The Middle East Studies Association of North America held its annual meeting in San Francisco on Nov. 20-23, 2004. Similarly to past MESA conferences, the meeting was dominated by Arabs and their supporters, whose hatred of Israel was thinly disguised in academic verbiage. As usual, there was no media interest in the meeting, and prominent Middle East scholars were conspicuous by their absence.
Nonetheless, MESA's importance should not be underestimated since virtually all Middle East studies professors are MESA members, many in leadership positions. This 2004 MESA conference stood out in several respects:
• Criticisms of the Bush administration were even harsher than of Sharon's government.
• The meeting was marked by defensiveness and a sense of weakness vis-à-vis the powerful pro-Bush and pro-Israel forces.
• MESA's leaders acknowledged the organization's financial weakness and vulnerability and their own failure to raise funds or to lobby effectively.
• Both attendance and logistics suffered badly from a labor dispute between the hotel where the conference was held and its unionized employees.
As always, the bulk of the meeting consisted of concurrent panels: More than 150 sessions were held over 13 time blocks. As in the past, many of the panels dealt with obscure issues (e.g., "Beyond Denial and Deniability: Revelation and Constructing the Public Space") or with premodern history. But there was no lack of panels with openly politicized themes, such as "Palestine: Collaboration and Resistance," where panelists presented papers on Palestinian collaborators with Israel as "The Enemy Within" and IDF Arab soldiers as fighting "On the Wrong Side of the War." One panel was devoted to the alleged advantages of a one-state solution over the two-state solution. And in another session, a panelist analogized between German compensation for the crimes of the holocaust and future Palestinian demands for compensation from Israel for its alleged responsibility for the refugee problem.
A defining moment came during a panel on "Shaping U.S. Foreign Policy toward the Middle East." After the first panelist bashed "Christian Zionism," the next panelist declared: "I am an Evangelical but I am not a Zionist and I did not vote for Bush."
The only major plenary session was the presidential address, delivered by Laurie Brand of the University of Southern California. Entitled "Scholarship in the Shadow of Empire," the address (for once) hardly mentioned Israel and focused instead on the alleged wrongs perpetrated by Bush's American "empire" against the pursuit of honest Middle East scholarship.
Interestingly, Brand told the beneficiaries of U.S. taxpayer funds going to Middle East programs that by taking the money, they take on some responsibility for Bush's policies. Yet one of the meeting's featured sessions was a panel initiated and chaired by a U.S. Department of Education official in which past federal beneficiaries explained to the attendees how to lay their hands on that money.
MESA's president-elect is Juan Cole of the University of Michigan, who is certain to continue on Brand's path. His weblog is devoted to harsh condemnations of U.S. policies in Iraq and toward Israel, of Israel and of its American supporters. He is currently engaged in verbal warfare with MEMRI, which threatened to sue him over his extreme allegations against it.
One of the few points of light was the traditional panel organized by the Association for Israel Studies, where two respectable Israeli panelists – Eyal Zisser and Efraim Inbar – made solid presentations.
Brand's presidential address was marked by a plaintive tone of defensiveness and perceived weakness vis-à-vis the Bush "empire" and the pro-Israel forces. This tone was pervasive in a number of the panels. Thus, one professor declared: "Daniel Pipes is read more than any of us." It was clear that many participants were shocked by Bush's election victory and expected to remain on the defensive for the next four years.
The full extent of MESA's weakness and vulnerability became obvious during the business meeting. MESA president Laurie Brand revealed that so far this year, MESA has raised only $235,000, virtually all of it from membership and conference fees and the sale of publications. She said she tried to persuade oil companies to give money to MESA, but got nothing. MESA does not do any organized fundraising, she said, and has decided not to take money from any governments, even though it would be feasible and legal to do so. Brand expressed deep concern that just one bad lawsuit could bankrupt the organization. She was referring to the possibility that MESA would be sued for holding the conference despite the hotel lockout (see below).
MESA's lack of understanding of lobbying issues became clear when Brand expressed her belief that as a 501(c)(3), MESA is barred from lobbying on the Hill. She was promptly corrected. Noting the absence of any effective MESA lobbying, President-Elect Juan Cole said MESA could form a PAC, and another business meeting attendee suggested forming a Committee on Public Affairs to monitor what's happening on the Hill.
Although the lockout happened to be suspended on the day the conference began, the lockout clearly reduced the overall attendance. Despite a claimed 1,400 attendees, it was clear that the number of those who actually showed up – as evidenced at the presidential address – was far lower. Several prominent scholars listed as attendees and even presenters never showed up, and a substantial number of sessions were canceled. In one case, none of the 4 panelists showed up, and the attendees had no choice but to leave. Because of the anticipated lockout, the conference organizers had decided – no doubt at serious additional expense – to hold many of the sessions in about a dozen off-site locations, further increasing the inconvenience and confusion for the participants. Clearly, the labor dispute caused serious damage to the conference.