The incredible shrinking MESA

The membership of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) has endorsed a resolution to boycott Israeli academe. The general referendum took place over nearly two months, and the final count came to 768 for a boycott, 167 against.

My longtime readers won’t be surprised. I saw it coming eight years ago, and just wish it had happened sooner. That’s because I’m not a member or a well-wisher of MESA. I’m pleased it’s finally been exposed for what it’s mostly become: a pro-Palestine, anti-Israel political society whose members just happen to be academics.

I’m not the only one who saw it coming. MESA has a category for institutional membership—mostly university Middle East centers, which pay $1,100 a year for the privilege. A growing list of institutional members has always been a badge of prestige for the association. In 2013, MESA’s institutional members included 53 North American universities and university-based programs. As of this moment, there are no more than 31, and maybe less.

Most of the dropouts are state universities. Over the past decade, many state legislatures have adopted anti-boycott laws, which prohibit state funding for boycotters. Paying dues to MESA with taxpayers’ money might become a problem, and while the anti-boycott laws are open to interpretation, who wants to contest one over MESA? I imagine many of these institutions saw the MESA boycott coming, and decided to slip out the back door, by not renewing their membership. 

As a result, MESA has been totally swept out of the southwest. The universities of Texas, Utah, and Arizona, all seats of major Middle East centers, left MESA, as did Brigham Young, a major center for Arabic study. Arizona, it’s worth noting, had hosted the headquarters of MESA since 1981; in 2016, it gave MESA notice. (The state of Arizona has perhaps the strongest anti-boycott legislation in the country.)

The situation in the south is similar. The public universities all have left: Georgia State, Florida State, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Virginia, and William and Mary are gone from the list, and the University of Arkansas is reportedly wavering. Duke has also left; the only southern member is Vanderbilt. 

In the midwest, too, MESA has retreated. The University of Wisconsin at Madison, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and Ohio State have dropped off the list, and Indiana University says it won’t renew. That leaves only one public university: Michigan at Ann Arbor. Also gone: Marquette, Washington University in St. Louis, and Notre Dame.

MESA has held its own in California and the Pacific northwest, but there’s been erosion in the east. In Massachusetts, it retains only Harvard, having lost the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Boston College, Brandeis, and two units at Tufts. Other notable losses in the east: the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, Princeton’s Institute for the Transregional Study of the Contemporary Middle East, and the U.S. Naval Academy. (What led them to join in the first place?)

No doubt there are different explanations for specific cases, but the trend is obvious. MESA’s standing as a national organization is in a free fall, and this coincides with its final slide down the muddy slope of politicization. Now that the boycott banner is flying from its mast, the list of remaining institutional members can only do one thing: shrink. Maybe that’s why the list has disappeared from MESA’s website. It probably won’t ever be made public again.

Not that individual membership is doing much better. It’s also fallen by about fifteen percent from its high. For individuals, MESA still performs a function, as a job market and a place to network. If MESA passed a resolution saying the moon is suspended over Mecca, many of these people would remain. But it’s telling that even here, there’s been a retreat. Now that MESA has earned infamy as an academic boycotter, it may not mean as much to deliver an academic paper at its annual conference. Expect further attrition.

Ghost of MESA past

MESA was founded in 1966 by 51 distinguished scholars of diverse backgrounds, who knew that politics would poison their plan. They sought to gain respectability for Middle Eastern studies, and raise standards of scholarship. If they wasted time arguing over politics, they’d break up into warring cliques, tarnishing one another’s good names. MESA would wither. So they checked their politics at the door.

A MESA president drew the line clearly in 1970, when some gate crashers tried to introduce a political agenda:

We are a young organization, especially if we compare ourselves with the other area associations. There are some terrible lessons that we can learn by looking at what has happened to some of them—internal strife, and takeovers by political factions and a severe challenge to the concept (which some hold to be outmoded) of objective scholarship. If there is any task that our organization can perform it is to serve as a forum for objective scholarship on the Middle East. For those who wish political action, there exist any number of groups representing every faction and every shade of opinion. More than ever before, MESA must be the free meeting place of ideas—ideas that can clash and that can be argued about. We do not seek an end to controversy, but we must realize that the price we will pay for political involvement is the destruction of this young Association and the disappearance of a precious meeting place of ideas and of one of the only bases for action of a positive nature.

As a warning, this worked, and MESA remained pretty much above the fray for its first few decades. But it also reads as a prophecy for exactly what has come to pass today. 

Who’s to blame? It would be easy to point a finger at the predatory BDSers who targeted MESA. But they were only doing what they always do. MESA had grown large and prestigious, so it was bound to attract activist hackers. I find it harder to understand the real scholars who allowed MESA to be subverted. These people didn’t build anything. They inherited their Middle East centers and MESA from the pioneering generation. All they had to do was hold the fort and fend off the insurgents. In this, they totally failed.

The moment to take a stand wasn’t the anti-Israel boycott referendum. By then, it was a lost cause. It was when the radicals plotted to remove the main obstacle to their plan: the provision in MESA’s mission statement, defining the organization as “non-political.” 

In 2004, the phrase disappeared from a draft revision of the statement. Influential members expressed their strong disapproval. “Given your thoughtful responses,” wrote MESA’s then-president, “it seems not only appropriate but quite important that language about MESA’s non-political purpose be reintroduced in the mission statement…. There is no desire on the part of the board to turn MESA into a political organization.” MESA had no plan to “endorse political positions or play a political role. This, quite simply, is not part of MESA’s mission.”

But by 2017, the tide had turned. MESA’s membership approved by referendum the deletion of “non-political” from the mission statement. This is where the seasoned veterans should have made a heroic stand, because it’s there that MESA finally crossed the line. A political MESA is antithetical to its original purpose. Some members did warn against the move. One former MESA president, personally committed to BDS, called it “utterly irresponsible.” Maybe they would have done better had they threatened to resign, but they didn’t, and the herd trampled them.

The way forward

That’s all water down the Tigris. MESA today is a political advocacy group, one of many, with an expressly anti-Israel agenda. The boycott resolution is something that can’t be rescinded, so it will remain a permanent blight on MESA. That’s no cause for tears. The resolution is wonderfully clarifying. No more pretense: however MESA tries to spin and parse its boycott resolution, it is what it is. Those who share MESA’s political agenda should stay. Those who don’t should leave. It’s really that simple.

My recommendation, for scholars who pine for the original MESA, is to consider joining ASMEA, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa. Its founders, Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, were prescient. Fifteen years ago, they saw where MESA was headed, saw room for an alternative, and created one.

ASMEA has survived the passing of its two founders, and has established a bridgehead in academe. Like MESA, it has an annual conference, a journal, and scholarly prizes. It’s been running against an incumbent with a half-century’s head start, so it has a way to go. But unlike MESA, it’s growing, not shrinking. If ASMEA can expand its services to members, and remain welcoming to all without discrimination, it can narrow the gap, and even push MESA aside. If something is worth doing in America, at least two competitors should do it. Studying the Middle East is that important.

MESA, Bernard Lewis, MLK, and antisemitism (social media round-up)

Here’s a small selection of my latest short pointers from Facebook and other social media. I’ll send these to Sandbox subscribers every other month or so. (If you prefer to receive them by email as they appear, subscribe here.)

• The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) protests the New York Times’s removal of ISIS documents from Iraq. They belong to Iraq’s cultural heritage, and should be returned. Times correspondent Rukmini Callimachi says Iraqi forces who accompanied her “gave permission to take the documents,” but MESA asserts they were “unlikely” to have had the authority to do so. Well, that’s just a guess, isn’t it? After all, has the Iraqi government protested? No. Perhaps it wanted the Times to publish. Perhaps it doesn’t regard ISIS as part of Iraq’s “cultural heritage.” So the MESA letter is based on an unsubstantiated premise. (Just like MESA itself: the false premise that it’s a scholarly association.)

• The Embassy of Israel in Washington has named Bernard Lewis one of the “70 greatest American contributors to the US-Israel relationship” on Israel’s 70th anniversary. “Lewis never combined his natural scholarly sympathy for the Arab and Muslim peoples of the region with an antipathy towards Zionism and the Jewish people. Indeed, he has been a life-long Zionist and a friend to Israel.” (I’m mentioned in passing.)

• Katherine Franke is a Columbia law prof and self-important campus radical. She landed in Tel Aviv on a smear-Israel junket, and was promptly deported. Roger Cohen at the New York Times thinks that’s terrible, that she’s just a “tough critic” who “thinks differently” about Israel. But Franke isn’t just wasting her time promoting BDS. See this 2015 tweet, re: knifings of Israeli civilians. Sorry, you can’t excuse terrorism against everyday Israelis, and expect to stroll into Israel whenever you damn please. To me, Franke is just a variation on Sheikh Qaradawi, who’s banned from the US and the UK for preaching what she tweeted. That’s not “thinking differently,” it’s incitement. Keep out.

Katherine Franke and her tweet

• Brendan O’Neill: “If you only criticise Israel, or you criticise Israel disproportionately to every other state, and if your criticism of Israel is loaded with Holocaust imagery and talk of bloodletting, and if you boycott Israel and no other nation, and if you flatter the dark imaginings of the far right and Islamists and conspiracy theorists by fretting over a super powerful Israel Lobby, and if the sight of an Israeli violinist is too much for you to stomach, then, I’m sorry, that has the hallmarks of anti-Semitism.” Read it all.

• It is fifty years to the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Some years ago, I did a series of posts about his attitude to Israel from the Six-Day War until his death. Later, for my book The War on Error, I tied them all together in an article. Now, courtesy of my publisher, that article appears here. The next time someone quotes MLK on Israel or the Palestinians, save yourself the trouble and refer them to the link.

• From my Instagram feed: Jerusalem in the 1920s, photograph by pioneer photographer and cinematographer Yaacov Ben-Dov.

Jerusalem in the 1920s


The decline of Palestine studies

Middle East Studies AssociationThis weekend, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is meeting in its annual conference in Boston, on the organization’s fiftieth anniversary. It was also exactly thirty years ago, at a Boston MESA conference, that Edward Said debated Bernard Lewis. This was the last substantive debate about the state of the field at a MESA conference—that is, a debate with two clearly opposing sides. The bearers of the tradition of scholarship represented by Lewis (and Fouad Ajami) subsequently seceded from MESA. Some of them eventually found a home in an alternative association of Middle Eastern studies, known as ASMEA—the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa. On October 28, I delivered the keynote address at its annual conference in Washington, on the state of Middle Eastern studies. (Watch it here, or read a transcript here.)

One of the points I made in my keynote was that the study of the Palestinians in American academe seemed to me to be in decline, at least quantitatively. I’ve since gone back to collect some data. Specifically, I’ve looked at the last program of a MESA conference convened in Boston (it was in 2009), and compared it to this year’s (2016) program. Why Boston? It’s a popular venue for MESA conferences, and it usually draws a larger number of participants than, say, Denver or New Orleans. The sample is correspondingly large. My interest is in the geographic skew of American scholarly interest across the Middle East. So I’ve looked for the names of countries in the titles of papers, a data field that provides a rough measure of what’s up and what’s down in Middle Eastern studies. (The MESA website also categorizes papers by geographic area, but I’m not certain about the criteria used, so I don’t rely on it. Still, I ran those numbers too, and the results were very similar.)

Below are the totals. After the name of each country, you’ll find the number of papers delivered at the 2009 conference, followed (after the slash) by the number of papers to be delivered at the 2016 conference. In the first set of parentheses is the absolute increase or decrease in numbers of papers between 2009 and 2016. In the second set of parentheses is the increase or decrease in percentages from 2009 to 2016. I’ve ordered the countries according to the percentage of increase/decrease. In 2009, there were 850 papers presented at MESA, and this year, 1,012, so you’d expect an average increase for each country of 19%. Anything below that points to underperformance of a country in inspiring new research. (I’m excluding the countries where the number of papers this year falls below twenty.)

Tunisia: 9/45 (+36) (400%)
Syria: 23/55 (+32) (140%)
Egypt: 48/83 (+35) (73%)
Lebanon: 31/38 (+7) (23%)
Iran: 43/50 (+9) (16%)
Turkey: 79/89 (+10) (13%)
Kurds: 27/26 (-1) (-4%)
Palestine/Gaza/West Bank: 56/48 (-8) (-14%)
Iraq: 31/22 (-9) (-29%)
Israel: 32/22 (-31%)

This is a very rough measure, and paper titles don’t capture everything. But the trend is obvious. The dramatic growth since 2009, which was before the “Arab Spring,” resides in researching the “Arab Spring” and its effects. (It would be even more obvious if I’d included the smaller clusters. Papers on Bahrain went from zero to eight; on Libya, from one to thirteen.)

So the upheavals since 2011 are stirring this generation of younger scholars. Palestine? Passé. (So is Iraq.) Papers on Israel have also dropped sharply, but the consequences, overall, are greater for Palestine than Israel studies. Why? MESA is still the largest clearinghouse for Palestine studies. It isn’t for Israel studies, which have their own association (the Association for Israel Studies) and a separate annual conference. And since, for the last couple of years, MESA has been formally debating the possibility of passing a BDS resolution, not a few Israel scholars have packed up and left the organization. Israel studies are expanding—just not at MESA.

Another factor contributing to the relative decline of Palestine studies is BDS. Because the old guard, such as Columbia’s Rashid Khalidi and Lila Abu-Lughod, have so totally immersed themselves in identity politics and BDS activism, Palestine studies are regarded as tainted by advocacy. Why would a promising young scholar enter such a field, when the first thing he or she must do is sign an ideological pledge of allegiance? And why enter it if you can make a bigger mark in a more visible, faster-growing, and less politicized area of study? BDS is driving ambitious young scholars away from Palestine studies, which have become a closed echo chamber.

This is the context for understanding the BDS drive in MESA. It’s a last-ditch effort to assert the primacy of Palestine, by insisting that Israel uniquely deserves condemnation (in a Middle East mired in gross human rights violations), and that the Palestinians uniquely deserve sympathy (in a Middle East awash in refugees and suffering). In the past, there was no need to run such a campaign. Back in 2005, I did a similar paper-count on MESA’s conferences, and found that papers on Palestine and the Palestinians outnumbered those on any other country. Edward Said had turned the Palestinians into MESA’s chosen people. But over the years, that special privilege has been eroded. BDS activism at MESA now functions as a substitute for the conference papers and panels, as a rear-guard tactic to keep the Palestinians from falling further down the scale.

I have no idea what will come out of MESA this year or next—probably nothing good, and possibly some sort of precursor to a BDS resolution. But the easy privileging of Palestine in Middle Eastern studies is over. That’s a good thing. The over-concentration of a whole branch of area studies in one highly politicized corner did inestimable damage to the field’s reputation. The Middle East keeps changing, so does America, and new realities generate new priorities. I can’t predict how Middle Eastern studies will be reconfigured as the ground shifts. But a quiet transformation is underway, even if no one has the courage to acknowledge it. Happy fiftieth, MESA.