Boycott fever at MESA

This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on December 3.

“It’s inevitable that MESA will adopt BDS,” announced Noura Erakat, Palestinian-American “activist,” to the members of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) last week. They had assembled at an open forum to discuss a boycott-Israel resolution scheduled for a vote the next day. “The question is whether MESA will be a catalyst or latecomer….  The importance of MESA adopting this cannot be underestimated.” Her plea was greeted by a round of applause. For a moment, I was tempted to join in myself.

As an Israeli educator, I’m strongly opposed to the academic boycott of Israel, especially by American academic associations. But there’s one exception: MESA, whose conference I attended last week. You see, I’m not a member or a well-wisher of MESA. I’d be perfectly content if it were finally exposed for what it’s mostly become: a pro-Palestine political society whose members just happen to be academics. If MESA were to decide in favor of an academic boycott, I’d have a field day, since I’ve been asserting for many years that MESA isn’t what it claims to be (a “non-political association” according to its bylaws). So I admit it: when MESA plunged into boycott politics before and during its annual conference in Washington, I figured it was a win-win. Boycott defeated? Win for Israel and scholarly freedom. Boycott adopted? Vindication of MESA’s critics, myself included.

You don’t have to take my word for it when it comes to MESA. More than twenty years ago, Edward Said (in Culture and Imperialism) declared MESA liberated territory: “During the 1980s, the formerly conservative Middle East Studies Association underwent an important ideological transformation…. What happened in the Middle East Studies Association therefore was a metropolitan story of cultural opposition to Western domination.” At almost exactly the same time, a MESA president informed the association that “our membership has changed over the years, and possibly half is of Middle Eastern heritage.” I’ll leave it to you to decide whether there might have been some link between the “ideological transformation” of MESA and the shift in the composition of its membership. For my purposes, what counts is that for a good part of MESA’s membership, boycotting Israel is just second nature. It’s practiced as state policy in their countries of origin, and practiced by them informally in their daily lives.

Given this reality, one might ask why MESA didn’t elect to boycott Israel years ago. Proposals were made. But the idea that an academic professional association should be situated outside politics isn’t dead yet, and it’s always had some supporters in MESA, even among some of Israel’s fiercest critics. The more farsighted members also suspect that if MESA were to boycott Israel, it wouldn’t be long before other boycott resolutions would pop up, against Egypt or Iran, Syria or Saudi Arabia. That’s because political grievances in the Middle East don’t end with Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians, and American “complicity” doesn’t end with U.S. support for Israel. Finally, Middle Eastern studies in the United States, at the higher-tier institutions, are addicted to subsidies authorized by Congress. These subsidies are already under heightened scrutiny and budgetary pressures. A boycott decision by MESA could turn into the rationale for Congress to do away with the funding altogether, and would represent a huge gamble with negligible upside.

So in the past, whenever the boycott demand percolated in the ranks, cooler heads prevailed. The problem is that the cooler heads are growing grey and losing authority. MESA’s more numerous militants are less likely to know that there’s any difference between scholarship and advocacy, and they have no clue what a “non-political” learned society does. Government funding has also been cut, so it’s less of a restraint, particularly among those who don’t share in it. And there’s no real need for MESA to be a place for the objective presentation of Israel, since Israel studies long ago moved out to a separate association. (Not surprisingly, nobody in MESA could be found to make the case for Israel in MESA’s open forum on the boycott; an Israel scholar who hadn’t been a MESA member had to be recruited to do the job. He was heckled and personally insulted for his trouble.) There are a few Israelis who study Arab countries and for whom MESA is a professional home, but their number is negligible.

All this has left MESA vulnerable to predatory BDSers, who are constantly on the lookout for openings. In the lead-up to this year’s conference, they targeted MESA with a stealth boycott resolution—stealth, because it doesn’t call openly for a boycott. Instead, it defends the right of members to advocate for a boycott, calls on MESA to sponsor forums to deliberate on a boycott decision, and “deplores” criticism of boycott resolutions by other academic associations as “intimidation.”

While the resolution may appear rather tame, it’s instructive to compare it to a 2005 letter that MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom issued in response to a British academic boycott of two Israeli universities (Haifa and Bar-Ilan): “We find thoroughly objectionable the call… to refrain from any and all scholarly interaction with the entire professional staff of two universities because of the policies of the state in which they are situated.” How far MESA has fallen! According to this new resolution, not only is such a boycott call no longer “thoroughly objectionable,” but even to criticize it is “deplorable” and an act of “intimidation.” Not only is the resolution intended to shut down criticism of boycotts (as Michael Rubin noted yesterday). It would actually reverse MESA’s past position.

People in the know, from among the cooler heads, have told me that the resolution would be still worse were it not for the heroic behind-the-scenes efforts of MESA’s current president, Nathan Brown, a George Washington University political scientist. He’s said to have steered a compromise: a resolution that the BDSers can cite as progress, but which falls short of endorsing a boycott. I saw him in operation in the “presidential forum” as a prelude to the formal vote. Brown scrupulously avoided taking a position on an academic boycott, but found subtle ways to hint at its possible consequences. MESA, he reminded the audience, is a small organization that relies largely on volunteers; defending a controversial boycott resolution could put huge demands on the secretariat. There might be litigation (read: legal costs). And of course, there’s that matter of funding (translation: Congress could punish us). I’ve heard that some of these same arguments were made by others in the next day’s business meeting where the vote took place. (I’m not a MESA member, so I couldn’t attend.)

It’s not hard to imagine Brown belonging to the cooler (greying) heads. It’s much harder to imagine his strategy (or any strategy) stopping MESA’s march toward some sort of endorsement of the academic boycott. At the business meeting, the resolution passed by a huge margin of 256 to 79—this, despite the fact that several former MESA presidents, known as severe critics of Israel, spoke against it. After the conference, Brown published an article meant to spin the “vote to vote to have discussions.” To read it, you would think that the resolution, now likely to be passed by a MESA-wide referendum, would merely “formalize” an endless BDS debate. “The list of questions such a discussion will entail is long,” he wrote, and “some of us will prefer to argue about these questions rather than answer them.” I actually think the majority of MESAns already have answers, before MESA’s “discussion” even begins. Tellingly, Brown omitted the vote tally for the resolution at the business meeting. If he was so effective behind the curtain, how is it that he found only 79 other cooler heads in all of MESA? The scene is now set for a denouement in a year or so, when the BDSers will propose a full-blown boycott resolution. Who’ll be in Brown’s seat then? MESA president-elect Beth Baron, a historian at CUNY, who over the summer signed a letter personally pledging to boycott Israeli academe.

Since MESA is beginning a discussion about boycotting Israel, it’s time to start a discussion about boycotting MESA. Back in 2007, the writer Hillel Halkin responded to British academic boycott resolutions with a call to shift gears. It is wrong, he said, “to turn the issue into one of the unacceptability of boycotts.… There is, in fact, nothing wrong with boycotts, academic or otherwise, if they’re aimed at the right targets.” Halkin called on supporters of Israel to “fight back” in “a massive and organized fashion—or, to call a spade a spade, by means of a counter-boycott.”

I’m doubtful whether a counter-boycott could be applied to individuals, as Halkin suggested, and not just because there are too many of them. But institutions? Why not? The BDS campaign claims that boycotting Israeli academic institutions is a perfectly legitimate response to their “complicity” in Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. Well, what about MESA’s complicity in promoting rabid hatred of Israel that some believe spills over into Jew-hatred? What about MESA’s complicity in the whitewashing of Hamas? In the spring, BDSers Rashid Khalidi and Judith Butler mobilized signatories to a letter insisting that “boycotts are internationally affirmed and constitutionally protected forms of political expression.” By the simplest logic, that applies equally to counter-boycotts. And why should the same bare-knuckle techniques used by the academic boycotters not be deployed against them in an academic counter-boycott?

How might a counter-boycott of MESA operate? Here are some preliminary ideas:

  • Individual members could be encouraged and persuaded to resign their membership in MESA. One of the most poignant moments in the MESA public forum on the boycott was provided by Norman Stillman, a historian at the University of Oklahoma and a renowned expert on the Jews of Arab lands. He said that he’d been a member of MESA from its inception, and he’d attended its annual conferences religiously since 1972. But if MESA passed a boycott resolution, he would leave it. Stillman, it might be added, is already on the board of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA), a seven-year-old rival to MESA which is growing steadily. A campaign to encourage disgruntled MESAns to resign and join ASMEA, combined with an expansion of ASMEA’s own activities, would be the simplest measure of all.
  • MESA publishes two journals. Faculty members on promotion and tenure committees could be urged to challenge the academic standing of all articles touching on Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict published in these journals, with the aim of categorizing them as non-academic.
  • MESA’s secretariat and its website are hosted by the University of Arizona in Tucson, and employees’ salaries go through the university. A political organization that boycotts Israel has no place on a university campus, and should be exiled to an office park. Pressure on the University of Arizona administration, from within and without, to terminate the university’s hosting of MESA would be an obvious measure in any counter-boycott.
  • MESA has institutional members, most of them American universities represented by their Middle East centers. No self-respecting university should allow its name to appear as an institutional member of a political organization, a point that could be driven home by students, faculty, donors, and board members. (I would look to the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis to claim the honor of being the first to quit.)
  • Many MESA institutional members are National Resource Centers, funded by U.S. taxpayers through Title VI of the Higher Education Act. Some center directors are already personally pledged to implement an academic boycott. If MESA now mandates the same, it’s time for Congress to investigate whether an academic boycott is already underway, formally or otherwise, in Middle East centers that receive federal funds and belong to MESA. Now that the Higher Education Act is up for reauthorization, BDS-committed center directors could be summoned to testify before the relevant subcommittee of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. (A subcommittee took testimony on Title VI during a previous reauthorization in 2003.)

Notice that these possible counter-boycott measures aren’t directed against individuals. Just as the boycott is (supposedly) directed only at Israeli institutions, so the counter-boycott would be directed only against MESA, its institutional projects, and its institutional affiliates.

Of course, I don’t advocate any of these measures yet, because MESA hasn’t passed a boycott resolution yet. But now’s the appropriate time to discuss them, in parallel with the discussion in MESA. Personally, though, I’ve already made my choice. I won’t ever join MESA, for reasons I’ve already explained. I attended this year’s conference as a non-member after a hiatus of sixteen years, and I think that’s about the right frequency. Yes, there are interesting panels at MESA—in between the rallies for Israel-haters and boycott-Israel agitation. On balance, MESA does more harm than good to the stature of Middle Eastern studies in America. That’ll be obvious after the MESAns pass their boycott resolution—and that’s why, in my heart of hearts, I eagerly await it.

Hero’s Welcome for Hater of Israel at MESA

This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on November 25.

Let’s start with a fact: Steven Salaita is a hater of Israel. Just ask him (via his Twitter feed).

  • “‘Hate’ is such a strong word. That’s why it’s my preferred verb when discussing racism, colonization, neoliberalism, sexism, and Israel.”
  • “Zionist credo: ‘Palestinians hate their children!’ Don’t get it confused. I hate *you*. And you’re no child of mine.”
  • “Lost in the responses to Eric Alterman’s ‘The Israel Hater’s Handbook’ is the fundamental question: what exactly is wrong with hating Israel?”

So Steven Salaita isn’t a critic of Israel. Tom Friedman is a critic of Israel. Steven Salaita is a hater of Israel, it’s a title he’s proud to claim, and that hatred runs like a thread through all he writes and says.

Now if you aren’t a hater of Israel, you still might think that Steven Salaita deserves your support—not because of his hatred of Israel, but despite it. Academic life, once famous for its guarantees of job security, isn’t what it used to be, and the way Salaita was “de-hired” by the University of Illinois is the sum of every academic’s fears. If that’s you, and Steven Salaita enters the hall, you might offer up some polite (“civil”) applause, as a gesture of labor solidarity. But if Steven Salaita enters the room, and you rise to your feet in an enthusiastic standing ovation reserved for a true hero, that’s not a gesture of support. It’s an outpouring of adulation, because Salaita has been brash enough to say what you think: what exactly is wrong with hating Israel?

So at this year’s Middle East Studies Association (MESA) conference, on the very first day, I found myself in a standing-room-only audience of Israel-haters wearing MESA badges, who received Steven Salaita with a standing ovation. When I last attended MESA, in 1998, Edward Said got just such an ovation. Said was larger than life. Salaita is smaller than life—an indifferent speaker whose every other sentence ends in “right?”—but he is the anti-Israel, and in the yawning void left by the passing of Said, even a Salaita will do.

Flanking Salaita were the representatives of associations that have supported him as a victim deprived of his academic freedom: the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), the Modern Language Association (MLA), and MESA’s own Committee on Academic Freedom. To spice it up, there was someone who’s cannon is almost as loose as Salaita’s: Lisa Hajjar, University of California at Santa Barbara, an agitprof right out of a campus novel. The panel was pro-Salaita to a man (or woman), but lopsided panels are the norm at MESA, and it’s been decades (maybe since the Bernard Lewis-Edward Said match of 1986) since the association put on a true debate over anything.

Salaita has been on tour, and there’s a specific reason why panels featuring him never include a critic. That critic might begin quoting Salaita’s writings and tweets, and the impression of Salaita as generally affable would evaporate. I won’t quote the more infamous tweets here; a useful exercise would have been to read some of them to the assembled MESAns, and ask them to indicate their assent by applause. (“I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing”—applaud if you agree.) If Salaita now claims that he’s persecuted because of his “criticism” of Israel, why not debate the exact substance and style of that “criticism”? Answer: Salaita and his supporters need to change the subject, if he’s to be enshrined as symbol of trampled academic freedom.

Salaita’s message at MESA was straightforward: he’s the victim of “organized suppression” by those, such as pro-Israel university donors, who “act punitively toward Israel’s critics.” As Israel becomes impossible to defend, this “suppression” becomes ever more “heavy-handed,” devolving into the brute exercise of “pressure” on university administrators and legislators.

Surrounded as I was by heads bobbing in uniform agreement, and seated at the foot of a panel structured to discourage any dissent, I wondered whether it ever occurred to these MESAns that they might be guilty of “organized suppression,” of “acting punitively”—in this case, toward Israel’s supporters. Cary Nelson, former AAUP president, has made just that charge: “I know many secret Zionists who avoid expressing public support for Israel. They worry that to do so might torpedo their jobs. They worry it might limit their chance at presenting a conference paper or being appointed to a committee.” If I were a budding Middle East specialist and crypto-Zionist, I’d certainly be furtive and fearful, especially if I saw my department chair leap to his feet and clasp his hands upon glimpsing Steven Salaita.

Both Salaita and Hajjar denounced such intimidation when practiced by Israel’s supporters. Insults! Bullying! Blacklisting! Defamation! You would think they were calling for greater civility. To the contrary. Hajjar announced that the best defense against Israel’s supporters was offense, and she got approving chuckles when she boasted that she tries be “offensive.” (She would prove that the next day in a boycott discussion, when she personally insulted a scholar who made the anti-boycott case, and did so in a manner so “offensive” that even she felt compelled to apologize.) “Civility is the language of genocide,” Salaita has said. “It’s inherently a deeply violent word. It’s a word whose connotations can be seen as nothing if not as racist.” If you think “civility” is out and being “offensive” is in, if you tweet and traffic in insult and injury, who are you to sob when your opponents repay you in kind? And if you think, as Hajjar said she does, that it would be a good idea to instill fear in your critics by suing them for libel, who are you to complain when an alumnus calls a provost? If you’ve decided to turn the American campus into a war front, well, à la guerre comme à la guerre. Expect to take casualties.

I’m always interested in the bubbling up of dissent, and it happened twice, in a somewhat timid manner. A woman asked the panel whether it might be possible to engage colleagues who were only “irrational” and “blocked” when it came to Israel, but were otherwise “rational” and “nice”—that is, broadly supportive of progressive causes. No way, answered Salaita: these people can’t be let off the hook. If you support Israel’s “colonial” policies, you don’t get to call yourself a “progressive,” no matter what position you’ve taken on any other issue. This is a dart directed precisely at Jewish liberals and leftists: the faintest wisp of support for Israel will render you “regressive” (Salaita’s word). It’s the flip side of the claim that any wisp of criticism of Israel renders you anti-Semitic. (Of course, there was no one on the panel to ask Salaita what he’s done to deserve being called “progressive.” “My mother and grandmother’s blood connects me to the same place that binds us all—ancestor and descendant—together…. I am a devoted advocate of Palestinian nationalism.” Apparently it’s “progressive” when a Palestinian professes blood-and-soil nationalism, and “regressive” when an Israeli Jew does it.)

The other hint of dissent came from a faculty member at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, now subject to a boycott by Salaita’s supporters. She complained that the university’s faculty, many of whom stand with Salaita against their administration, were being unjustly penalized, and graduate students were terrified that the boycott would affect their own future prospects. Salaita, who has endorsed the boycott, expressed his sympathy for his supporters at the university, especially the students, and he urged that every effort be made to invite them to scholarly meetings elsewhere. But as far as I could tell, the boycott still stands, and it’s a perfect example of how the Salaita camp is prepared to enforce precisely the kind of “collective punishment” they claim to revile when it’s practiced by Israel.

They didn’t pass the plate at the session, but they did so online, so Salaita will collect $1,500 for his trouble. His supporters at MESA really should have done better, because Salaita did them a major service, softening up the membership for the next act: a resolution in favor of the academic boycott of Israel. Look for my next post.

Me and My MESA

This post first appeared on the Commentary blog on November 23.

Over the coming days, I’ll be attending the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) annual conference in Washington. It’s time for me to catch up on the zeitgeist in my field, and there’s no better place to do that than at MESA. It’s been a long time—to be precise, sixteen years—since my last attendance at a MESA conference. MESA veterans might remember the occasion: Edward Said was being feted for his contribution (such as it was) to Middle Eastern studies. He was on the plenary podium, and I was in the audience. The British historian Robert Irwin hasn’t forgotten:

I well remember the 1998 Middle East studies association meeting held in the Chicago Hilton to mark the twentieth anniversary of the publication of Orientalism. Said appeared on a platform that was packed with his supporters. Critics from the floor were shouted down. I can still see and hear Homi Bhabha on the platform contemptuously booming out “Who are you? Who are you?” to one hapless member of the audience who was trying to make a point from the floor.

That “hapless member” was me. Irwin is accurate, except that there weren’t any other “critics from the floor” aside from me. Said, knowing I was in the audience, specifically invited me to stand up and challenge him, as though he were interested in a debate. That turned out to be a set-up. (Homi Bhabha, Said’s chivalrous defender on that occasion, is now alleged by the keepers of Said’s flame to have betrayed him by criticizing the departed Said through “Zionist argumentation.” Bhabha furthermore stands accused of being “popular in some leftist Israeli academic circles.” A falling out among post-colonialism’s thieves.)

The next time I figured in a MESA plenary, I wasn’t even there. It was in San Francisco in 2001, shortly after 9/11 and the publication of my book Ivory Towers on Sand: The Failure of Middle Eastern Studies in America. Franklin Foer went out to cover the conference for The New Republic, and in his report I read this: “There was one universally acknowledged villain at the conference—it just wasn’t Osama bin Laden. No, the man everyone loved to hate was Martin Kramer.” When my name was mentioned by someone in the plenary, “some in the audience actually hissed.” I suppose that was better than “Who are you?”

So now I’m back, not as a participant but as an observer. I’ve registered for the conference as a non-member, and that non-membership is principled. Its specific origin is the failure of MESA to overcome its political instincts and confer on Bernard Lewis the title of honorary fellow, reserved for a select few who’ve made exceptional contributions to the field. Whatever one thinks of Lewis’s politics, only an ignoramus or hack would deny his massive contribution to the field. Writing of Lewis, one former MESA president has testified to

the extraordinary range of his scholarship, his capacity to command the totality of Islamic and Middle Eastern history from Muhammad down to the present day. This is not merely a matter of erudition; rather, it reflects an almost unparalleled ability to fit things together into a detailed and comprehensive synthesis. In this regard, it is hard to imagine that Lewis will have any true successors.

Yet not only did MESA deign not to confer the honor upon Lewis, it bestowed it upon Edward Said, who brought Middle Eastern studies to the brink of ruin. Lewis never needed any honors from MESA: it was MESA that needed to honor him, and MESA’s failure to do so is evidence that it isn’t a scholarly association in the pure sense. So why join it?

That brings me to this year’s conference. MESA meets once every three years in Washington, to demonstrate its relevance to the powers that be. University-based Middle East centers feed at the taxpayers’ trough, and so it’s important to show up every few years at the doorstep of Congress, in an effort to prove that academe is “relevant” to the national interest. Some aspect of the program is pitched just for that purpose. (This year, it’s a panel on ISIS.)

The problem is that the radicals’ hormones are raging in the wake the Israel-Hamas war, and many of the rank-and-file would like to add MESA to the list of associations that have passed resolutions calling for an academic boycott of Israel. This isn’t such a smart thing to propose in Washington, and MESA’s president, Nathan Brown, has already reminded the members that MESA is “a non-political association.” But some MESA members think otherwise, and they’re always looking for ways to shove MESA even deeper into politics than it already is. In short, the conference is bound to be contentious.

In my next post, I’ll share my impressions of the triumphal reception accorded by MESAns to Steven Salaita, the anti-Israel tweet artist who got canned at the University of Illinois, and who’s become a jobless martyr.