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.

A smoke screen for Palestine-pushers

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

Whenever criticism is leveled at federal funding for area studies in universities—especially those bias-laden, error-prone Middle East centers—someone jumps up to claim that this funding is crucial to the national interest. Now it’s the turn of Nathan Brown, a political scientist at George Washington University and current president of the Middle East Studies Associations (MESA).

Brown claims that federally-funded area studies centers are “essential” for U.S. policy, a “vital national asset,” and “often the only sources of knowledge when crises erupt in unfamiliar places.” They’ve done an “outstanding job of training” Middle East experts, and “political” criticism of them “threatens the ability of the United States to understand the world and act effectively in it.” If you don’t like it that “an individual faculty member offends a supporter of a particular political position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, should students of Swahili and teachers of Tagalog be caught in the crossfire?” Should “programming that is critical of Israel on some campuses endanger all funding for international education?”

Those are valid questions, but they’re posed disingenuously. Here are Brown’s two main elisions:

1. The only people who think that these centers are a “vital national asset” are the professors who collect the money. Over the years, there have been a series of government-sponsored reviews of these Title VI programs (reference is to the authorizing title of the Higher Education Act), and not one review has concluded that the programs do anything resembling an “outstanding job,” especially on languages. (The last major review, by the National Academies, concluded there was “insufficient information to judge program performance.”)

The claim that these centers are “often the only sources of knowledge” on emerging trouble spots is just untrue. That’s rarely the case, and as regards the Middle East, it’s now never the case. Government has had to assemble the full range of capabilities, from area expertise to language training, in-house. That’s why the Obama administration—yes, the Obama administration!—cut the budget of this “vital national asset” by 40 percent back in 2011. The only lobbying for Title VI funding comes from within academe itself.

2. The “political” criticism of Title VI Middle East centers is a response to the rampant politicization of some of these centers by those who run them, and who’ve mobilized them against Israel. This isn’t a matter of “an individual faculty member” here or there. It’s a plague that arises from overall attitudes in the field. Brown knows the problem, which is why he recently issued a letter to MESA’s members effectively imploring them not to drag the organization into a BDS debate.

One obvious effect has been to drive the study of Israel almost completely out of these centers, into separately-funded and administered Israel studies programs. Some Title VI Middle East centers, thus relieved of the burden of fairly presenting Israel, have become even more blatant purveyors of pro-Palestinian agitprop. This fall, for the first time, half a dozen Title VI center directors openly pledged to boycott Israeli academe. How might that impact the centers they administer? No one really knows.

A case can be made for Title VI. Not every Middle East center is a shameful disaster, and most of the funding goes to centers specializing in other world areas. Brown alludes to some of these arguments. But his broader defense of the Middle Eastern end of Title VI is a misleading attempt to throw up a smoke screen for the very people who really threaten the program: radical professors who treat it as a slush fund to promote their political causes on campus. If Title VI gets rough treatment in the present reauthorization, students of Swahili and teachers of Tagalog should know who’s at fault: the Palestine-pushers who’ve fouled the academic nest with their relentless propagandizing.