To boycott or not to boycott?

In the fall, I delivered the keynote address at the annual conference of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). The topic: “The State of Middle Eastern Studies, Revisited.” In that address, I assessed the state of Middle Eastern studies according to three parameters first defined by ASMEA co-founder Bernard Lewis: standards, politicization, and funding. In all three areas, the field remains plagued by endemic problems. 

A video became available almost immediately; the address has now been published in ASMEA’s journal. It’s open access, so you can read and share it by going to this link

I can now add a footnote. In my address, I criticized (or more precisely, ridiculed) the academic boycott resolution adopted by the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) last spring. (March 22 will be the first anniversary of that resolution.) I mentioned that one of MESA’s past presidents, the University of Chicago historian Fred Donner, had consistently argued against such a resolution. Donner called it “short-sighted in the extreme” and “utterly irresponsible.” But in the end, I said, “serious scholars like Donner were shunted aside” by the “determined militants [who had] infiltrated MESA’s ranks.”

What made Donner’s stand all the more interesting is that he himself did sign a boycott letter back in 2014. There the signatories 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.” The letter argued that Israeli academic institutions were “complicit in the occupation and oppression of Palestinians.” So Donner supported the boycott as an individual, although he thought that MESA, as an academic association, should have nothing to do with it.

Imagine my surprise when I read that Donner would be speaking today in person at Tel Aviv University, my university. His topic: “Further Reflections on Islam’s Origins.” I attended the lecture, delivered in a packed seminar room to about fifty faculty and students, Jews and Muslims. Donner made an elegant presentation, and while his core thesis is controversial, he showed the requisite humility of a historian handicapped by a paucity of reliable sources.

In my ASMEA address, I said this:

I imagine there are hundreds of people in MESA… who recoil at this sort of politicization [BDS], 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 BDS referendum. Do they believe that such self-imposed silence is a counterweight to the BDS vote?

I didn’t take into account the possibility that MESA members could counter the boycott resolution simply by participating in the intellectual life of Israel’s universities. Actions sometimes do speak louder than words.

Below: Fred Donner delivers his lecture (my photograph). The sponsoring host was the Zvi Yavetz School of Historical Studies, Professor Miri Shefer-Mossensohn in the chair; the venue, the seminar room of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies.

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?

Chicago Prof Joins Conspiracy-of-the-Month Club

Leave it to a professor of Middle Eastern studies to infiltrate the crudest interpretation of American motive into Chicago’s leading daily. Fred Donner is a professor of early Islamic history at the University of Chicago. Last week, the Chicago Tribune ran a piece by Donner, where he called the idea of removing Saddam a “Likudniks’ scheme.”

Why? It is “a vision deriving from Likud-oriented members of the president’s team—particularly Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith.” (Perle is explicitly denounced as a dual loyalist: “Why is he serving in a high position in an American administration?” asks Donner.) A war against Saddam would be “mainly in the Likud’s interest rather than our own.” And poor President Bush, according to Donner, is not even aware that a war would open a “Pandora’s box,” because he now sees the Middle East through the “Likud’s rose-colored glasses.”

True, this theory has surfaced in the mainstream media, but not in such a crude form. Naturally, Jewish organizations have written letters in response. The chair of Chicago’s Jewish Community Relations Council noted that Donner, “applying thinly-veiled code words, essentially argues that America’s Iraq policy was designed and is being driven by disloyal Jews.” An officer of the Anti-Defamation League, in a published letter to the Trib, wrote that Donner had provided “fodder for conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites,” and served “to propagate centuries-old anti-Semitic canards of Jewish control.” I’d have to agree.

I’m acquainted with Professor Donner (we overlapped at Princeton for a couple of years), but I don’t purport to know him. I do know that he’s no authority on Washington’s workings or the contemporary Middle East. And I strongly suspect that he simply parrots whatever conspiracy theory is fashionable on his campus or in the media at any moment.

Here, for example, is a photograph of Professor Donner at the January 18 anti-war rally in Washington. Read his sign. Beneath the words, “Pre-emptive war is un-American” (a questionable assumption), it says: “NO WAR FOR OIL!” Now am I missing something? This is a completely different conspiracy theory from the one Donner has put forth in the Trib, where oil doesn’t even appear. So what is it, Fred? Greedy oil companies or devious American Likudniks? Or maybe you haven’t got a clue?

I respect Donner as a historian of early Islam. Unfortunately, he and his colleagues seem to think that modern American politics operate like the early Islamic caliphate (albeit with less moral authority). Add the Donner affair to the bill of indictment.