A scandalous -- but unreported -- event took place in Washington, D.C. late last year at the Annual Meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), a constituent organization of the prestigious American Council of Learned Societies.
As is customary at such meetings there were well over 200 panels to discuss a wide range of topics -- historical, political, and cultural -- with four or five scholars presenting different perspectives at each panel. The purpose of such meetings is to provide a forum for these scholars to exchange ideas, present their research findings for critical review by peers, and in general to promote the advance of knowledge. Scholars come from all over the world to participate. All of this is unremarkable but what happened at one particular panel this past December merits public attention.
The subject of the panel was "Lebanon and the UN Special Tribunal: Balancing Justice and Stability." Five scholars were scheduled to present papers -- two from Lebanon, two from Israel (one of them an Italian national), and one from Egypt. The panel chair was an American. About eighteen hours before the panel was scheduled to begin (Saturday, December 3, at 2:30), the two scholars from Lebanon informed MESA that they could not share the dais or co-present with the two scholars from Israel, owing to a 1955 Lebanese law banning such exchanges, and therefore requested the opportunity to make their presentations without the Israel-based scholars present at the dais. According to a written communication from MESA after the conference, MESA officials were taken completely by surprise, having never received such a request before. They were at a loss as to what to do. (After reviewing an earlier draft of this essay, one of the Lebanese scholars informed me that in past years Lebanese scholars either made similar requests or simply absented themselves from panels featuring Israelis.)
The decision was made to accommodate the request to allow the Lebanese scholars to make presentations without the Israelis present on the dais. So, while the Lebanese gave their presentations, the Israeli presenters were asked to take their seats in the audience. When that part of the program was completed, the Lebanese took their seats in the audience and the Israel-based scholars were invited up to the dais to make their presentations. Thus were the scholars from Israel segregated while the Lebanese were rescued from breaking Lebanese law in America's capital at an international conference sponsored by an elite professional association -- one ostensibly devoted to the free exchange of ideas.
Subsequently, the Israel-based scholars, feeling humiliated, registered a complaint with the leadership of MESA, and the leadership wrote a letter of apology (confirming, incidentally, all the details I have reported above). They indicated it will never happen again: "It's not MESA's responsibility," the MESA officials concluded in hindsight, "to enforce the laws of any foreign nation, particularly those that violate MESA's fundamental principles of academic freedom." The MESA officials (the president and the executive director) went on to write: "MESA is on the record as opposing academic boycotts like that of the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement and other forms of academic blacklists."
This last statement seems disingenuous -- and for multiple reasons.
First, on its website, the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel lists 690 academics from US institutions of higher learning and 104 academics from foreign institutions of higher learning that endorse the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel -- among them, the chairman of the panel in question and the 2011 President of the Middle East Studies Association.
Second, MESA's own website, which includes an extensive section on Academic Freedom, contains no mention of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, no mention of the BDS movement, and no mention of academic boycotts in general, though there is one 2005 letter expressing objection to the decision of the British Association of University Teachers to bar any relations with two Israeli universities. In reviewing their web-based archive of MESA's "letters of intervention" for the years 2010-2012, I found six letters to Israeli authorities objecting to their abridgement of Palestinian academic freedom, five letters to Iranian authorities, and one or two letters to several other Middle Eastern governments. It appears, then, that Israel is the worst offender of academic freedom in the Middle East -- in the view of the Middle East Studies Association. I found only one letter to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and none to Syria -- and none even to Lebanon whose 1955 law bans the kind of academic exchanges that MESA exists to promote and which gave rise to my investigation. Except for Israel and Iran, the Middle East appears to be a bastion of academic freedom -- in the view of the Middle East Studies Association.
Third, according to an account published by the Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs (a publication sympathetic to the Palestinians), MESA sponsored a symposium in 2006 on "Academic Freedom and Academic Boycotts." The symposium featured four panelists -- two advocating the academic boycott of Israel and two opposed. ALL four panelists, according to the account, expressed support for the BDS movement.
In permitting the segregation of Israeli professors at its Annual Meeting, MESA has betrayed its professed belief in the principles of academic freedom, tarnishing not only its own reputation but that of its parent organization, the American Council of Learned Societies. The private apology was nice, but what is required is for MESA and ACLS to take a public stand in favor of the untrammeled exchange of ideas and against academic boycotts of any kind.
Alan Luxenberg is president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.