Why does the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), a nonprofit academic organization that says it commends efforts to "combat discrimination and harassment against Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and other students on U.S. college campuses," oppose the latest effort to crack down on anti-Semitism?
In response to the near doubling of anti-Semitic incidents for the second year in a row, Congress has drafted the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2018, or AAA. MESA's president and executive director responded with a sophomoric letter to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, dated June 4, 2018, warning that the law will have a "chilling effect" on free speech and hinting that mysterious forces "outside of academia" are behind it.
Yet both the House (H.R. 5924) and Senate (S.2940) versions of the AAA do nothing more than provide the Office for Civil Rights a way to identify and evaluate anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which requires schools receiving federal funds to prevent harassment based on race, color or national origin.
MESA's charge that the law hinders "constitutionally protected free speech and academic freedom rights at institutions of higher education" is a red herring. Free speech and academic freedom are not the same. Any academic who completes mandatory Title IX training (as I did last week) knows that the first amendment protects speech that college campuses will not tolerate.
The letter obfuscates the definition of "Anti-Semitism" by objecting to the AAA's reliance on an Obama-era State Department Fact Sheet (dated June 8, 2010, not June 10 as MESA's letter states). Although the fact sheet follows Natan Sharansky's 3D test for anti-Semitism (Demonizing Israel, applying a Double Standard for Israel and Delegitimizing Israel), it also specifically states that "criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic."
MESA claims that "many of the examples … in that Fact Sheet clearly conflate criticism of Israeli actions and policies and of Zionism as a political ideology, with anti-Semitism," yet it fails to mention a single problematic example. At a time when academics are warned that calling someone by the wrong pronoun is a micro-aggression, it is incomprehensible that MESA members would find the State Department's examples unacceptable:
- "calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews
- Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of the Jews as a collective "
- "Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust"
This is surely an oblique reference to the Jewish Voice for Peace, whose failing of the State Department's test earns it the name anti-Semitic. JVP practices what Syracuse University professor Miriam Elman calls "Jew-washing" the anti-Israel movement; that is, using its Jewish identity as "a shield for Israel bashing." Surely, the MESA executives don't believe that Jews cannot be anti-Semitic because they are Jewish any more than they believe others are incapable of hating the group to which they belong.
Finally, MESA's letter hints at a conspiracy "to unduly expand the definition of anti-Semitism to include legitimate, constitutionally protected criticism of Israel as part of a broader campaign by organizations based outside of academia to use the power of the federal government in order to silence opinions and advocacy with which they disagree."
Though the letter fails to mention the forces behind this conspiracy, MESA's April 2018 attack on the organization Canary Mission offers hints: "Since the 1980s, pro-Israel advocacy groups have sought to influence how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is taught and discussed on campuses, and to stifle student activism in support of Palestinian rights. Over the years, they have launched a series of high-profile, defamatory attacks on educators and researchers in the field."
When MESA disagrees with the message, it is a "defamatory attack." Yet when it agrees with the argument, it is an exercise of free speech, as in its promotion of a report by the Center for American Progress. The report's title, "Fear Incorporated," smears legitimate criticism of Islam and Islamism as "Islamophobia." MESA's endorsement demonstrates that it will defend speech it agrees with and condemn speech it opposes.
Does anyone believe that MESA would object to an "Islamophobia Prevention Act"?
MESA has its own unique take on the "Voltairean principle": I disapprove of what you say, and I will defend to the death my right to do so.
A.J. Caschetta is a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a fellow at Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, where he is a Ginsburg-Ingerman fellow.