Campus Watch Research
The Politicization of Middle East Studies
by Efraim Karsh and Asaf Romirowsky
The influential Middle East Studies Association objects to the State Department's definition of anti-Semitism, thereby giving up any pretense of professionalism it still had.
It has been a while since the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the largest and most influential professional body for the study of the region, whose 2,700-plus members inhabit departments of Middle East studies throughout the world, dropped its original designation as a "non-political learned society" to become a hotbed of anti-Israel invective. So deep has the rot settled that the association seems totally oblivious (or rather indifferent) to the fact that its recent endorsement of the anti-Israel de-legitimization campaign, and attendant efforts to obstruct the containment of resurgent anti-Semitism on U.S. campuses, have effectively crossed the thin line between "normal" Israel-bashing and classical Jew baiting.
On February 15 of this year, a MESA referendum approved a resolution, passed by the membership during the association's annual meeting three months earlier, which not only lauded the "calls for [anti-Israel] institutional boycott, divestment, and/or sanctions [BDS]" as "legitimate forms of non-violent political action" and deplored opposition to these exclusionary moves as an assault on the freedom of speech, but "strongly urge[d] 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."
Jews have of course been subjected to all kinds of segregation, ostracism, and boycotting from time immemorial and the BDS is but the latest manifestation of this millenarian hate fest. Those sponsoring it are obviously more interested in hurting Israel, if not obliterating it altogether (as many of its leaders have openly conceded), than in promoting human rights; otherwise they would be pushing boycotts of the numerous Middle Eastern dictatorships that are guilty of the most horrendous atrocities against their own peoples rather than targeting the region's only democracy, and the only place in the Middle East where academics enjoy complete and unrestricted freedom of expression.
There were, for example, no boycotts of Saddam's Iraq, Qaddafi's Libya, or King Hussein's Jordan, the latter of which killed more Palestinians in the single month of September 1970 than Israel did in decades. Nor has there been a boycott of the Syrian regime, which slaughtered far more people over the past four years than those killed during the 100 years of Arab-Israeli infighting; or of its Iranian abettor, which, apart from torturing its hapless subjects for nearly four decades and triggering a war that claimed some million lives, is the world's foremost sponsor of terrorism and an open proponent of a genocide against an existing member of the international community; or of Turkey for its oppression of the vast Kurdish and Alevi minorities and the incarceration of thousands of political activists on the flimsiest and most dubious charges; or of Saudi Arabia for its political oppression and gender apartheid; or of the oppressive and corrupt regime in the West Bank and Gaza established by Yasser Arafat (the so-called Palestinian Authority). And so on and so forth.
Nor do these boycotts, especially the academic one, reflect an honest sense of solidarity with the Palestinians in general, and the Palestinian universities of the West Bank and Gaza in particular, which for the past two decades have been under the control not of Israel but of the Palestinian Authority. Rather, they are an unabashed attempt to single out Israel as a pariah nation, to declare its existence illegitimate. As such, Israeli universities are to be ostracized not for any supposed repression of academic freedom but for their contribution to the creation and prosperity of the Jewish state of Israel, a supposedly racist, colonialist implant in the Middle East as worthy of extirpation as the formerly apartheid regime of South Africa.
Given these circumstances, it was only natural for MESA President Nathan Brown to warn University of California President Janet Napolitano last month that its adoption of the State Department definition of anti-Semitism, as requested by some Jewish organizations, "would have a chilling effect on scholarly discussion of international affairs in California." This is because, in his view, the definition "includes, as examples of anti-Semitism, certain kinds of philosophical and political criticisms of the State of Israel which are not only valid topics of academic discussion but are protected by the free speech guarantees of the U.S. Constitution and by the principles of academic freedom enshrined in California law and in University of California system policy."
It goes without saying that no state is above criticism and that faulting Israel for acts of commission or omission is a legitimate part of the political (and scholarly) discourse. But does the State Department definition of anti-Semitism seek to stifle this discourse as Brown claims? Quite the reverse, in fact: it takes care to stress that "criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic." At the same time, however, the definition makes a clear distinction between such legitimate criticism and the constant outpouring of outlandish anti-Israel diatribes (often masqueraded as "philosophical and political criticisms") which it considers pure and unadulterated anti-Semitism; and it offers three main ways in which this bigotry is manifested:
Had such abuse been meted out to any other state, religious community, or ethnic/national group in the Middle East (and beyond), it is doubtful whether MESA would have considered it a "valid topic of academic discussion." Yet its leaders and luminaries have had no qualms about singling out Jews and Israelis for disproportionate and unique opprobrium and denying them—and them alone—the basic right to national self-determination while allowing it to all other groups and communities, however new and tenuous their claim to nationhood. The late Edward Said, who exerted immense influence on the association despite having done no independent research on the Middle East or Islam, was a vocal proponent of the "one-state solution"—the standard euphemism for Israel's replacement by an Arab/Muslim state in which Jews would be reduced to a permanent minority. Past MESA presidents like Rashid Khalidi (holder of the Edward Said chair at Columbia University), Joel Beinin, Juan Cole, among others, have, in one form or another, publicly advocated the destruction of Israel as a state. This is not a legitimate "philosophical and political criticism of the State of Israel" but reiteration of the millenarian anti-Semitic myth of the "Wandering Jew": a rootless nomad lacking an authentic corporate identity and condemned to permanent lingering on the fringes of history without an indigenous place he could call home.
MESA's Jewish and Israeli members should therefore insist that their association reverts to its original mission to "foster the study of the Middle East, promote high standards of scholarship and teaching, and encourage public understanding of the region and its peoples" rather than endlessly obsess with Israel and Jews. Should this demand prove unavailing, as it most likely will, they should shun membership in the association. Fortunately enough, MESA is no longer the only professional venue in the field of Middle Eastern studies.
Efraim Karsh is emeritus professor of Middle East and Mediterranean Studies at King's College London and professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan university, where he is also a senior research associate at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies. Asaf Romirowsky is Executive Director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) and a research fellow at the Middle East Forum. The authors thank the Middle East Forum for its sponsorship of this essay.
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