The Middle East Studies Association Is Fundamentally Anti-Zionist
The room at the Marriott Wardman Park in Washington, DC, was overflowing for a special session billed as “Thinking Palestine Intersectionally.”
The audience filled the seats, and spilled out into the hallway. For many, it was clearly the highlight of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA)’s November 2017 annual meeting of faculty and graduate students. Perhaps 500 people were present to hear Noura Erakat, Judith Butler, Samera Esmeir and Angela Davis be hailed as symbolic conquerors of the Jewish state.
“The peace process is over,” Erakat began, and then affirmed “the entwinement of our liberation,” offering her own take on intersectionality. The real reason that the US blocked the “Zionism is racism” framework at the UN, she declared, was “to prevent itself from having to pay reparations for slavery,” a claim that would have surprised the very people who fought against the 1975 UN resolution.
The days of progressive advocacy “except for Palestine, are over,” she concluded. It is time “to bar supporters of Israel from feminist movements,” she added. Even this last agenda item, a call to cast out the female devils in our midst, was met with loud applause.
Butler followed, declaring that Israel merely “postures as a democracy.” “The charge of antisemitism seems now directed primarily at criticism of the Jewish state,” she added, perhaps surprising those troubled by the desecration of Jewish cemeteries or the painting of swastikas on the walls of campus buildings.
When discussing Israel, Butler seems to be inhabiting an alternative universe. “The boycott,” she apparently believes, “does not target Israeli citizens.” As to what the boycott actually is she was less clear, absolving it of the need to be “a full political vision or plan.” Determined once again to disentangle herself from her Jewish heritage, she rejected “the fallacy that the State of Israel represents the Jewish people.”
That’s beyond dishonest, as Israel is in complex ways entangled with Jewish identity worldwide. To be Jewish now is not the same as it was before 1948. The Israeli government does not literally represent the Jews of the Diaspora politically, but whether we accept or reject the Jewish state, it is part of who we are.
Esmier took aim at the academic community’s complicity in the occupation, as least as she sees it. “The version of academic freedom that opposes BDS is a freedom in harmony with anti-freedom.” It was not an eloquent formulation, but it set a further standard for casting out devils.
Angela Davis was saved for last.
“We are all meeting on colonized land,” she opened, and the audience whooped and applauded. It was a feel-good affirmation of guilt — that does not require anyone actually to do anything. And she, too, invoked intersectionality: “Neoliberalism seeks to treat particular struggles as isolated and discrete; it also treats all identity as individual.”
It was not a coherent talk, but the audience was not there to be persuaded of anything. They were there to honor the compelling figure that Davis once was. “Palestine under Israeli occupation is the worst possible example of a carceral society,” she announced absurdly, and 500 people cried out and delivered a standing ovation.
This ecstatic celebration of opposition to Israel’s existence gives a good indication of MESA’s future, now that the organization has voted overwhelmingly to become political. Ostensibly part of an academic meeting, the session had nothing to do with marshaling evidence, or presenting arguments. Instead, it was a rally — consensus political theater, where the conclusions were all known in advance. The “intersection” here was between political conviction and self-image.
Still more disturbing was Monday afternoon’s “Navigating Jewish Campus and Community Debates on Israel/Palestine in the Age of Trump,” a session featuring Liora Halperin, Benjamin Schreier, Joel Beinin, Shira Robinson, Joshua Schreier and Sara Anne Minkin.
The session had little to do with Trump, though Ben Shreier perhaps had the current administration partly in mind when he announced that “’anti-Israel’ is a reckless, meaningless term in our current climate.”
The session was devoted to a series of Jewish faculty members venting their long-term hatred of Israel Studies programs. “Israel Studies Centers,” Shira Robinson declared, “are just fronts for Israel advocacy,” which is an irresponsible slander against scores of Israeli Studies scholars doing serious research.
“Many of us,” Halperin informed the audience, “want to be in Middle East Studies.” She added later, “I don’t like the fact that the money I have to give graduate students is called Israel Studies money.” When an Israel Studies program invites a Muslim speaker, Beinin asserted, it amounts to nothing more than “faith washing.”
This biting-the-hand-that-feeds-you form of self-righteousness went a step further, when two of the speakers denounced the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise (AICE) for funding visiting Israeli faculty members at American institutions.
Mitchell Bard, AICE’s executive director, was sitting no more than two feet away. He asked whether the speakers would be returning the personal graduate fellowship funding that both had received from AICE. But, following the time-honored wisdom that even a blind pig occasionally finds an acorn, both cheerfully made it clear that giving them funding was an excellent AICE decision.
Many Israel Studies or Jewish Studies programs, they asserted, kowtow to Jewish donors by appointing reliably pro-Israeli faculty rather than independent, critical intellectuals like themselves. Robinson went on at length, talking about how she assigns “engaged, critical readings” to her students, rather than tomes promoting the “anti-intellectualism” of Zionist material. People like us, she pointed out,“want a scholar who is really serious about the Middle East,” as opposed to “someone supportive of the Israeli government.” I couldn’t help but think of Jewish Studies programs that look to hire anti-Zionist faculty.
Sara Anne Minkin claimed that the belief that “’Jews are a family, Israel is our home’ comes with a demand that you love Israel … loving the nation is changing to loving the state,” and said that there is a “demand to couch your criticism in love.” She aimed to delegitimize all who criticize Israeli government policy while supporting the existence of the Jewish state — a most insidious effort to cast out the enemy within.
Remarkably, none of these faculty members imagined that their own preferences in faculty appointments might be politically and ideologically motivated. They were all on God’s side.
Beinin perhaps spoke for all of them in saying that his own campus, Stanford, never considered donor preferences. Beinin capped the debate with a claim about Israel itself: “Two states, two states. Two states comes down to occupation forever.” Another speaker echoed an argument that Butler had made earlier: “It’s now OK to be antisemitic if you’re pro-Israel.”
But this is not a new perspective. For a time, Nazi Germany was eager simply to get rid of is Jews — and some countries at the 1947 UN vote supported the creation of a Jewish state because they were not willing to take in Jewish refugees themselves.
MESA is now an academic association deeply compromised by political convictions. Even conference sessions that aimed for evidence-based criticism of the Jewish state were tainted by the organization’s pervasive anti-Zionist political consensus. Passage of an academic boycott resolution by MESA would likely receive strong support if proposed in 2018.
The question, unfortunately, is not whether MESA can reverse its drift toward intolerance. It is whether other academic groups will go the same route. For now, it is clear the intellectual environment for reasoned debate will deteriorate still further.