Posts Tagged Middle East Studies Association
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.
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This article first appeared at Foreign Policy on December 20.
I am now subject to a boycott by the American Studies Association (ASA), an organization of professors that includes roughly 5,000 members. The resolution, passed by the organization’s rank-and-file on Dec. 15, supposedly doesn’t apply to individuals, but it applies to me. The ASA explains:
The American Studies Association understands boycott as limited to a refusal on the part of the ASA in its official capacities to enter into formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions, or with scholars who are expressly serving as representatives or ambassadors of those institutions (such as deans, rectors, presidents and others) … until Israel ceases to violate human rights and international law.
Since I am the president of Shalem College in Jerusalem, an accredited Israeli academic institution, I’m clearly subject to the ASA boycott. And while my fledgling liberal arts college doesn’t have any “formal collaborations” with the ASA, it’s the thought that counts.
So just what was the ASA thinking? I don’t follow American studies—my field is the Middle East—and until this episode, I hadn’t heard of the organization. What I know about such associations comes from the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), an organization of scholars who study the region. Needless to say, MESA has had plenty of boycott advocates among its leadership and rank-and-file. A few years back, they tried to pull MESA onto the boycott cart, but they failed.
Boycott advocates haven’t tried since, and for good reason: There are just too many people in MESA who know something about the Middle East. And by those standards, it’s not self-evident that Israel should be singled out and boycotted for its supposed transgressions. All you have to do is peruse the “intervention letters” sent by MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom. These letters-in-a-bottle to the likes of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan protesting dismissals and show trials of scholars and police violence on campuses are a pretty good indicator of where academic freedom in the Middle East is truly imperiled.
ASA president Curtis Marez acknowledged that some countries in the region have worse human rights records than Israel. However, he then justified the boycott with the unforgettable claim that “one has to start somewhere.”
If you know nothing about the Middle East, and have made a studied effort not to know more, you might think that “somewhere” is Israel. That’s because Israel and the Palestinians get outsized attention—in America. The crimes of others are ignored: What Syrians do to Syrians, Egyptians do to Egyptians, and Iranians do to Iranians—especially to professors—just isn’t compelling news, no matter how horrific. In that sense, the boycott resolution perfectly mirrors the U.S.-centric bias of the ASA: Everything over the horizon, beyond the continental scope of “American studies,” is just a vague blur of media caricatures.
One of the ASA’s central ideological prisms appears to be that the United States is an aggressive empire. Just scan the program of last year’s annual conference, titled “Dimensions of Empire and Resistance,” which was billed as a reflection “on indigeneity and dispossession,” the “course of U.S. empire.”
The United States has a range of allies and clients in the Middle East—but only Israel is viewed positively by a large majority of Americans, while Israelis themselves are overwhelmingly pro-American. For the ASA, that appears to be the bill of indictment right there. The surly Saudis are deeply ambivalent about America, but they’ve spread hush money across the American academic landscape, so don’t expect them to be boycotted. No, it will be Israel—as punishment not for its offenses, which aren’t the worst by any means, but for its “special relationship” with the United States.
I’m not exactly sure what I should do to get myself off the ASA’s blacklist. The organization posed this very question in an explainer about its decision, and could only conclude: “This is a difficult question to answer. The boycott is designed to put real and symbolic pressure on universities to take an active role in ending the Israeli occupation and in extending equal rights to Palestinians.”
Although this isn’t an answer at all, it suggests that I should abandon what I believe under pressure—acting not out of conviction, but out of fear for the fate of my institution. Instead of speaking truth, I am supposed to distort my truth. The boycott presumes that I am akin to a widget exporter, so focused on my bottom line that I can be turned into a lobby for just about any cause with the sufficient application of “pressure.”
Here is the fatal flaw in the boycott’s design: If I, as a scholar, were to change my tune under “pressure,” my credibility would be rightly destroyed, and I would lose my power to convince anyone of anything.
Let’s say that I’m on a first-name basis with a few Israeli cabinet ministers (I am). According to the boycott’s strategy, I should request a meeting with each of them, and tell them it is time to “end the occupation and extend equal rights to Palestinians.” “Why?” they would ask. What has changed since the last time we had a conversation?
In the past, I spoke out of conviction, in terms of what would best serve the interests of the State of Israel and the Jewish people. So why should they give a whit if, now, I tell them I speak out of fear for the standing of one institution, cherished though it may be? I would not only be unconvincing, I would become contemptible in the eyes of others and, above all, myself.
So I regret to inform the ASA that I will not knuckle under. I would sooner resign my presidency than alter, by one iota, my considered view of what is best for Israel. I may not be right (especially by the standards of the ASA resolution, which, if Peter Beinart’s assessment is correct, implies that the best thing for Israel would be its total dissolution). But it is my truth, arrived at freely, and the suggestion that I might be pressured into distorting it presumes that I, and my fellow heads of Israeli universities, lack all intellectual integrity. To which my reply is: Boycott me. Please.
While we languish under boycott, Shalem College will continue to do our best to bring to Israel the benefits of an American-style education. Ours is the first institution in Israel to find inspiration in the American tradition of the small liberal arts college. Shalem Press, our scholarly imprint, has commissioned and published outstanding Hebrew translations of The Federalist Papers, Thomas Paine’s Common Sense, and Alexis de Toqueville’s Democracy in America. These works are now assigned in dozens of university courses throughout Israel. We will continue to bring the most important American ideas to Israeli readers in Hebrew. And we will continue to teach our Israeli undergraduates the fundamental ideals behind the world’s greatest democracy, and their origins and resonance in the Jewish tradition. Boycott or not.
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Every three years, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) brings its annual conference to Washington, presumably to impress upon lawmakers the relevance of Middle Eastern studies. The conference is meeting in a Washington hotel right now. So it’s an appropriate moment to consider how the field’s priorities have shifted since 9/11 and the Iraq war.
One measurable indicator is the papers presented at the annual conference. In the four MESA conferences since 9/11 (2002 through this year), some 1,900 papers have appeared in the program. That’s a substantial sample of what interests people. But it’s more than a measure of pure intellectual interest. Like all such meetings, MESA is a place where grad students and untenured faculty display their wares, in the hope of attracting job offers. It’s also where the mandarins send signals to their lessers about what’s in and what’s out.
So just what do these people study? There are all sorts of ways to answers this question. One could look at different themes (e.g., gender, Islamism), categorize MESA papers accordingly, and come up with some trends. But that leaves a lot of room for subjective judgment, and some paper titles are so obscure as to defy easy categorization.
Sandbox takes a different approach. The Middle East is a large and diverse place. It includes many Arab countries, Turkey, Iran, and Israel. With the help of my research assistant, Sandbox has gone back over the last four MESA conference programs. We’ve looked through all paper titles for explicit mention of one of seven countries: Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. These countries are where where you would expect to find a greater focus, because of their large populations or geostrategic significance. We’ve added up the papers, and plotted the results here. (The vertical axis is the percentage of total papers; the figure next to the name of the country is the total number of papers in the 2005 conference.)
(Click here for the full tabulation.)
The conclusion of these findings is incontrovertible. For MESAns, the Palestinians are the chosen people, and more so now than ever. More papers are devoted to Palestine than to any other country. There are ten times as many Egyptians as there are Palestinians, but they get less attention; there are ten times as many Iranians, but Iran gets less than half the attention. Even Iraq, America’s project in the Middle East, still inspires only half the papers that Palestine does. Papers dealing with Israel are only half as numerous as those on Palestine, and only three of these are about Israel per se, apart from the Arab-Israeli conflict. More than half of the Israel-related papers actually overlap the Palestine category. MESA’s Palestine obsession has reached new heights, suggesting this: academe is gearing up for its next intifada.
To appreciate that, you have to go beyond the numbers, to the content of this “scholarship.” There you discover that many of the presentations, if not most of them, are blatant attempts to academize anti-Israel agitprop. Here are three quick examples, selected pretty much at random from the program.
There’s a paper by one Nasser Abufarha, University of Wisconsin-Madison, entitled “The Making of a Human Bomb: State Expansion and Modes of Resistance in Palestine.” It turns out that Abufarha, a grad student, is already well on his way to recognition as a one-man Palestinian propaganda machine. He made this speech at an April 2002 rally in Madison:
In 1948 the State of Israel stole Palestine of its people, its land… In 1967, the Israelis occupied the remainder of Palestine after stealing the nation as a whole….They came to Palestine and forced us, the Palestinians, to pay the price for their troubled history—and we are still paying with our blood and tears…. I salute my people in Jenin for defending our city in the face of the most brutal, murderous army, supported by the most lethal Amercan weapons…. Our message to Powell and Bush: join the world community that has called to impose sanctions on the apartheid state of Israel! (applause)
Abufarha also oozed this bit of sentimental syrup:
For over fifty years, cactus trees in stolen Palestine produce their fruit every season and don’t find the people to pick them (they are surrounded by strangers who don’t know how or when to pick them, or what they taste like, or if they are even edible). They are patiently blooming their beautiful yellow flowers every spring and fruiting every summer hoping that the people who know them would come the next season. We shall return.
With a Wisconsin Ph.D. in cultural anthropology, an “academic” paper on Palestinian “human bombs,” and the support of the MESA network, Abufarha is sure to land a spot teaching “Israel/Palestine” at a university near you.
Here’s another example, taken at random: Noura Erakat, law school at the University of California, Berkeley, offers a paper on “Non-State Parties in International Criminal Tribunals: A Case Study of Palestinian Refugees from Jenin Refugee Camp.” Noura Erakat is a campus agitator and co-founder of Law Students for Justice in Palestine, a pro-divestment group. This is how she describes herself (warning: this is not a parody):
I never hesitate to assert my Palestinian identity. I am frustrated by the U.S. government’s colonization of Iraq, its support of Israeli colonization of Palestinian land, and its economic and military domination of the Arab world in general…. I believe that imperialist ambition of conquest and the accumulation of wealth drive U.S. foreign policy. I believe that people of color within the U.S. and the Global South, generally, incur similar repression and marginalization due to U.S. imperial exercises; I, therefore, identify as a person of color from the Global South. Consequently, I share similar struggles with Latina women, but I am Arabiya [an Arab woman].
Erakat has a two-year fellowship at Berkeley to develop a litigation project to sue Israelis for alleged human rights violations, sue U.S. corporations doing military business with Israel, and protect pro-Palestinian activists and scholars in the United States. Now she’ll have a MESA conference paper on her resume—another “academic” fig leaf to cover her naked propaganda when she goes for her next fellowship.
Here’s another case: Lori Allen, a post-doc in anthropology at Brown University, offers a paper trendily entitled “Martyr Bodies: Aesthetics and the Politics of Suffering in the Palestinian Intifada.” Allen’s projects are textbook cases of how to disguise agitprop as scholarship. She did a doctorate at the University of Chicago which purports to be an “ethnography” of the second intifada. The Social Science Research Council funded her research in the West Bank, which was to “examine the role which discourses of pain and suffering play in the creation of Palestinian nationalism.”
While in the field, she wrote passionate reportage full of… Palestinian pain and suffering, which she made her own. “It is true that some have accused me of writing one-sided propaganda,” she admitted, “and others have warned me against publishing views in a necessarily simplified form that might be interpreted in credibility-wrecking ways. But writing about Palestine from a sympathetic point of view is always going to elicit such commentary, and the professional risks are outweighed by what I feel to be professional obligations and moral imperatives.” (I assure Dr. Allen she has nothing to worry about. If she keeps writing one-sided propaganda in simplified form, her academic credibility will increase. It’s a risk-free strategy. But I suspect she knows this already.)
One could go on and on in this depressing exercise. Paper after paper reveals itself to be elaboration of Palestinian nationalist ideology, “academized” into “discourse” by grad students and post-docs who’ve already given stump harangues, organized sit-ins, and written passionate propaganda pieces. This same kind of nationalism, practiced in any other field, would be dismissed as primitive pap. But exceptions are regularly made, and standards are regularly suspended, for crudely apologetic and celebratory analysis applied to (and by) Palestinians. Of course, no one dares to call any of this work mediocre, which is why so many mediocre pseudo-academics produce it. The appalling truth is that in the Edward Said-inflected, Rashid Khalidi-infested field of Middle Eastern studies, you dramatically improve your chances if you sell yourself as a Joseph Massad-in-the-making—someone likely to come up with the next great breakthrough to follow Massad’s ingenious discovery that Zionism is really a form of antisemitism.
The foundations of the next academic intifada are being laid right now. When the next major crisis comes in Israeli-Palestinian relations, dozens of Massad-like agitators will have taken up secure positions on campuses, having first established their polemical bona fides in the Palestine-fest of MESA. A few years hence, they will have completed the academic mainstreaming of the “one-state solution” and “apartheid Israel,” and they will have generated a vast literature, with theoretical prefaces and bloated footnotes, blaming Palestinian suicide bombings on their Israeli victims. When the sign is given from Palestine, Israel will be assaulted on campus by a veritable army of propagandists, who’ve been smuggled into the ivory tower because no one has had the courage to stop them, or even to call such smuggling a degradation of scholarship.
So remember MESA 2005 when the next intifada sweeps academe. Sandbox warned you.
The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) is meeting at this very moment in Washington. Over at Sandstorm, I do some counting, which reveals the herd instinct at work: MESAns just love to do papers on Palestine and the Palestinians. Read the column to find out why.
And here’s a pop question: what’s the least-studied Arab country among MESAns? Answer: it’s probably Saudi Arabia, to judge from the numbers. (See the graph at Sandstorm.) Why? For the context, pay a visit here.
I’m still awaiting the results of the MESA presidential race (Zachary Lockman vs. Mark Tessler), and the elections for the board of directors (the egregious Joseph Massad is a candidate). And who will fill the one empty spot reserved for honorary fellows? (Here’s my preference.) I await the white smoke from the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel.
Quick update: Word reaches me that Zachary Lockman is the new president-elect of MESA–as I predicted. MESA has lurched to the radical left, rejecting the garden-variety liberal Mark Tessler. Has the other shoe dropped? (Massad!) I’m still waiting…
Further update: Joseph Massad didn’t win a spot on the MESA board. (I made no prediction on that one.) No one was chosen to join the ranks of honorary fellows. And there was a major fracas at the business meeting, created by supporters of the academic boycott of Israel. I’ll look for reliable, first-hand accounts.
Elections for president of the Middle East Studies Association ended last Friday. The results won’t be announced until the association holds its annual conference in another month. But I’ve closed my own straw poll, and on its basis, I’m going to project a winner: Zachary Lockman (NYU) will beat Mark Tessler (Michigan).
Now you may ask how in the world my poll justifies such a call. A total of 45 people voted: 33 voted for Tessler (73 percent), and 12 for Lockman (27 percent). That would seem to point to a landslide victory for Tessler.
Ah, but you see, the people who vote at my website tend to do the opposite of the average MESAn. Last year I ran the same straw poll, and 63 people voted. Fred Donner (Chicago) got 71 percent of the votes, and Juan Cole (Michigan) received only 29 percent. But Cole won the election! So on the basis of that admittedly slim precedent, a candidate who wins by a 70-percent-plus landslide on my site is in big trouble at MESA.
This is my thesis, at least, and I now await the empirical findings that will validate or refute it. Gee, it’s exciting to practice political science on such a high order. I’ll be staying up all night for the next month waiting for the official results.