A panel at the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) considered the undue influence of Jewish campus and community institutions on the teaching of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
At the Monday afternoon session, Hillel International, a Jewish organization with chapters across North America, was called out for its policies against partnering with those who deny Israel’s right to exist.
Ilan Troen, an Israel studies professor at Brandeis University who attended the session, took issue with the contention that a non-academic group should be condemned for having a point of view.
“If an academic department can’t sustain a lecture series on its own and chooses to invite the assistance of an outside group, why shouldn’t they expect that group will come with requests for how to shape program? If you don’t like it, then don’t collaborate with Hillel or anyone else,” he said.
At the roundtable discussion, which was led by Jewish academics, allegations were made that Jewish donors pressure universities on their Israel education.
One case was mentioned of a Jewish organization participating at Case Western University in a search for a Middle East studies professor.
“The notion of a Jewish cabal that manipulates universities from Harvard to Berkeley is sheer fantasy,” said Troen. “And if it’s true, then what about all the Saudi money, what about the money flowing in from the Gulf emirates?”
“Good universities have mechanisms in place for making choices without taking into account desires of donors,” said Troen, such as not giving donors a seat on promotion or appointment committees.
Troen said genuine requests for intellectual debate would not hide behind claims of “Jewish influence.” He said suggestions to keep a barrier between Jewish and Israel studies departments to maintain balance were only veiled attempts to ensure widespread adherence to the view of Israel as a settler-colonial state.
Matthew Berger, a Hillel International spokesman, told the Washington Free Beacon, “Hillel believes strongly in the right of free speech on campus, and for universities and organizations on campus to be free to support or host whatever programs they deem appropriate.”
“We offer a broad and diverse range of programming to help students to connect to Israeli society, culture and history, but will oppose efforts to deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish, democratic state or to boycott, divest from or sanction Israel and will not host or sponsor programs that support these efforts,” he continued.
“Hillel is proud to be a space for all Jews to feel welcome no matter their political beliefs, and help them build a community on campus,” said Berger.
MESA did not introduce a resolution on an academic boycott of Israel for a vote at this year’s conference, as many expected after the organization decided at the 2016 meeting to remove a clause from its bylaws presenting the group as “non-political.”
Troen attributed the absence of a boycott decision to the conference’s heavy focus on the Trump administration’s contested travel bans, primarily applied to Muslim-majority countries.
“I think MESA leadership appreciated the blatant hypocrisy in condemning the Trump ban of scholars from the Middle East on one hand, and supporting a ban on Israelis on the other,” said Troen.
Troen said he fully expected a boycott of Israel would come to a vote at MESA at some point, explaining that it has been in the making at the organization for years.
During the conference, MESA’s executive board released a statement condemning the David Horowitz Freedom Center (DHFC) and Canary Mission for their controversial tactics of publicly naming anti-Israel students and faculty.
DHFC has hung posters on multiple campuses identifying local Palestinian activists as supporters of terrorists, while Canary anonymously maintains profiles with photos of individuals who have made what it considers anti-Semitic comments.
“We urge academic administrations to repudiate and condemn in no uncertain terms these efforts to defame, intimidate, and silence members of their communities,” MESA wrote. “We also call upon administrators to reaffirm unequivocal support for the principles of academic freedom and free speech, and to take prompt action to fulfill their responsibility for establishing and maintaining a safe, inclusive and diverse campus environment.”
Canary Mission defended itself in an email to the Free Beacon.
“To accuse Canary Mission of intimidation is a see-through reversal of reality. We collate the words and actions of anti-Semites, racists, and bigots and place the gathered information in one easy to read online location. If someone does not want to find themselves on Canary Mission, stop hating others and try being kind and tolerant,” reads the email.
They added that those who “have since shifted their views” can be shifted to an ex-offenders registry.
Canary Mission refuted a suggestion that it was hypocritical for an organization devoted to publicly identifying individuals to remain covert, calling their anonymity “a sensible precaution.”
Horowitz responded to the charges of intimidation by calling MESA “a prime supporter of Hamas and enabler of Hamas agents on campus.”
He said his organization has publicly sourced the alleged links between Palestinian activists in the United States and terrorists.
“MESA’s knee jerk political response to our posters are slanders and lies,” added Horowitz. “All we have done is hold them accountable for these disgusting and destructive lies.”