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.