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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?