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?

Boycotting Israel at NYU?

The habitual academic petition-signers against Israel are out in force, in a letter to Hebrew University president Menachem Magidor. They charge that Israel “makes it difficult or impossible for Palestinian teachers and students to reach their universities,” and that Israeli troops are responsible for “harassment, arrests, random shootings and assaults” on Palestinian campuses. The occupation itself, they write, “disrupts the necessary framework for any successful educational structure.” The signatories of the letter call themselves “defenders of Palestinian academic freedom and supporters of the academic boycott against Israel.” And they ask “the Israeli academic leadership where it stands on the issue of current Israeli policy, and to share with us what Israeli academic institutions are doing to challenge the behavior of your government.” (For more, see this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education.)

Now I don’t speak for anyone else, but I know where I would lay the blame for the plight of Palestinian academic institutions. (By the way, there wasn’t even one such institution in the West Bank and Gaza in 1967, and every one of them was established under the Israeli occupation.) I would lay the blame on the Palestinian Authority for choosing war, and on the violent militias that use campuses as recruitment stations for terrorists.

Nevertheless, Israeli academics have never boycotted Palestinian professors, even in the worst days of terror. To the contrary: if you’re organizing a conference in Israel, it’s almost obligatory to have a Palestinian professor on the podium. Free exchange is what academic freedom means, and Israeli universities have done an admirable job of upholding it in trying times. In contrast, the academic boycott against Israel is itself a gross violation of academic freedom, because it explicitly imposes a political litmus test on Israeli scholars. It’s radical-style McCarthyism.

Among the American signatories, there are a handful of Middle East academics. Only one stands out: Professor Zachary Lockman, who identifies himself as director of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at New York University. He stands out because he’s the only signatory with any academic clout. In fact, not only did he become director of NYU’s Middle East center last fall. His center simultaneously became a self-standing Title VI National Resource Center for the Middle East. Its activities enjoy a federal subsidy of around $400,000 a year.

Now that Lockman has announced himself as a “supporter of the academic boycott against Israel,” the question for New York University and the U.S. Department of Education is a simple one. Is it Lockman’s intention to implement the boycott that he supports, in the National Resource Center that he administers? If the answer is yes, then New York University’s provost should insist he step down. It’s unthinkable that a comprehensive center for Middle Eastern studies would boycott Israeli academics. (Tell the provost yourself if you agree.) And it’s unthinkable that the U.S. government would subsidize such a center. If Lockman is going to walk the boycott walk at the Kevorkian Center, its federal subsidy should be revoked immediately.

Now it may be that Lockman supports the boycott only in principle, and has no intention of acting on his principle. But having signed the petition as the director of the Kevorkian Center, and not simply as an NYU professor (which would have sufficed for identification purposes), he has to clarify that point. Specifically, he must reassure New York University and the U.S. Department of Education that no boycott, in any form whatsoever, open or tacit, will be implemented at the Kevorkian Center. Anything less than an explicit reassurance will leave a cloud of suspicion hanging over the place.

When I was a center director, in the 1990s, I was careful to stay clear of political controversy, so as not to drag my colleagues down my own alley. Professor Lockman seems to feel no comparable obligation. His colleagues might ask themselves whether they can afford this sort of academic “leadership.” They should affirm that Lockman doesn’t speak for them or the Kevorkian Center, whose name he has deliberately put on a political statement. If they feel otherwise, they should announce that as well. (Professor Timothy Mitchell, previous director, also signed the boycott letter.) So Lockman wants to know where every academic in Israel stands? Let’s first find out where every member and affiliate of the Kevorkian Center stands.

Update: I’m pleased to report that Professor Lockman has clarified his position to the provost of NYU, repudiating the boycott. “Neither I nor NYU’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies, which I direct, advocate or implement such a boycott,” Lockman writes in a letter dated April 2. And he adds:

I signed the letter as a supporter of academic freedom for Palestinian scholars and academic institutions, not as a supporter of a boycott against Israel. However, the wording of the letter was such that it could have led people to construe my support for the defense of the academic freedom of Palestinians as an endorsement of a boycott of Israeli scholars and academic institutions, which is not the case. In reality, neither the Kevorkian Center, nor I as an individual, advocates or practices a boycott of Israeli scholars or academic institutions. In fact, the Center regularly hosts visiting scholars and professors from Israel and maintains ongoing relations with Israeli academic institutions, and issues related to Israel are part of the Center’s program.

NYU provost David McLaughlin has accepted Lockman’s assurances. The boycott letter that Lockman signed, McLaughlin adds, “was poorly constructed, its wording inadequately precise, and so his signing of it unclear as to his intentions.” Actually, I thought it was pretty straightforward. And as Lockman says he signed the letter via the Internet, I wonder how he failed to notice that the web address of the letter is www.academicboycott.org, and the title of the webpage is “Boycott Israeli Academic and Research Institutions: Open Letter.” That’s not exactly subtle. Even so, I will not dispute the assurances he’s now given.

The main thing, however, is that the provost has added his own assurances:

The University’s position on calls for a boycott is clear. It stands firm against any such boycott, which by its very nature runs counter to the essence of the University, and to the values to which New York University in particular is committed. Our view is that the University is a space that encourages open, free and continuous dialogue free from fear of recrimination.

That’s an important statement by the university’s leading academic official, it binds the entire university, and I’m delighted to have elicited it.

If there is a lesson here, it is that academics, who make their livelihood by the crafting of written and spoken words, should be discriminating in what they sign. I’ll continue to keep a sharp eye on the doings of the Kevorkian Center and its director. But from my point of view, Lockman has done the right thing. I hope the other signatories will follow suit.

Further update: Lockman obfuscates: Professor Lockman now writes a letter to the New York Sun, which ran the above Sandstorm entry on April 1. He reaffirms that he does not support a boycott of Israeli academics (NYU’s provost, in a letter to the newspaper, says the same), but Lockman then makes this claim:

The open letter never calls for or endorses a boycott. To label me as a supporter of a boycott of Israeli scholars and academic institutions, Mr. Kramer therefore has to seize on a single phrase in the letter—”we the undersigned, defenders of Palestinian academic freedom and supporters of the academic boycott”—and twist it into the false allegation that I endorse such a boycott. I am in fact a defender of Palestinian academic freedom (and of everyone else’s academic freedom, including Israelis’) but not a supporter of an academic boycott, and I signed this letter based on the understanding that it is possible to be one but not the other.

It certainly is possible to be one but not the other, but that’s not the point of the letter Lockman signed. I remind him again that the website that published the open letter is at www.academicboycott.org, and the webpage is entitled “Boycott Israeli Academic and Research Institutions: Open Letter.” The letter also takes the form of a challenge to Israeli academics who have organized against the boycott, and ends thus: “We are prepared to join you and other parties in public debate of the academic boycott of your institutions at any time and in any neutral venue.” What’s the point of signing such a challenge to opponents of the boycott, if your own position is also opposed to the boycott?

In fact, the drafters and promotors of the open letter are Lawrence Davidson and Mona Baker, the leading advocates of the academic boycott in the United States and the United Kingdom. When the London Guardian ran a story on the open letter on March 25, it had no doubt as to its meaning. Under the headline “Academic boycott of Israel gathers momentum,” its correspondent wrote: “Leading advocates of an academic boycott of Israel have stepped up their campaign calling for an ‘outing’ of Israeli universities which support their government’s policy on the occupied territories.” Professor Lockman’s failure to see the obvious difference between the position he now professes and that of the open letter, even after it has been pointed out to him, leaves his judgment in question.

But beyond the test of common sense, it’s fairly simple to determine whether I am twisting the letter’s intent, or Professor Lockman is twisting it. If Professor Lockman is right, then among his 450 fellow signatories, there must be others who oppose the boycott. I call upon them to come forward. If there aren’t at least a few dozen signatories who read the letter as Professor Lockman did, then it would seem that he’s the one with the problem of reading comprehension—one shared neither by me nor by the hundreds of his co-signatories who understood exactly what they were signing.

Another update: Lockman scolded. The Washington Square News, NYU’s campus newspaper, has run a story and editorial on Lockman’s signing of the boycott-Israel “open letter.” Lockman, in yet another lapse of professorial judgment, dismisses the controversy as “a bunch of crap.” He also admits he has no idea who drafted the letter he signed, or to whom it was intended. It’s pretty damning stuff, and the accompanying editorial scolds him: “It is clear that [Lockman] did not put enough effort into weighing the possible meanings of the letter before attaching his—and NYU’s—name to it. In the future, it would be very wise for NYU professors to seriously consider the ramifications of any academic petition they sign.”

The Expulsion That Never Was

Among the predictions about the war that didn’t pan out, there is one that hasn’t been subjected to post-war ridicule, but that very much deserves it. This is the December letter, signed by over 1,000 academics, predicting and warning against Israel’s possible “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians in the “fog of war.” The letter ended with this recommendation: “We urge our government to communicate clearly to the government of Israel that the expulsion of people according to race, religion or nationality would constitute crimes against humanity and will not be tolerated.”

The United States made no such communication to the Israeli government, yet lo and behold, no expulsion took place. In the “fog of war,” the Palestinian street demonstrated wildly for Saddam, Palestinian politicians jockeyed for position, and Israel prepared with gas masks and duct tape, like a proper ally/client of the United States. All of this was completely forseeable by anyone with an iota of expertise, experience, and common sense. It was not foreseen by many of America’s leading Middle East “experts,” who put their names to this ridiculous letter, and who in fact seem to have initiated it.

One of the original signatories was Zachary Lockman, professor of Middle Eastern studies and history at New York University. Lockman justified the letter in this way:

People [in the Israeli government] have been calling for expulsion for years, but the Israeli government, including Sharon, realizes that it would not be acceptable under normal circumstances. But in middle of a war in Iraq, especially if they attack Israel, there would be panic and one can imagine all sorts of horrible scenarios. The public could countenance this, or the U.S. could turn a blind eye.

My comment back in December: “Let me not put too fine a point on it: anyone signing this letter, effectively condemning Israel in advance for something it has no intention of doing, is either an ignoramus or a propagandist.” Now that we are after the fact, it’s a point worth reiterating.

I sorted out the Middle East “experts” among the signatories and listed them back in December, so I won’t waste space here. But let me just list the original signatories (eight of fifteen) who are professors of Middle Eastern studies:

Joel Beinin, Stanford
Beshara Doumani, UC Berkeley
Zachary Lockman, New York University
Timothy Mitchell, New York University
Gabi Piterberg, UC Los Angeles
Glenn E. Robinson, Naval Postgraduate School
Ted Swedenburg, University of Arkansas
Judith Tucker, Georgetown University

And among the “additional signatories,” special mention should be made of Laurie Brand, University of Southern California, who is president-elect of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA).

These people have (once again) brought shame on their discipline. Those among them who claim special expertise on Israel and its policies have discredited themselves as interpreters and teachers of that country’s politics and society. And they are now collectively in the moral position of owing apologies to the Israeli people and the Israeli government—of Ariel Sharon. I suggest they make them at the next MESA conference.