Messy politics at the Middle East Studies Association

Singling out Israel for BDS campaigns, and isolating Israeli academic and cultural communities, will not correct the Palestinians’ past shortcomings.

Palestinians in Gaza celebrate cease-fire (photo credit: REUTERS)
Palestinians in Gaza celebrate cease-fire
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the decade that Austro- Hungarian journalist Theodor Herzl came to Zionism, resolving that “the state of the Jews” in the world may not be remedied without a “Jewish state,” anti-Semitism had become the norm of modern life and one of the trappings of polite society; its tropes were now perfunctory standards of learned company, and indeed were met with appreciation among European authors, politicians and intellectual elites.
France had been the most salient theater of this reawakened anti-Semitism that Herzl had borne witness to between 1891 and 1895; France, the mother of all just liberties, the cradle of modern democracy and liberal values, the ferment of human rights, and the inspiration behind the emancipation of world Jewry.
Clermont Tonnerre’s famous declaration in the French National Assembly a mere hundred years earlier granting “the Jews as individuals everything” and “the Jews as a nation nothing,” in effect bestowed upon them the rights, privileges and responsibilities of full citizenship for the first time in more than 2,000 years of liminality and dispossession. Yet, this tenuous moment of optimism was to be a fleeting one, and the Jews’ torments, by Herzl’s reckoning in 1896, were not destined to end before their mass exodus from their countries of residence to their ultimate re-settlement in a state of their own – their Judenstaat.
But Herzl and many Jews of his generation had long since ceased being Jewish; by the late 1890s, a full century after the French Revolution, they had become utterly assimilated citizens of the countries of their birth. Herzl himself was an Austrian, and saw himself as such. His mother tongue was German, and Yiddish, the most visible sign of European Jewishness and a symbol the Jew’s devalued exilic existence, was neither known nor spoken in Herzl’s home.
He had no Jewish friends, no Jewish education, no Jewish sentiment. Indeed his bar mitzvah is believed to have been announced as a Catholic Confirmation in the local press, and his allegiances were to his Austrian identity, not to the latent Jewishness lurking in his ancestors’ past.
But France of the 1890s came to change all that. There was “something rotten” in this birthplace of modern liberalism, wrote one French observer at the time. The Dreyfus Affair was in full swing, and anti-Semitism was now in the easy purview of not only the uncouth, but of educated French society and learned French elites steeped in the principles of the Revolution and its “liberté, égalité, fraternité” slogan. “Death to the Jews,” and other rhetorical devices of the classic anti-Semitism of yore – some couched in cultivated literate language, others not so nuanced or couth – became staples of France’s, and subsequently Europe’s, educated company, later culminating in the destruction of European Jewry by the middle of the twentieth century.
THIS IS the charged atmosphere in which the Middle East Studies Association of North America came to adopt a resolution on November 24, feigning to “protect” its members’ freedom to discuss and eventually support – or, in the telling of some defenders of the resolution, perhaps not support – their professional association’s possible endorsement of an academic and cultural boycott, divestment and sanctioning of the State of Israel (BDS.) The resolution’s leitmotif had been that individual members of MESA and other Middle East Studies professionals who are advocates of BDS often endure censure in the workplace and end up being denied jobs, or lose jobs, or have their careers upended merely on account of their vocal support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement.
Oblivious as it is to an alternative scenario where practitioners of a dissident historiography of the Middle East who question their field’s Arabist orthodoxies are often more likely to suffer professional retaliation than their post-colonialist counterparts, the subtext of the BDS claim seemed to suggest a cabal muzzling those speaking for Palestine. Yet it is precisely those academics whose focus is overtly on Middle Eastern minorities and minority narratives who are not the fashionable lot in traditional Middle East Studies circles, and who are often the targets of inequities and negative bias.
For decades now, academia and public policy professionals focusing on the Middle East have been permeated by a single, monolithic, radical ideology deeming the region in immutable essentialist terms; an “innocent East” steadily and perpetually despoiled by a “rapacious West.” Robert Kaplan expressed this slant against Middle East minority narratives in the conclusion of his remarkable book The Arabists.
Middle East specialists, the so called Arabists, noted Kaplan, “[h]ave not liked Middle Eastern minorities.
Arabists have been guilty [...] of loving the majority and the idea of Uruba, which roughly translates as ‘Arabism.’ I remember once going to a Foreign Service party and hearing people refer to the Maronite Christians of Lebanon as ‘fascists.’” Lebanese commentator Michael Young chimed in noting that “pro-Arab Americans [cannot] stomach [Middle Eastern] Christians [...] estranged from [... the Muslims] and from the Arab nationalism the region engendered.”
When a BDS opponent at this year’s MESA meeting attempted to shed light on this often neglected failing of her field, where those who did not pass the Palestine litmus test were denied tenure and publication and were “literally expelled from university,” she was hissed and dismissed by the BDS crowd.
And so, as expected, the contentious resolution passed, with an overwhelming majority of 265 against 79. Yet, it is important to reiterate that the resolution in question did not openly call for MESA ’s adoption of a BDS policy, but rather couched its authors’ wish that the association eventually adopt such a policy in the language of “freedom of speech” and “open and transparent conversations.” This is all in light of MESA touting itself as a “private, non-profit, non-political learned society.”
As such, MESA may be wading into uncharted waters – and indeed may be violating its own charter – should it decide to adopt a BDS policy, which would essentially amount to political advocacy falling outside the purview of purely academic practice.
AND SO a word of caution may be in order about this MESA resolution, which, again, it bears repeating, was not a BDS resolution per se, but rather one that would allow MESA members, at some point in the future, to deliberate about BDS, and to pass (“or not”) a BDS motion.
This suggests that MESA members, in the present or sometime in the past, were somehow prevented from practicing their unhindered academic freedom. This, of course, flies in the face of the Association’s reputation as a guild overwhelmingly sympathetic to “Arabist” causes, and overly critical of, perhaps even at times hostile to, academic colleagues espousing alternative views. That was at least the language in which both the discussions and the actual (BDS resolution) text, in both its semantics and content, were framed; a text that, in the words of a former MESA president and University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole, himself a vocal critic of Israel, was superfluous and pointless.
Indeed, Professor Cole was clear-throated in his support of the “spirit” of the resolution, which called for the freedom of academic discussions of Israel-Palestine issues, and the freedom of individual MESA members to preach and practice BDS. But Cole noted that such a resolution would be “redundant” and “completely unnecessary,” claiming that MESA , as a matter of principle, and as a professional organization upholding academic freedom, had always, and vociferously so, denounced the “selective firing” of academic colleagues, especially pro-BDS scholars.
Cole further noted that MESA had been “at the forefront of condemning any intent to interfere with people’s ability to talk about BDS, or to implement it.” Cole was visibly perplexed at the nature and both the intended audience and target of the resolution under consideration; “It is not necessary,” he stressed, and as to the claim of it providing for a free and transparent space for discussing BDS, he reminded his colleagues that, “There is already such a space at MESA . I mean, you guys elected these people who are on the Board, and we have a business meeting every year that people can come to and express their views. [...] This resolution is kind of a slap in the face of the MESA Board that you have elected.
It implies that we are standing in the way of you discussing things, or that [the Board is] standing in the way of you discussing things. So this resolution is not necessary, and it mingles issues in unfortunate ways.
“The second thing to say is with regards to the general BDS issue: I tried to tell the Bush administration not to invade Iraq; I tried to tell Iraqis ‘don’t sectarianize your politics’; I’m telling you now that ‘MESA is not like the American Studies Association [which has recently adopted a BDS policy]; MESA is in the thicket of the Middle East; we deal with the Middle East on a daily basis, and so, you go down this [BDS] path, and you will end up having to boycott Turkey, or Armenia, or the Kurds, and you will end up having to boycott this country and that country, and we will end up not being able to have a [single MESA ] meeting any longer.’” In that sense, Cole was perhaps sounding a warning against the possible splitting up of MESA into multiple entities should it opt for politicizing its mission, rending along the fault lines of the Middle East’s friction points and conflicts – again, abdicating its calling as a “non-political learned society.”
THOSE WHO proposed this seemingly redundant (and contentious) resolution were many. Some were younger, irreverent, militant members of MESA ; others were not so young, more seasoned, more reasoned. They were a group from varied disciplines, ethnic, religious, cultural and ideological backgrounds, perhaps driven more by passion and political predilections than by sober academic concerns.
But whoever they were, the tone, language and method that the BDS advocates employed to make their case during an open forum on Sunday November 23, 2014, were a far cry from the “academic freedom” that they feigned as lodestar, often resorting to jeering and heckling those providing a counterpoint to theirs, and drowning in applause those upholding their own assumptions.
At one point during the Sunday forum, one of the most passionate advocates of the proposal, Lisa Hajjar, a professor of sociology at the University of California Santa Barbara and a newly elected MESA Board member, addressed the venerable Ilan Troen, president-elect of the Association for Israel Studies and Stoll Professor of Israel Studies at Brandeis University who was making the case against BDS, referring to him as an ignoramus. Looking him in the face, Hajjar told Professor Troen ,“Sorry to say this to you, but there are some of the best experts on Israel in the world sitting in this room, I don’t know why someone with your somewhat limited intellectual abilities was chosen for this role.”
Such atmospherics, venomous diatribe, lack of collegiality, lack of civility, plain indecency and ad hominem invective unbecoming of an academic forum, leveled with brio at the opposing side, dominated the conversation, and seemed to do a greater disservice to the Palestinians and their cause than BDS may ever do to Israel. Furthermore, this lack of professionalism and basic human decency, bordering on plain thuggery, reminded many of those present why they seldom come to MESA meetings anymore, and why in their telling the association had long since stopped being the dispassionate professional society representing their field, in all its tendencies and all its incarnations. Yet, those American academics with an axe to grind, laying claim to MESA and spearheading the motion to bring BDS to MESA , would remain undaunted in their determination to fight Israel and shun Israeli academics – arguably the most vocal and most committed of Israel’s critics – to the last Palestinian.
It is needless to say that members of MESA who wish to support BDS are well within their right to do so, both as individuals and as individual academics. However, where a line needs to be drawn is at the notion that MESA , as an organization that is a “non-political learned society,” should somehow be made into a political advocacy group on behalf of one Middle Eastern camp against another. That itself is a dangerous slippery slope. And the fallout from it can be a dire indeed. Not only for MESA itself whose credibility (let it be said again) as “a non-political learned society” will not escape unscathed. By adopting a BDS resolution (if it does) MESA will have effectively dragged itself into the thicket of the Middle East’s political rivalries and renounced its role as the dispassionate neutral academic association that it claims to be, advancing knowledge about the Middle East as a whole, in all its incarnations, and promoting cooperation among intellectuals, academics and higher learning institution invested in the study of the region.
Indeed a BDS resolution singling out Israeli academic institutions (and by association affiliated Israeli academics who may be Muslim, Christian and Druse, alongside Israeli Jews), flies in the face of the association’s claims to being a “non-political” entity. Moreover, and notwithstanding the effect that such a resolution may have on Israeli scholars – who are themselves perhaps among the most critical of Israel – a BDS decision may perhaps affect Palestinians more severely; Palestinians who are an integral part of Israel’s academic and intellectual life (Palestinian undergraduate and graduate students in Israeli institutes of higher learning and professional schools, and Palestinian academics, doctors, university administrators and program directors, who also are a fixture of Israel’s academic and cultural life).
Indeed, the reckless radical current behind this movement seems to be driven more by ideology than academic engagement or commitment to diversity of perspective, and risks sapping the academic relevance of a venerable association for the sake of advancing a political agenda.
And as Professor Juan Cole delicately reminded his radical colleagues, should a BDS resolution targeting Israel be adopted, where should MESA draw the line from that point on? What would its “morning after” look like? Should it stop at Israel? Wouldn’t, say, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey, or Syria come next? Or first? CER TAINLY THERE were no explicit detectable anti-Semitic tropes trotted out at MESA 2014. But as it stands, the language, mood and tone of the discussions and the resolution that was passed smacked of a lack of consideration for – and indeed perhaps even open discrimination against – academic colleagues with an opposing view; in sum an attempt at punishing Israeli scholars and institutions, not based on the quality of their academic work, but rather due to their ethno-religious and national origins. But as noted earlier, leading longtime members of MESA spoke in very strong terms against the adoption of such a resolution, and MESA ’s outgoing president himself, Professor Nathan Brown, neutral an image as he might have tried to project, did not seem to exude enthusiasm for the proposal.
As to whether or not MESA members would feel comfortable allowing colleagues to support what some consider “a racist and anti-Semitic movement” – a movement that Mahmoud Abbas himself, president of the Palestinian Authority, does not support and deems counterproductive – the answer is of course no. But that is not necessarily the issue at hand.
The issue is one of swaying and pressuring, perhaps even intimidating, academic colleagues, especially younger, untenured colleagues, to take a stand on a fashionable cause célèbre, and pillory a professional “non-political” organization to follow suit – a “non-political” organization, no less, that should ordinarily remain outside the political fray and act as a voice of reason in a combustive ideological dispute that has long since begun consuming a captive academic field.
But certainly, it seems that singling out Israel alone as the root-cause of the Palestinians’ sufferings, and steering clear from Palestinian introspection and Palestinian self-criticism and shared responsibility in what befell and befalls Palestinians, and normalizing the notion that Israel alone stands as culprit in the Middle East’s ills, does seem to have a distant analogue and precedent in Europe of the late nineteenth century; a Europe of a hundred years ago, when vulgar and not-so-vulgar anti-Semitic screeds became the staples of polite, learned, intellectual society, and where a Jew could stand trial for crimes others committed.
As the late Fouad Ajami put it in his Arab Predicament, from 1947-48 and before, to 1967 onward, and to this very day, through all the Arabs’ battles with enemies imagined and real, little has changed in the Arabs’ narratives, tactics, obsessions, gripes and defenses. Arabs push things to the brink, noted Ajami; they hector (or “make like men,” yatamarjaluun, as the Arabic adage of chivalry goes); they lose out; they protest the other’s perfidy; and they retreat back into obsolete notions of life and history and politics and war.
What is needed today, in Middle East Studies and among friends of Palestinian-Arabs, is less bluster and saber rattling and pushing things to the brink. What is needed is more reason and decency dignifying the Palestinians’ cause; more taking stock of one’s failures and a modicum of introspection and self-criticism.
Israel certainly deserves much blame for what has befallen the Palestinian Arabs in some 60 years of dispossession.
But “shared responsibility” is a magic phrase that Arabs would do well bringing into their political lexicon.
The fact that no peace was made in 1948 and its aftermath; the fact that no peace was made in 1967 and its aftermath; and the fact that no peace is being made today, all have to do at least partially with the Arabs’ own failings and incoherence. Singling out Israel for BDS campaigns, and isolating Israeli academic and cultural communities, will not correct the Palestinians’ past shortcomings. They will inaugurate new chapters of anti-Semitism and xenophobia in Middle East Studies circles, further politicizing an already combustive academic field, and ultimately do a great disservice to the Palestinians’ cause.
The author is Associate Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Boston College. He is series editor of Lexington Books’ The Levant and Near East; A Multidisciplinary Book Series, founding editor-in-chief of The Levantine Review, author of Language Memory and Identity in the Middle East; The Case for Lebanon (Lexington, 2010), and the forthcoming The Other Middle East; An Anthology of Levantine Literature (Yale), and Charles Corm: Poet, Humanist, Entrepreneur, Patriot; An Intellectual Biography (Lexington).