[Marxism] Middle East Studies Association Fights a Rising Tide of Critics
lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Nov 21 08:47:54 MST 2014
(Despite the impression conveyed by this article, Steven Salaita told
the New School meeting that MESA is actually not so nearly as
pro-Palestinian as, for example, the American Studies Association. A
MESA statement on his case simply stated that the right to debate the
Middle East should be respected. Meh.)
Chronicle of Higher Education November 21, 2014
Middle East Studies Association Fights a Rising Tide of Critics
By Peter Schmidt
With tensions between Israelis and Palestinians escalating after this
week’s terrorist attack on a Jerusalem synagogue, one scholarly group,
the Middle East Studies Association, appears unlikely to escape conflict
Yet, after a year in which many of its members have been publicly
accused of anti-Israel bias or even outright anti-Semitism, the group,
known as Mesa, is not showing any signs of shying away from controversy.
In addition to having published strongly worded attacks on its members’
accusers and lodged protests against Israel’s shelling of Palestinian
educational institutions, the association plans to wade right into
hot-button debates related to Israel at its annual conference, which
begins here on Saturday.
Steven G. Salaita, the scholar who became a cause célèbre among
academe’s critics of Israel last summer, will headline a panel
discussion of "new assaults on academic freedom." The University of
Illinois at Urbana-Champaign responded to Mr. Salaita’s inflammatory
social-media posts denouncing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians by
withdrawing an offer to hire him as a tenured professor. Many academics
protested that decision.
Campus Watch, which was established by the Middle East Forum, a
conservative think tank, and monitors Middle East studies programs for
speech it deems hostile to Israel, last month denounced the planned
panel as stacked with critics of that nation.
But Nathan J. Brown, a professor of political science and international
affairs at George Washington University who will be completing a
two-year term as Mesa’s president, argued this week in an email that the
planned panel discussion was "about the Salaita case, not about Israel."
He added, "I am not clear why anybody would care to check the balance of
political positions represented on what is at most an issue of
tangential relevance to the discussion."
The Mesa conference also has come under fire for including a reception
being held by the International Institute of Islamic Thought, a
Virginia-based group that has been accused of ties to Islamist radicals.
Also planned for the Mesa conference is a debate on whether Mesa should
at least consider following the lead of scholarly groups such as the
American Studies Association by boycotting Israeli educational
institutions. Many supporters of Israel have alleged that such boycotts
are motivated by anti-Semitism; more broadly, the boycott movement has
been criticized as representing the same sort of threat to academic
freedom that Mesa routinely denounces.
Mesa has rejected such boycotts until now, although it strongly defends
the right to discuss them. In a September letter to his organization’s
members, Mr. Brown said Mesa’s Board of Directors last spring advised
its Committee on Academic Freedom "that the issue was sufficiently
controversial within our own ranks that it was probably best not to
attempt to speak with a collective voice on the call to boycott
In an interview conducted via email because he was in Belgium, Mr. Brown
said the organization will be voting only on a member-proposed
"resolution asking for a discussion of the issue," and not any formal
motion to academically boycott Israeli institutions.
No Stranger to Conflict
Accusations of hostility to Israel are nothing new to the Middle East
Studies Association, an Arizona-based organization with more than 2,700
members interested in the Middle East or North Africa, and nearly 40
Mesa describes itself as "a non-political association." But seven years
ago, some scholars established a separate counterweight to it—the much
smaller Association for the Study of the Middle East and
Africa—motivated by perceptions that Mesa was overly politicized and
hostile to conservative thought.
Over the past year, tensions between American colleges’ critics and
supporters of Israel have flared as the global movement calling for
boycotts, divestment, and sanctions against Israel has gained a foothold
on U.S. campuses. In addition, Israel’s military actions in Gaza last
summer were denounced by some American academics so strongly that their
rhetoric prompted debates over where to draw the line between
anti-Semitic statements that create a hostile environment for Jewish
people on campuses and valid criticisms of Israel protected by academic
In September, several Mesa members ended up on a list of 218 professors
that the Amcha Initiative, a group supportive of Israel, accused of
displaying anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic bias by signing a petition
calling for colleagues in Middle East studies to join an academic
boycott of Israel.
Thirty Jewish-studies scholars responded by issuing a statement that
condemned the list and accused the Amcha Initiative of using a
definition of anti-Semitism "so undiscriminating as to be meaningless."
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of the Amcha Initiative, this week
called allegations that her group had attempted to somehow blacklist
professors "ridiculous" and said she had simply distributed information
from a published list of petition signatories that "everybody has a
right to know."
Mr. Brown, Mesa’s president, said this week his organization and its
members had been experiencing "a worrying wave of intense political
criticism." In some cases, however, he has appeared to court such
In October, for example, Mr. Brown sent the hosts of an international
conference on the reconstruction of Gaza a letter that accused Israel of
the "indiscriminate bombardment and destruction of Palestinian
educational institutions" conducted as part of "an ongoing, intentional
attack on education by Israel in the context of continued military
occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip."
He argued that paying for reconstruction without condemning Israel’s
military occupation "relieves Israel of responsibility and allows it
free rein to continue its attacks."
In other cases, Mesa has been responding to outside criticism that
clearly appeared to threaten its members' work. In September, for
example, after several groups supportive of Israel issued a report
accusing federally supported programs in Middle East studies of
betraying anti-Israel bias, Amy W. Newhall, Mesa’s executive director,
accused the groups of themselves being politically motivated and trying
to "shut down open discussion of issues of public concern."
Mr. Brown sent the lead organization behind the report, the Louis D.
Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a letter calling the report
"replete with false or misleading assertions" and rejecting its argument
that the federal program that supports Middle East studies needed to be
Kenneth L. Marcus, president of the Brandeis Center, said in an email
this week: "Our intent is not to suppress any point of view but rather
to ensure that more views are included in Middle East studies outreach
programs. If Mesa cares about academic freedom, they should join in our
call for diverse perspectives."
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