The Middle East Studies Association Imagines Its Future

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The large room at the Marriott Wardman Park was filled to overflowing on Sunday afternoon for a special session billed as “Thinking Palestine Intersectionally.” The seats were occupied and scores of others stood along the walls, sat on the floor in front of the stage, and spilled out into the hallway. For many it was clearly the highlight of The Middle East Studies Association’s November 2017 annual meeting of faculty and graduate students, held in Washington, DC. Perhaps 500 people were present to hear Noura Erakat, Judith Butler, Samera Esmeir, and Angela Davis be hailed as symbolic conquerors of the Jewish state. “The peace process is over,” Erakat began, and then affirmed “the entwinement of our liberation,” offering her own take on intersectionality. The real reason the United States blocked the “Zionism is racism” framework, she declared was “to prevent itself from having to pay reparations for slavery,” a claim that would have surprised the very people who fought against the 1975 UN resolution. The days of progressive advocacy “except for Palestine are over,” she concluded. It is time “to bar supporters of Israel from feminist movements.” Even this last agenda item, a call to cast out the female devils in our midst, met with loud applause.

Butler followed, mostly echoing arguments she has made for years. Israel merely “postures as a democracy.” “The charge of anti-Semitism seems now directed primarily at criticism of the Jewish state,” she added, perhaps surprising those troubled by the desecration of Jewish cemeteries or the painting of swastikas on the walls of campus buildings. But as always Butler is most notable when addressing Israel for inhabiting an alternative universe. “The boycott,” she apparently believes, “does not target Israeli citizens.” As to what the boycott actually is she was less clear, absolving it of the need to be “a full political vision or plan.” Determined once again to disentangle herself from her heritage, she rejected “the fallacy that the state of Israel represents the Jewish people,” but of course Israel is in complex ways entangled with Jewish identity worldwide. To be Jewish now is not the same as it was before 1948. The Israeli government does not literally represent the Jews of the diaspora politically, but whether we accept or reject the Jewish state it is part of who we are.

Esmier took aim at the academy’s falsely principled complicity in the occupation, as least as she sees it. “The version of academic freedom that opposes BDS is a freedom in harmony with anti-freedom.” It was not an eloquent formulation, but it set a further standard for casting out devils. She concluded with a call to extend the boycott movement to boycotting Turkish universities. Erdogan has nearly broken Turkish higher education against the fascist wheel. Americans and Europeans can deliver the coup de grace by boycotting them, denying their beleaguered faculty a helping hand.

Angela Davis was saved for last. “We are all meeting on colonized land,” she opened, and the audience whooped and applauded. It is a feel-good affirmation of guilt that does not require anyone actually to do anything. She too invoked intersectionality: “Neoliberalism seeks to treat particular struggles as isolated and discrete; it also treats all identity as individual.” It was not really a coherent talk, but the audience was not there to be persuaded of anything. They were there to honor the compelling figure she once was. “Palestine under Israeli occupation is the worst possible example of a carceral society,” she announced, and 500 people cried out and delivered a standing ovation.

This ecstatic celebration of something rather more passionate than opposition to Israeli government policy gives a good indication of MESA’s future now that the organization has voted overwhelmingly to remove the modifier “non-political” from its by-laws. The practical focus this year, rather sensibly, was on opposition to President Trump’s Muslim ban, but we could well see twin academic boycott resolutions on Israel and Turkey at MESA 2018. Ostensibly part of an academic meeting the session had nothing to do with marshaling evidence or presenting arguments. It was consensus political theater where the conclusions were all known in advance. The “intersection” here was between political conviction and self-image.

Unfortunately, political theater took over at other sessions where Israel was discussed. Later Sunday afternoon, at a session on “Academic Freedom Trends and the Work of MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom,” Joshua Stacher decried the fact that no Israeli university rector had denounced the highly destructive proposed government ethics policy designed to restrict faculty political speech. But rectors at Israeli universities are academic officers. It is Israeli university presidents who make public announcements, and indeed, as was widely reported both here and in Israel, the presidents had immediately and collectively condemned the draft ethics policy. Could MESA’s committee, of which Stacher is a member, actually have discussed the policy without reading press reports? Or was Stacher seeking a way to slander Israeli administrators on the assumption his audience would not know better?

There were more troubling expressions of ingrained hostility at still other MESA events. After the new feature-length documentary “1948: Creation and Catastrophe” was shown, several audience members angrily questioned the two director/producers, Andy Trimlett and Ahlam Muhtaseb, who were present for a brief group discussion. Ten years in the making, the powerful anti-Zionist film featured both Israelis and Palestinians who had military roles in the 1948 war. That self-evidently strengthened the film, but one audience member complained that “It’s a little strange to see the occupier given a voice.” Another reinforced that sentiment. Then one wanted to know why Israeli historian Benny Morris would be included in the film, given that he expressed doubts about the intentionality behind the expulsion of Palestinian Arabs. But of course Morris is Israel’s premier objective revisionist historian. Unfortunately there were some academic audience members who were offended at being presented with alternative points of view, even within a film that is explicitly pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist.

Yet the most disturbing session I attended was Monday afternoon’s “Navigating Jewish Campus and Community Debates on Israel/Palestine in the Age of Trump,” a session featuring Liora Halperin, Benjamin Schreier, Joel Beinin, Shira Robinson, Joshua Schreier, and Sara Anne Minkin. As it happened, the session had little to do with Trump, though Ben Shreier perhaps had the current administration partly in mind when he announced that “‘anti-Israel’ is a reckless, meaningless term in our current climate.” The session overall was an occasion for a series of Jewish faculty to vent their long-term hatred of Israel Studies programs. “Israel Studies Centers,” Shira Robinson declared, “are just fronts for Israel advocacy,” an irresponsible slander against scores of Israeli Studies scholars doing serious research. “Many of us,” Halperin informed the audience, “want to be in Middle East Studies.” She added later that “I don’t like the fact that the money I have to give graduate students is called Israel Studies money.” When an Israel Studies program invites a Muslim speaker, Beinin asserted, it amounts to nothing more than “faith washing.”

This biting the hand that feeds you form of self-righteousness went a step further when two of the speakers denounced the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) for funding visiting Israeli faculty at American institutions. Mitchell Bard, AICE’s Executive Director, was sitting no more than two feet away from the speakers at the same conference table. He asked whether they would be returning the personal graduate fellowship funding both had received from AICE. But, following the time-honored wisdom that even a blind pig occasionally finds an acorn, both cheerfully and unselfconsciously made it clear that giving them funding was an excellent AICE decision.

But many Israel Studies or Jewish Studies programs, they asserted, kowtow to Jewish donors by appointing reliably pro-Israeli faculty rather than independent, critical intellectuals like themselves. Robinson went on at length, talking about how she assigns “engaged, critical readings” to her students rather than promoting the “anti-intellectualism” of Zionist material. Thinking of themselves, she pointed out that “some want a scholar who is really serious about the Middle East,” as opposed to “someone supportive of the Israeli government.” I couldn’t help but think of my own Jewish Studies program that looked far and wide before finding an anti-Israel Hebrew language teacher.

Sara Anne Minkin presented the most detailed argument of the afternoon: The belief that “‘Jews are a family, Israel is our home’ comes with a demand that you love Israel . . . loving the nation is changing to loving the state” and it issues a “demand to couch your criticism in love.” This was an effort to delegitimize all who criticize Israeli government policy while supporting the existence of the Jewish state, the most insidious effort to cast out the enemy within I encountered at the meeting. The only valid political critique comes from comprehensive opposition to Israel; anything less is toadying.

What was remarkable about these faculty members was that none of them were prepared to consider that their own preferences in faculty appointments might just be partly politically and ideologically motivated. They were all on God’s side. Beinin perhaps spoke for all of them in saying that his own campus, Stanford, never considered donor preferences. Those other bad campuses and their bad Jews were another matter. Beinin capped the debate with a claim about Israel itself: “Two states, two states. Two states comes down to occupation forever.” Another speaker echoed an argument Butler had made earlier” “It’s now OK to be anti-Semitic if you’re pro-Israel.” Not in fact that that is a new perspective. For a time Nazi Germany was eager simply to get rid of is Jews, and some countries at the 1947 UN vote supported the creation of a Jewish state because they were not eager to take in Jewish refugees themselves.

Despite all this depressing evidence, there were glimmers of more collegial dialogue. At Monday’s Association for Israel Studies session “BDS: A Critical Evaluation”—in which I participated along with Robert Freedman, Joshua Teitelbaum, and Ilan Troen—many audience members were passionately anti-Zionist but willing to have a thoughtful, serious conversation. The prevailing sentiment among MESA members, however, meant that they had little patience for traditional defenses of Israel. Many of their questions instead focused on whether a boycott of Israeli universities could in fact jump-start the peace process. That is a dispassionate conversation MESA as a whole should have. I am afraid, however, that MESA overall has few open minds in evidence. It is now an academic association deeply compromised by political convictions.

The mass session on intersectionality indeed was in no way an academic event; it was a political rally. At one point Butler apologized “for being so logical,” although her presentation, like the others, was simply a series of assertions, conclusions offered without evidence other than the logic of what the audience would take to be self-evident truths. The real basis for her “apology” was that, unlike the other speakers, she did not raise her voice, but instead maintained an even tone.

One challenge for MESA, a challenge several other academic groups have failed, among them the American Studies Association, is whether panels that aim for neutral presentation of research results can retain any scholarly credibility when an annual conference, a scholarly organization, or an academic discipline is widely politicized. At MESA, sessions that were motivated by hostility to the Jewish state, like “Hebron in the Modern Period,” but that aimed nonetheless to present evidence-based research results were tainted by the organization’s pervasive anti-Zionist political consensus. Passage of an anti-Israel academic boycott resolution, which would likely receive strong support if proposed in 2018 will make matters still worse.

As recent disruptions of events at Berkeley and other college campuses have shown, it is a problem as well for higher education as a whole. Rallies on behalf of views one endorses are welcome; rallies on behalf of speakers one despises are not. Can the academy reverse this trend and recover its commitment to being a more open educational forum? Perhaps, but for now it is clear the intellectual environment for reasoned debate will deteriorate still further.

The Middle East Studies Association Imagines Its Future

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