Eyal Zisser, Vice Rector of Tel Aviv University and the Yona and Dina Ettinger Chair in Contemporary History of the Middle East, was interviewed in an April 8 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) hosted by Winfield Myers, director of the Middle East Forum's Campus Watch project. Zisser spoke about the reaction by Israeli academics to the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) resolution adopting Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) as its official policy targeting Israel.
According to Zisser, when scholars founded MESA sixty years ago "it was for many Israelis sort of the gate to the big world" because "we were totally isolated." Most countries didn't have diplomatic relations with Israel, and so "the only way to get in touch with" the outside academic world was "through such associations" as MESA.
Today, however, "the Arab world is being open" to Israeli scholars, who "can travel, can conduct research in most Arab countries" and, by extension, "India, China – the entire world."
Also, "because of the dramatic achievement of the Israeli academy," Zisser emphasized, "every week there is another delegation from a leading American or European university" seeking "not only a dialogue, but cooperation" in joint programs.
MESA lost its importance when it ceased being a group of scholars and became instead a group of activists.
MESA, on the other hand, "lost its importance, especially, when it turned to be not a group of scholars, but a group of activists." "For us," said Zisser, "[MESA is] not as important as it used to be." Its internal problems, evinced by the 4-to-1 passage of the BDS resolution, shows that when a "small group of activists take control, the silent majority do not care or do not interfere." Yet those activists "do not really represent the field and most of their scholars."
Zisser observed that "the so-called opposition to Israel" is confined mostly to the social sciences and humanities, which are "declining." Yet within the "viable and leading fields of research and excellence in other areas, well, there is no problem at all" with BDS.
The lack of interest among Israeli specialists, few of whom bother attending MESA's annual meetings, also illustrates its declining importance. "I used to go to MESA conferences with many of my friends," Zisser said. But they noticed not only that fewer Israelis attended, but even scholars in the U.S. "do not come anymore." There are new academic organizations, such as the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA), whose meetings he attends, along with "many other places where you can exchange views and ideas" and present research.
Therefore, while Israeli scholars always sensed MESA was hostile, the truth is out: "now they don't want us." Happily, said Zisser, this matters little because "they need us more than we need them."
"It's my sense," he continued, that it is "not only Israel" that BDS-supporters target, but also America itself. Such activists are "like the Iranians who speak about the great devil and the little one; they are anti-America."
Many such activists are "people who came from the Arab world, and they have a problem of identity." The "only thing they can agree upon and unite, the only common denominator, is the hatred of Israel," Zisser said.
Underscoring that hate, Zisser warned, "let us not make a mistake: it's not about Israeli presence in the West Bank or Judea and Samaria. It's about the existence of Israel." According to BDS and MESA's adoption of it, "the only way Israel can get legitimacy is by allowing the refugees from 1948 to come back." That means, he said, "the annihilation of Israel."
Zisser further deflated MESA's image when, asked by Myers if Israelis had contemplated a formal response to MESA's vote, replied that "even in my university, most people didn't hear about MESA and do not think that this is an important association." "Academically, as far as Israel is concerned, I don't think that this resolution has a real impact," he added. Even American university presidents think little of MESA, Zisser said, as they tell Israeli university presidents that "you should ignore [MESA] entirely."
Little wonder, given how politicized Middle East studies has become. Asked why MESA's members refuse to examine the evidence and admit that Israel's Middle Eastern enemies are imperialists who would wipe it off the map, Zisser replied sarcastically that one should not "interfere or disturb MESA's people with these facts and with history's details." "They're not after those things," he continued, "so it's useless engaging in any discussion with them."
Distinguishing MESA's leadership from its rank and file, Zisser reported that he attended many MESA conferences and found that "99 percent" of attendees "were friendly and had no problem" with Israel. In fact, many were "very interested in coming to Israel" and eager to "listen to [Israelis] and exchange views."
Zisser: "What I see is a gradual decline of MESA as a place where people from all around the world can meet."
Given that encouraging news, Myers asked Zisser if apolitical leaders willing to return MESA to its scholarly roots might replace the anti-Israel activists currently in charge. Unlikely, Zisser replied: "What I see is a gradual decline of MESA as a place where people from all around the world can meet." In his experience, a deteriorating organization sparks the emergence of its replacement.
Asked how to achieve more balance in Middle East studies, Zisser advised cutting off MESA's sources of revenue. "What university administrators should do is to stop supporting MESA," he said. MESA is financed by individual members' dues, but also by "institutional membership, and many American universities provide financial support." Moreover, "many Middle Eastern [studies] institutions all around the United States pay their dues to MESA and thus support this organization. This should be stopped."
The establishment of Israeli studies centers at American universities "during the last two decades" has restored some balance, Zisser said. Such centers "provide the campus, the students a more balanced view of the developments in Israel and in the region, and this is a very positive approach that should be encouraged."
Once people realize they can't learn about the Middle East in university programs, they'll go elsewhere to look for answers."
The webinar ended with Myers asking if the politicization of Middle East studies would discourage students from entering the field and, if so, whether that would affect scholarship on the region. "First of all, I have to say that it's already become a total failure; it's corrupted," Zisser answered. Take Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, he stated. "There aren't any more scholars like these two giants." So politicized is today's research that scholars focusing on, say, Egypt will "immediately be accused of being pro-Israeli, pro-Sisi, pro-American."
Consequently, professors "tend to focus on unimportant, insignificant, negligible areas and fields of study that really do not give you the general picture," as did Lewis and Ajami. Still, Zisser ended on an optimistic note, if not for Middle East studies, then for the thirst for knowledge: "Once people realize that they don't get to know the Middle East through courses and through the current program, they will go to other places to look for answers."
Winfield Myers is director of Campus Watch, and Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator, at the Middle East Forum.