Professor Marez: “We are targeting Israeli universities because they work closely with the government and military in developing weapons and other technology that are used to enforce the occupation and colonization of Palestinian land.” In that spirit, we have decided that our next boycott should be leveled against additional universities that collaborate with their governments and militaries in developing weapons and other technology used to violate human rights around the world. And since we are the American Studies Association, we have decided to focus our quest in these United States, where perhaps, right under our noses, universities are falling short of our own new standards of academic virtue.

Our attention has been drawn to the University of California at San Diego—where, so it happens, Professor Marez chairs the department of ethnic studies. We begin with a basic data point, taken from a 2012 press release by the UCSD News Center under the headline: “UC San Diego Maintains Strong Ties With Department of Defense.” The item notes that UCSD (itself situated on a former marine base) “has maintained a strong connection with defense initiatives for the military and U.S. government over the past five decades…. During this fiscal year alone, the Department of Defense has granted more than $60 million to support various basic and applied research studies at UC San Diego.” To this must be added grants from defense contractors, who are thick on the ground in San Diego.

After an intensive internet search, we have discovered where some of this funding is going. The 2012 news item, quoted above, mentioned that the most recent DoD grant, for $7 million, went to a team of physicists, biologists, chemists, bioengineers, and psychologists, “to investigate the dynamic principles of collective brain activity.” Nothing could sound more sinister. (Although our critics, pointing to our earlier boycott resolution, have claimed that “collective brain activity” does not have much potential.) Social scientists are also doing their share. For example, there is the political scientist doing a DoD-funded project on “cross domain deterrence,” in collaboration with the Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos National Laboratories. (E.g., you threaten a student with a failing grade, and they threaten back with harassment charges.) And there is the economist, funded by DoD and Homeland Security, asking “Can Hearts and Minds be Bought? The Economics of Counterinsurgency in Iraq.” (In a word: yes, but every academic dean knows that anyway.)

However, there are projects far more ominous than “collective brain activity,” such as weapons systems, and particularly drone warfare. San Diego is the nation’s biggest center of military drone production, with the massive presence of General Atomics and Northrop Grumman, the two leaders in the field. General Atomics makes the Predator and the Reaper, Northrop Grumman makes the Golden Hawk and the Hunter. We remind our members that in the fall, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch issued reports on civilian casualties in U.S. drone strikes in North Waziristan (Pakistan) and Yemen, respectively. Both reports are replete with disturbing case studies. Amnesty expressed “serious concerns that the USA has unlawfully killed people in drone strikes, and that such killings may amount in some cases to extrajudicial executions or war crimes and other violations of international humanitarian law.” Human Rights Watch concluded that “US statements and actions indicate that US forces are applying an overly broad definition of ‘combatant’ in targeted attacks… These killings may amount to an extrajudicial execution.” We have already received direct calls from Waziri and Yemeni civil society organizations, demanding our action. (We discount the one that began: “Oh, ye unbelievers of the ASA…”)

Just how much contract research on drones is done by UCSD? In July 2012, MuckRock News made a request under the California Public Records Act (the California equivalent of the Freedom of Information Act), asking to see “all contracts between UCSD and government agencies or private corporations for services relating to aerial drones, UAs, UAVs and UASs (‘drones’).” A year and a half later, UCSD has yet to produce any contracts, claiming that it is backlogged with other requests.

Nevertheless, your association has managed to uncover some specific instances. In 2006, the university’s Structural Engineering Department did a project to boost the payload of the Hunter. According to Northrop Grumman, the project helped to “add additional communications, intelligence and weapon payloads to the Hunter, expanding the capabilities of the fighter.” (Here is a photo of the Hunter on campus.) UCSD has also had a partnership with the Los Alamos National Laboratory, in which students worked on “damage detection for composite wings of the Predator UAV.” Interest in this subject continues, and two Predator wings were recently installed at the university for testing. (Here is a photo of two students posing with the wings.)

We intend to keep digging, but we believe this is enough to justify action. Remember the words of Professor Marez: “We are targeting Israeli universities because they work closely with the government and military in developing weapons and other technology that are used to enforce the occupation and colonization of Palestinian land.” Given that UCSD works closely with the U.S. government and military in developing weapons and other technology employed by the United States (including the CIA) to perpetrate extrajudicial executions and other violations of international humanitarian law, UCSD is obviously a candidate for boycott by the ASA. Our standards, to be compelling, should be consistent.

We have also been apprised of the following, by the Students for Justice in Palestine at UCSD: “UC San Diego is built upon indigenous Kumeyaay land just as Israel is built upon indigenous Palestinian land.” This being so, there are even further grounds for implementing a boycott, as UCSD stands on occupied Kumeyaay territory. Even the chancellor’s residence sits in the midst of a Kumeyaay cemetery. We know the analogy is not perfect: if you drop a shovel in indigenous Palestinian land, you might still strike an ancient Jewish grave. Nevertheless, we believe the parallels are compelling, and that this is further reason to boycott UCSD.

We are certain no difficulty would be caused to Professor Marez were his university to be boycotted. This would only preclude “formal collaboration” with his institution, so he could continue to participate in our annual conferences. And we are certain the pressure on him would lead him to stand firm in the faculty lounge and confront his scientific colleagues, and above all the chancellor of UCSD. The chancellor himself is a computer engineer who spent years working at the Department of Defense (at DARPA, its basic research branch), and later served as an adviser to DARPA on unmanned combat air systems. But we are sure our boycott, and the persuasiveness of Professor Marez, would lead the chancellor to reverse the university’s immoral course.

An ASA boycott of the University of California at San Diego would be a bold act, demonstrating our adherence to consistent principle and our solidarity with the peoples of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen, who live in constant fear of deadly U.S. drone attacks. In protesting these U.S. government violations of international humanitarian law, we have to start somewhere. Fellow members: let us make clear, in no uncertain terms, that we do have the courage to speak truth to power, even if it means sawing off the limb on which we sit!

Don’t we?

This parody first appeared on the Commentary blog on January 7.

The Iran foray of the ASA

This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on December 20.

Critics of the Israel boycott resolution of the American Studies Association (ASA) sometimes ask why the ASA doesn’t also boycott Chinese or Iranian universities. (I make the double-standard argument myself, in a post at Foreign Policy.) Even the president of the ASA, Curtis Marez, admits that Israel’s neighbors have worse human rights records, but adds that “one has to start somewhere.”

But the Israel boycott resolution isn’t the ASA’s first “start” in the Middle East. In fact, the ASA had an earlier foray, in Iran. More precisely, it coddled one of Iran’s most prominent America-bashing academics, at the very moment when Iran’s President Ahmedinejad was busy purging Iran’s universities.

In 2005, the University of Tehran established a Department of North American Studies, as part of a new Institute for North American and European Studies. The notion was that Iran needed to school experts on America, but in a way that wouldn’t pollute them with traces of sympathy for their object of study. For that, the project needed a regime loyalist knowledgeable about America but appropriately contemptuous of it.

Meet Seyed Mohammad Marandi. Born in the United States to an exiled Iranian physician, Marandi came to Iran at the age of thirteen, fought in the Iran-Iraq war, did an English lit Ph.D. in Britain, and worked his way up the university ladder, becoming director of the new department. Marandi is familiar to every Iran news addict. He’s the fellow the international networks can always depend upon to defend every action of the regime, from suppression of the “Green Revolution” to the shocking execution of dissidents (sorry, “terrorists”). This is a man capable of acclaiming Ayatollah Khamenei (a “just, pious, and courageous” leader) as being perhaps even greater than Ayatollah Khomeini himself—”as he did not have the advantage of being the Founder of the Revolution.”

The ASA brought Marandi to the United States for its annual conference in 2005. An American academic who knew Marandi in Iran at the time told the story:

Someone suggested to the leadership of the ASA that the organization invite him to attend the annual meeting that year in Washington, D.C., all expenses paid. The ASA paid for him to come and gave him a free registration and money for a hotel, and it didn’t ask him to do anything other than roam the corridors of those opulent hotels.

So Marandi got a taste of “state of the art” scholarship in American studies. As it turned out, this wasn’t as valuable as it might sound, or so his American friend reported:

The topics that this director found himself learning about, as he made his way through the hallways of this grand hotel, were so esoteric as to be of no help to him in planning how to teach himself American studies so that he could teach his students. He would stay for a few moments at each panel, trying to relate it to the needs of the institute he was building back home, before he staggered on to the next.

The ASA’s patronage of Marandi’s shop didn’t end there. In 2006, the Center for Distance Learning at SUNY Empire State College received a “partnership grant” from the ASA to promote its ties with Marandi’s department—”seed money” for a full-blown exchange. (It didn’t happen.) And in 2007, Marandi was back at the ASA, at its annual meeting in Philadelphia, to present a paper savaging literary memoirs written by Iranian critics of the regime, some of which had become popular in the United States (e.g., Reading Lolita in Tehran and Persepolis).

If anyone had any doubt about Marandi’s standing as a regime stalwart, it should have been dissipated by the regime’s simultaneous purge of university faculty, at the University of Tehran and elsewhere. In September 2006, President Ahmadinejad launched a tirade against “the continued presence of liberal and secular professors in the country’s universities.” Word came that these professors were being retired en masse. The Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) issued a letter urging that “Iran’s universities use transparent and non-discriminatory criteria in any decisions regarding compulsory retirement, and that no academics face dismissal solely or mainly because of political views that they express peacefully.” In May 2007, MESA issued another letter, noting that over the previous year, “students and professors from numerous Iranian universities have been disciplined, fired, forcibly retired, expelled, and otherwise harassed on grounds that are clearly related to their political opinions and associations.”

After suppression of the “Green Revolution,” the dismissals accelerated, provoking a flood of protests by human-rights organizations. In October 2009, MESA wrote to Ayatollah Khamenei, protesting the “harassment and dismissal of university faculty on grounds of political and ideological dissent,” and lamenting that “the abuses of power by the Iranian state and the atmosphere of fear to which students and faculty are subjected on and off the university campuses [are] by far among the most dismal in the world.”

Yet through all this turmoil, Marandi and his university program flourished, and he became the go-to man for the official point of view in the world media. At times, his slavish fealty to the regime, expressed in perfect American English, exasperated even the most indulgent interviewers. In one particularly memorable exchange, at the height of the street violence, Fareed Zakaria lost his patience, asking Marandi this question:

Do you worry that you will be seen in history as a mouthpiece for a dying, repressive regime in its death throes? That twenty years from now you’ll look back, and the world will look back at you, the way it did some of those smooth-talking, English-speaking, Soviet spokesmen who were telling us right in the middle 1980s, that the Soviet Union was all just fine and democratic and wonderful?

When Marandi retorted he was an academic and no one’s mouthpiece, Zakaria asked why “the only person we are allowed to speak to [via satellite from Iran] is you.”

Marandi’s performance during the “Green Revolution” seems to have put him beyond the pale, perhaps even for the ASA. But the episode casts a harsh light on the ASA’s latest decision to boycott Israel’s institutions of higher education. Israeli academe is chock-full of people who make names for themselves by lambasting the Israeli government of the day and the “occupation,” if not the very premises of Israel itself. Take Tel Aviv University, where I spent twenty-five years. There I was a colleague of the late Tanya Reinhart, a linguist who habitually accused Israel of genocide, and Shlomo Sand, a historian who has written two books insisting that the Jewish people and the Land of Israel are Zionist fabrications. (He’s also written a tract on when and how he stopped being a Jew.) These Israeli professors have no remote equivalents at the University of Tehran. But the ASA now boycotts Tel Aviv University, not the University of Tehran, and even worse, it has a record of legitimating the very faction on the Tehran campus installed by the regime as part of a purge.

Now that I think about it, the ASA boycott resolution of Israel provides a perfect opportunity for the ASA to renew its links with Marandi and the regime’s “American studies” project. After all, it’s the Islamic Republic of Iran that leads the world in promoting the isolation of Israel, as a prelude to its eventual dissolution. It’s a natural partner. So what if institutional members of the ASA like Brandeis and Penn State Harrisburg drop out? There’s always the University of Tehran to take their place.