The renowned Middle East scholar Bernard Lewis once observed that Middle East Studies programs have been distorted by "a degree of thought control and limitations of freedom of expression without parallel in the Western world since the 18th century." He added, "It seems to me it's a very dangerous situation because it makes any kind of scholarly discussion of Islam, to say the least, dangerous. Islam and Islamic values now have a level of immunity from comment and criticism in the Western world that Christianity has lost and Judaism never had."
The principal representatives of the danger Lewis spoke about can be found among the 3,000-member Middle East Studies Association (MESA). The association, representing researchers in the field (I hesitate to call them scholars, since many are not), has become increasingly irresponsible and antisemitic over the years. Paradoxically, it was Joel Beinin, one of the most vitriolic critics of Israel, who noted that the association had a long-established "gentleman's agreement" that discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict should be avoided "because it would generate too much controversy and undermine the collegiality of the organization" as well as "the claim of Middle East Studies to objective and scientific knowledge."
The fact that someone like Beinin could become the president of MESA tells you about all you need to know about how the gentlemen's agreement has been replaced by a bargain with the devil. Beinin, for example, initiated a petition in 2002 that charged Israel with plotting the "ethnic cleansing" of Palestinians under cover of the approaching war in Iraq, and he predicted that Ariel Sharon would use the war as an opportunity to push the Palestinians into Jordan. The Stanford Review student newspaper used to run a column, "Beinin Watch," because he was "accused on numerous occasions of speaking out in support of terrorist organizations and of spearheading anti-Semitic practices at Stanford."
The current president of MESA, Beth Baron, is Director of the Middle East and Middle Eastern American Center at the City University of New York (CUNY). CUNY has become one of the hotbeds of anti-Israel activity and its graduate students approved a divestment resolution last year. Baron, supposedly an expert on Egypt, has argued that the Muslim Brotherhood is not a terrorist organization. Hence, it was not surprising when she signed a letter to President Obama in 2014 condemning Israeli actions (real and imagined) in Gaza while failing to mention Hamas terrorism.
MESA members often defend any criticism of Israel as legitimate; however, it is clear that much of their effort is designed to shield overt antisemitism. As an institution, MESA has discussed but not yet endorsed the antisemitic boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement; however, it did adopt a "right to BDS resolution." Put plainly, MESA believes its members have the right to deny fellow scholars their academic freedom and that they are justified in promoting antisemitic campaigns harming Jewish students, Jews around the world, Israelis and, not coincidentally, Palestinian individuals and scholars. The tacit endorsement of BDS, backed by hundreds of members, reflects a belief that Jews, unlike Palestinians or other peoples, have no right to self-determination in their homeland.
In the upcoming MESA conference, at least two panels are devoted to BDS, among several focused on criticism of Israel. One relates to the "Historical, Political and Legal Dimensions," which comically plans to address the "scope of scholarship" on this topic. Another panel, "Politics of Academic Associations" will explore the "political and intellectual strategy" of BDS advocates in associations. Not surprisingly, the panels are one-sided, dominated by BDS proponents such as Judith Butler of Georgetown, Charles Hirschkind of Berkeley, and Mary Layoun of Wisconsin who, among other outrages, all signed the letter with Beinin suggesting that Israel might exploit a war against Saddam Hussein to engage in "ethnic cleansing" against Palestinians.
Pointing out the obvious exposes critics to false and inflammatory charges of McCarthyism.
MESA has become increasingly alarmed by "academic vigilantism on campuses to watch, report, and if necessary to intimidate scholars who present 'biased,' 'anti-Israel,' 'pro-Islamic' or 'pro-Palestinian' views in their class lectures, in public statements outside their institutions, or in their writings." Former MESA president Ali Banuazizi said these "smear tactics and confrontations have begun to threaten the rights of free speech and inquiry and, if not contained, could potentially undermine the integrity of academic institutions."
Typically, Banuazizi is an absolutist when it comes to freedom of speech for those with whom he agrees, but is unwilling to grant the same right to critics. Like most advocates for boycotting Israel, MESA's stalwart defenders of academic freedom see no contradiction in denying Jews their freedom.
More important, what is freedom without accountability? These professors are petrified that the abuse of their classrooms to advance personal political agendas, and their scandalously inept and inaccurate research, will be exposed. This is why they become apoplectic if someone attempts to tape or film a lecture, or even share what they "learned" with anyone who is not part of the Israel detractors club. When a group such as Campus Watch repeats their own words and publicizes their academic malpractice, they attempt to shoot the messenger with spurious charges of being silenced. It is laughable to think that Israel's detractors have in any way been muzzled.
When administration officials try to intervene, as they did when they suspended an outrageously biased course attacking Israel at Berkeley, the faculty — the true power brokers at a university — went ballistic and insisted the course be reinstated. To hell with academic standards at what was during my time at Berkeley one of the world's great universities.
Middle East Studies departments were, with few exceptions, long ago taken over by radical leftists, disciples of Edward Said's anti-intellectual "Orientalism," haters of Israel, and apologists for terror and radical Islam. "There's been a lot of lamenting about the political correctness that's taken over MESA," Tristan Mabry, a visiting assistant professor of government at Georgetown University told the Wall Street Journal. "The A-No.1 issue that dominates MESA is always Israel, and even if you're not interested in Israel [Mabry's research focuses on Pakistan, India and Bangladesh], where you stand on Israel is always a litmus test." Richard Bulliet, professor of Middle East history at Columbia, agreed: "You have a big chunk of the [Middle Eastern history] specialist community that starts every sentence with the word Palestine." Martin Kramer, President of Shalem College, put it another way, "For MESAns, the Palestinians are the chosen people."
Franck Salameh, Assistant Professor of Near Eastern Studies at Boston College, highlights the myopic view of the Middle East promulgated by the MESA leadership, which ignores all the non-Israel related rivalries, such as Turkish vs. Kurdish, Islamist zealots versus modernist secularists, nationalists vs. Islamist dictators, Sunnis vs. Shiites, etc. "Heaven forbid one should dare advocate for Middle Eastern Jews, Christians, and non-Arabs and give airtime to their story and their epics of suffering, dispossession, triumph and renewal! According to the official line laid down by MESA's leaders, after all, they are not indigenous to the Middle East, but relics of the odious eleventh century Western colonialist enterprise."
Is it any wonder that MESA has embraced the antisemitic BDS movement?
At the risk of being labeled another McCarthy (what would they do without him?), the time is long overdue for serious academics, students, trustees, taxpayers, and university officials to condemn the academic malpractice and crimes against education committed by faculty who are dishonest, anti-intellectual, hostile to academic freedom and antisemitic.