[Marxism] Middle East Studies Association Fights a Rising Tide of Critics

Louis Proyect 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 
anytime soon.

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 
affiliated groups.

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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