The flight from MESA

It has been one year since the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) officially adopted a resolution endorsing the academic boycott of Israeli universities and colleges. At that moment, MESA transformed itself from an academic association to a political advocacy group. That raises an acute question. MESA has a category of institutional members which (so it claims) “share MESA’s commitment… [to] defending the rights of scholars and academics around the world.” How many of these members have continued their membership in MESA, given that the association has violated the rights of Israeli scholars and academics?

We now have a clearer answer to that question. Numbers tell part of the story. At the end of 2022, there were 43 institutional members. At present there are only 31. The downward trend has been evident for a while: in 2010, MESA had 62 institutional members. But the most recent drop has been swift and steep.

Still, it’s the qualitative deterioration that’s truly remarkable. Some of the nation’s leading Middle East centers no longer appear on the membership rolls. Here are some of those that have quietly gone missing since the end of last year:

  • Columbia University, Middle East Institute
  • Cornell University, Department of Near Eastern Studies
  • Georgetown University, Center for Contemporary Arab Studies
  • Georgetown University, Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies
  • Harvard University, Center for Middle Eastern Studies 
  • New York University, Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies
  • North Carolina Consortium for Middle East Studies (Duke University, Middle East Studies Center + University of North Carolina, Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies)
  • University of Arizona, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
  • University of California, Berkeley, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
  • University of California, Los Angeles, Center for Near Eastern Studies
  • University of Chicago, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
  • University of Texas at Austin, Center for Middle Eastern Studies

There may be a few checks in the mail, and the list of dropouts could change. But it’s safe to say that MESA has been abandoned by many of the most established Middle East centers in the country.

Given the timing, one suspects that MESA’s boycott resolution is responsible for the flight, at least in part. These veteran Middle East centers are precisely the ones that compete for federal funding as National Resource Centers. Having their names associated with the aims of a BDS organization may be perceived as a risk. Better just to leave the MESA renewal notice in the “to-do” box or toss it out. At present, only two of the eleven National Resource Centers for the Middle East are institutional members of MESA.

There’s another telling sign of decline. Individual membership numbers are falling. Six months ago, MESA still claimed in letters to represent “over 2,800 members.” Now it claims to represent “over 2,400 members.” That’s a fourteen percent decline.

The total might drop still further, because MESA can no longer offer members an annual in-person conference. MESA has pointed to a “trend of declining in-person attendance” at its conferences. There aren’t enough attendees to fill the bloc of hotel rooms MESA has to reserve. If not enough members turn up, MESA is stuck with the bill.

So MESA anticipates “alternating between virtual and in-person meetings on an annual basis. Alternatively, it might mean meeting virtually every third year. We are not certain.” MESA has held an annual in-person conference since its inception. Such a meeting is a standard feature of every comparable association. If MESA can’t deliver anymore on an annual get-together, membership might continue to dwindle.

In sum, MESA just isn’t what it used to be. But if you’re a member, don’t despair. You can always join the alternative shop, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). There you can be assured of an annual meeting in a great city (ASMEA meets each fall in Washington), in an atmosphere devoted to serious scholarship rather than radical politics. Try it this year.

Header photograph by Marc Falardeau, licensed under CC BY 2.0. Image cropped from original.

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.

The (sad) state of Middle Eastern studies

Last month in Washington, I delivered the keynote address to the fifteenth annual conference of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). This is the scholarly organization founded by two of my teachers, both departed: Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami. In offering these remarks, I honored my mentors, and hopefully enlightened my colleagues.

I spoke about the state of Middle Eastern studies, a subject dear to me. Among other topics, I covered (double) standards, politicization, boycotts, and foreign money. Above all, I explained why ASMEA is now the only scholarly society in America for the study of the Middle East. Its competitor, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), has run off the rails into the abyss of political advocacy. I prove it with examples.

Watch the entire address at this link or below. (34 minutes.)

Photo: Yours truly (right) with Mark T. Clark, president of ASMEA.