Despite all the corrupt, tyrannical theocracies and dictatorships in the Middle East, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) — the academic umbrella organization for the field — aims its harshest criticism at the only democracy in the region: Israel. MESA's disdain is apparent in the dozens of "advocacy letters" it has directed at Israel since 2001. The latest open letter from its Committee on Academic Freedom to Israel's government demands an end to the Jewish state's alleged "arbitrary arrests at and incursions into Palestinian universities" and "the Israeli Army's harm to students at all levels of education."
Ignoring the long history of terrorist recruiting on Palestinian campuses and the terrorism committed by Palestinian students under the tutelage of their Hamas and Fatah advisors, MESA falsely portrays Palestinian academics and students as benign.
But MESA's most disingenuous claim is that Israel harasses peaceful Palestinian students with "arbitrary arrests," a phrase used three times in the short letter. It also appears on Birzeit University's Facebook page, where its "Right to Education Campaign condemns arbitrary arrest of Birzeit University's Head of Student Council."
So, who are the innocent students MESA would have us believe were "arbitrarily" arrested, while working diligently toward their degrees? One was twenty-four-year-old Birzeit student Omar Al-Kiswani. His Hamas contacts include Yassin Rabie, who was released from an Israeli prison as part of the 2011 deal in which 1,027 terrorists were traded for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit. Rabie funneled 150,000 euros ($171,000) to Al-Kiswani to "cover Hamas activities at Birzeit University," according to Shin Bet. Three other Birzeit-Hamas students were arrested in July and August: Issa Shalalda, Omar Ma'soud, and Hazem Hamayel. MESA doesn't mention them.
In 2007, Matthew Levitt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, author of a key work on Hamas, participated in a panel discussion at the U.S. Army War College in which he detailed the degree to which terror recruitment dominates Palestinian academe. "Hamas propaganda – pamphlets, posters and myriad other printed collateral – literally litter Palestinian university campuses," he explained. For the 2003 student elections at Birzeit, Levitt noted, "Hamas candidates reenacted suicide bombings by blowing up models of Israeli buses." In a debate for one student office, "a Hamas candidate taunted his Fatah challenger by boasting, 'Hamas activists in this University killed 135 Zionists. How many did Fatah activists from Bir Zeit kill?'"
West Bank universities are hardly outliers; in fact, Gazan universities are even more infamous. In 2010, The Boston Globe referred to the Islamic University of Gaza as "Hamas U." Last December, all schools in Gaza were closed to celebrate the thirty-first anniversary of Hamas. The NGO Palestinian Media Watch has assembled incontrovertible proof that every aspect of the Palestinian educational system is geared to indoctrinating students to reject Israel and detest Jews. Palestinian universities regularly confer honors upon terrorists, sometimes posthumously.
Women participate fully in this network of hatred. Fatah's university committee on women's education is named after Dalal Mughrabi, the PLO leader of the "Coastal Road massacre" of thirty-eight Israelis, thirteen of them children. In an interview on Palestinian television last January, Madeline Manna, coordinator of the "Sisters of Dalal" committee, proudly declared "Dalal Mughrabi is a role model, like other heroic female Martyrs in Palestine." This reveals the hollowness of MESA's claim to be "committed to fighting antisemitism as a form of racism that targets Jewish people."
Campus Watch has documented decades of student terrorism and faculty complicity at An-Najah National University in Nablus, dubbed by Hamas a "greenhouse for martyrs." In September 2001, An-Najah art majors constructed a realistic replica of the remains of the Sbarro Pizzeria in Jerusalem, blown up by a suicide bomber a month earlier. The attack, which killed fifteen and wounded 130, was commemorated in the morally repulsive exhibit "Splendors of Terror," curated to extol the virtues of martyrdom. Not to be outdone, Birzeit art students fashioned an exhibit of mock Qassam rockets in 2012.
When San Francisco State University (SFSU) entered into a partnership with An-Najah in September 2014, MESA approved, gushing that An-Najah is a "widely respected institution of higher education." It defended Rabab Abdulhadi — director of SFSU's Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Initiative and architect of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two universities — while describing the Middle East Forum's (MEF) efforts to end the ill-advised arrangement as "spurious allegations and pressure tactics." Notably, MESA didn't attempt to refute MEF's claims about An-Najah.
Displaying willful blindness to the need for Israeli law enforcement operations at Palestinian colleges and universities, MESA's biases lend a veneer of legitimacy to anti-Israel academics. Its letter uses the left's popular terminology for criticizing Israel, including charging it with "excessive force" (as though conflicts are won with "proportionate" force) and deploring the use of "rubber-coated steel bullets," a favorite complaint of the anti-Semitic site Electronic Intifada. Israel's critics never acknowledge that "less-than-lethal" bullets — the correct term — are used by law enforcement to avoid killing the hostile actors who are bent on killing them.
MESA's letter wildly contorts the academic fetish for "safe spaces" by accusing Israel of turning Palestinian "campuses from safe spaces into zones, where the students' and staff members' politics put them in grave danger both on and off the campus." Yet no school in the Palestinian territories, including those run by the UN, is safe so long as terrorists use them as weapon storage depots and missile launching pads.
Also condemned are Israeli security force's arrests of individuals and actions against entire institutions if necessary to prevent violence. For example, on January 15, 2003, Israel temporarily closed two universities in Hebron that were little more than terrorist fronts. At Hebron University, a chemistry lab was used to teach "students" how to make bombs, while computers at the Polytechnic Institute were employed to disseminate bomb-making guides.
Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) concluded that the two universities were "fertile ground for terrorism and a hothouse for breeding terrorists and suicide bomber[s]." The dominant student groups on both campuses are controlled by terrorists. Kutla Islamiya, or "Islamic Bloc," (which the MFA refers to by the Hebrew Hakatala Islamiya) focuses on "identifying and recruiting operatives for the military wing of Hamas." Likewise, Jam'a Islamiya is the Palestinian Islamic Jihad's student group and Shabiba is Fatah's. All have successfully transformed undergraduates into killers.
MESA doesn't just ignore the history of terrorism on Palestinian campuses; it obfuscates it. A 2018 letter MESA wrote to complain about the arrest of student Ola Marshoud portrayed her as an innocent young lady "accused of helping to organize students at An-Najah National University and encouraging them to participate in non-violent demonstrations against the Israeli authorities in the occupied West Bank." In fact, Marshoud was a member of Hamas's student wing, the aforementioned Islamic Bloc, which the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) dubs an "inseparable part of Hamas' strategy." Yet MESA whitewashes the ugly truth, admitting only that "the Islamic Bloc student organization ... is active in a number of Palestinian institutions of higher education, notably Birzeit."
Even the hard-left Jacobin magazine, while defending Palestinian violence and attacking Israeli "scholasticide," concedes that "Universities in the West Bank and Gaza are key incubators and hubs of resistance, and major channels of Palestinians' aspirations for freedom and justice."
In its 2019 letter, MESA mischaracterizes the arrests of Omar al-Kiswani and others as "grave violations of basic rights to education and academic freedom." In fact, they were Hamas operatives moonlighting as Palestinian students and faculty. As Shin Bet notes, the operation reveals "the great importance Hamas leadership attributes to student activities through its groups in universities as a primary method of recruiting and training Hamas operatives in the West Bank."
Actions against Palestinian universities by Israeli security forces in the West Bank and Gaza are not arbitrary. Rather, they are necessary, measured responses to the terrorist takeover of Palestinian campuses, where indoctrination and recruitment have supplanted education. In its contrived ignorance of these facts, MESA mirrors the morally bankrupt academic field it represents. Until and unless far-ranging reforms are implemented, students, policymakers, and legislators should shun it.
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.