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November 29, 2022 11:47 am

What a New Middle East Scholars Survey Says About the Campus Climate for Jews

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avatar by Miriam F. Elman


One of the campus buildings at the University of California, Berkeley. Photo: Max Pixel/Creative Commons.

On January 25, 2016, Giulio Regeni, a 28-year-old Italian graduate student conducting dissertation fieldwork on Egypt’s trade unions, was snatched off a street in Cairo. A week later, his mutilated body was found dumped in a ditch, and four senior Egyptian National Security Agency officials were subsequently charged with his kidnap, torture, and murder.

Many Middle East scholars undoubtedly have not forgotten Regeni’s brutal killing, and are well aware of Egypt’s dismal record of harassing, intimidating, and imprisoning academics. But the findings of a recently released survey — “The Middle East Scholar Barometer” — show that few of them have reservations about holding academic workshops in Egypt or, for that matter, in a number of other repressive Middle Eastern countries.

That is actually as it should be.

Open inquiry is a value that defines the academy, including the principle that faculty worldwide should be free to present and exchange their research and scholarship with one another without restraint. Even in authoritarian countries, continued engagement with universities and research institutes is critically important in the long run, and in particular for the scholars and students who depend on those institutions.

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This admirable reluctance to shutter research collaboration with colleagues in the Middle East region is reflected in the Barometer’s latest biannual survey, which was sent from Oct. 25 to Nov. 8 to nearly 1,600 self-identified Middle East-focused scholars affiliated with the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the American Political Science Association (APSA), and the American Historical Association (AHA).

Unfortunately, their principled position in favor of free and unfettered intellectual exchange clearly doesn’t extend to one state — democratic Israel.

Israeli universities and colleges are vibrant and raucous spaces of dissent, and many have made extraordinary strides in recent years to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. Inequalities and barriers to integration still exist, but the number of Arab students in Israeli higher education has grown nearly 80 percent over the past decade. Yet despite these positive developments, less than 50 percent of the Barometer survey’s respondents think that it is appropriate to hold academic workshops in Israel. Among the 53 percent who objected, 94 percent cited “ethical concerns” (far fewer mentioned concerns over access or personal safety).

The survey findings show that the vast majority of these Middle East scholars support holding academic workshops in the UAE (65 percent), Qatar (80 percent), and Turkey (80 percent). The latter result is particularly striking, given the Erdogan government’s unconscionable attacks on higher education and large scale purges of academics in recent years, which have basically morphed the country’s university system into an arm of the state.

There is no movement among Middle East scholars to boycott Turkey. By contrast, an overwhelming majority of them — 91 percent — harbor such an intense hostility toward Israel that they support boycotts targeting it, although a third claim that they oppose boycotting Israeli academic institutions.

There is also a significant disciplinary divide in this data.

Nearly half of the political scientists surveyed say that they do not favor boycotts of Israel’s academic institutions. That is not surprising. After all, back in 2019, when the APSA’s Foundation of Political Theory Section put an anti-Israel academic boycott resolution on its agenda for discussion at the professional association’s annual conference that year, so many members came to the meeting to voice their opposition to it that any hope its supporters may have had for a formal action or vote by the Section, let alone by APSA as a whole, was essentially crushed.

Now, only 43 percent of the political scientists who responded to the Barometer survey claim to support MESA’s decision back in March to adopt an academic boycott of Israel (compared to 62 percent of scholars from other fields of study who say they support MESA’s move).

What this means is that MESA’s leadership clearly jumped the gun before it had a more complete sense of its membership’s opinions. Less than 45 percent of the professional association’s eligible members voted in the boycott referendum last spring. But MESA’s leaders nonetheless chose to present the vote as a victory for the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The Barometer survey’s findings underscore just how negligent and irresponsible MESA’s leaders were when they repeatedly ignored reasonable requests to set up an online forum where the pros and cons of academic boycotts could be openly discussed and debated. Had such a forum been created, it is entirely possible that the boycott vote would have failed.

It is ironic that Middle East scholars who so strongly favor boycotting Israel also complain bitterly about the silencing of their own speech, even as they work hard to stifle the voices and curtail the academic freedom of Israeli academics. According to the new survey, nearly 60 percent of Middle East scholars report “treading carefully” when speaking out about the region.

But when it comes to discussing Israel, it is hard to take this grievance seriously. In fact, virulently anti-Israel narratives are well-established and rewarded in many disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, where even those scholars who make wild and demonstrably false accusations about Israel that amount to antisemitic delusions are easily able to publish their work, win awards, and garner prestigious speaking engagements.

There are no professional risks for faculty who passionately advocate against Israel — especially when their senior colleagues are doing so. Recall that hundreds of academics, including those typically considered the most vulnerable — advanced graduate students, non-yet-tenured junior faculty, and those on contingent contracts — did not think twice about speaking out and signing their names to a wave of statements that harshly condemned Israel for the 2021 Gaza war.

The reality is that today, it is Jewish faculty who increasingly feel a need to self-censor and to hide their attachments to Israel in order to avoid professional costs. Their fears are well-founded, considering that hundreds of university departments nationwide are now effectively baking anti-Zionism into their pedagogical mission statements, and creating academic spaces where Jewish and Zionist faculty and students feel deeply disrespected, silenced, and unwelcome.

The new Middle East Scholar Barometer survey highlights how a large number of Middle East scholars are contributing to this deteriorating campus climate and challenging workplace environment.

Miriam F. Elman is Executive Director of the Academic Engagement Network, an educational nonprofit headquartered in Washington, D.C. which works to educate faculty and university leaders about rising campus antisemitism and to empower them with the resources to combat it. From 2009-2022 she was an Associate Professor of Political Science at Syracuse University, where she served as the Robert D. McClure Professor of Teaching Excellence.           

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