The Middle East Studies Association (MESA), which boasts over 2,800 members, has long been a friend of anti-Israel advocacy. The historian Martin Kramer, considering what was on offer at MESA’s 2005 conference, wrote that “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.” “Paper after paper,” he added, presents an “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.”
To learn more about the deep roots of this kind of thing in MESA and the field of Middle East Studies, one does well to read Kramer’s 2001 book on the subject. Yet MESA, whose bylaws not so long ago described it as “nonpolitical” and whose membership includes some principled scholars, have refrained from endorsing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel. Also in 2005, Ali Banuazizi, then president of the organization, wrote on the Association’s behalf to denounce a boycott of two Israel universities instigated by Britain’s Association of University Teachers. Banuazizi explained that the boycott contradicted “the deep commitment of this association and its membership to the principles of academic freedom and the free exchange of information and ideas.”
So much for that. In 2017, MESA’s membership removed “nonpolitical” from its bylaws. And this year, voters at MESA’s annual conference overwhelmingly passed a resolution that “endorses the 2005 call of Palestinian civil society for BDS against Israel.” A full membership vote is scheduled for next year.
The text of the resolution can be found here.
Although MESA’s members, unlike the other academic groups that have endorsed BDS, study the Middle East, their resolution rehearses the usual talking points. Presumably, because some members have some qualms about a scholarly association running a political campaign, most of it centers on alleged Israeli violations of academic freedom, which arguably fall under the purview of an academic association. But the charges, as I’ve explained elsewhere, are overblown. And singling out Israel, of all places in the Middle East, for a comprehensive boycott over its record on academic freedom is outrageous.
In any case, academic freedom is just a fig leaf for MESA. If it weren’t, the organization would not have endorsed the BDS call for economic and cultural sanctions until Israel stops occupying “all Arab lands,” a formulation that asks Israel to stop occupying Israel. It would not have endorsed a call for “full equality” that requires the repeal of the law of return that is essential to Israel’s character as a refuge for Jews. It would not have endorsed a call for a right of return for Palestinians that would, as President Obama once said, “extinguish Israel as a Jewish state.” It would not have endorsed the call of a movement that only pretends to embrace nonviolence.
And it would not have agreed, in the name of academic freedom, to participate in a boycott that undermines it, as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has recognized. So have over 250 universities, which rejected a similar move by the American Studies Association in 2011. At that time, some institutions also canceled their institutional memberships in ASA.
If, as seems likely, MESA’s full membership passes this resolution, university presidents should reject it in the same manner.
As the 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure recognized, academic freedom is premised on the idea that a university is “a non-partisan institution of learning.” MESA and like-minded groups dare trustees and legislators to conclude that, if the university is going to be a partisan institution, then it may as well reflect their partisanship rather than the partisanship of professors. That legislators have themselves been indifferent to academic freedom isn’t surprising: academic freedom has few reliable friends. What is surprising, though by now it’s par for the course, is the willingness of academics actively to will their own destruction.
And for what? Academics aren’t federal judges, constrained individually from engaging in political activity. They can sign petitions, join marches, carry pictures of Chairman Mao, and issue mean tweets against their political enemies. To throw over the integrity of one’s profession merely to make official what everyone suspects about the views of MESA members is sheer incontinence.
Anti-Israel politics brings that out in people.
Jonathan Marks, a contributor to Commentary’s blog, is the author of Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education.