The Middle East Studies Association Betrays Academia

The Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the world’s major organization devoted to studying this region, has jettisoned academic impartiality and the quest for truth in favor of political partisanship and extremist activism. In 2017, MESA dropped its self-designation as a “non-political learned society” so that it could pursue an anti-Israel agenda. MESA has not yet renamed itself “[Only] Arab Lives Matter” or “Jews Are Evil,” but it proceeds with its relentless partisan agenda nonetheless.

In March 2022, MESA membership voted 768 to 167 to officially support the Boycott, Divest, and Sanction (BDS) movement, which aims to punish, discredit, and ultimately destroy Israel. The motion passed states that MESA

(1) Endorses the 2005 call of Palestinian civil society for BDS against Israel; and

(2) Directs the MESA Board of Directors to work in consultation with the Committee on Academic Freedom to give effect to the spirit and intent of this resolution, in a manner consistent with MESA’s bylaws as well as relevant US federal, state, and local laws.

The motion provides several justifications for its support of BDS, which primarily relate to the suffering of Palestinians. It declares near the beginning:

International intergovernmental organizations and non-governmental organizations, including Palestinian and Israeli monitoring groups, have documented and verified successive Israeli governments’ systematic violations of the human rights of Palestinians living under Israeli direct or indirect control.

This one-sided motion neglects to mention the century-long Palestinian terrorist jihad against Jewish civilians, which indiscriminately murdered infants, children, teenagers, the elderly, and Rabbis. It also fails to mention the Palestinian Authority’s Pay-for-Slay policy, which rewards murderers of Jewish civilians, or the thousands of rockets that Hamas has shot into Israeli civilian areas.

The objective of this motion from the once scholarly MESA is clearly political. Efraim Karsh and Asaf Romirowsky write:

Nor do these boycotts, especially the academic one, reflect an honest sense of solidarity with the Palestinians in general, and the Palestinian universities of the West Bank and Gaza in particular, which for the past two decades have been under the control not of Israel but of the Palestinian Authority. Rather, they are an unabashed attempt to single out Israel as a pariah nation, to declare its existence illegitimate.

With its endorsement of BDS, MESA has progressed from the extremist partisan propaganda that has long characterized its meetings and publications to radical activism and official antisemitism.

MESA’s rejection of impartial, disinterested, and non-partisan inquiry, research, and scholarship does not marginalize it among other academic institutions. Rather, its latest move brings it into line with the radical politicization and partisanship of all academic institutions, including universities, disciplinary associations, granting agencies, and museums in North America and elsewhere in the English-speaking world. These once academic institutions, with the rare exception of a handful, have jettisoned academic inquiry for political partisanship and activism.

The historical impetus for this transformation came initially from feminism and women’s studies, which provided the template for a partisan, activist grievance movement. Their example was quickly followed by other grievance movements, such as ethnic studies, Latinx studies, black studies, Africana studies, Palestinian Studies, Chicano studies, queer studies, and trans studies, adding on any victimhood that could be imagined. These grievance movements infiltrated the then-academic fields of social sciences and humanities, as well as law and education, cancelling academic values in favor of “social justice” priorities. Their efforts included a war on academic science through oxymorons such as “feminist science” and “indigenous science.”

We have witnessed these institutions publicly declaring, with the utmost self-righteousness and virtue signaling, their commitment and devotion to the racialist doctrines of Black Lives Matter and “social justice,” including “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” In practice, these principles translate to pro-active anti-male sexism and anti-white racism, which are now deemed “anti-racism.” All activities, procedural and substantive, including admissions, hiring, promotions, funding, honors, housing, and ceremonies, are guided by the new “woke” sexism and racism. Academically successful minorities, such as Asians and Jews, are now bracketed with despised whites and marked for exclusion. Any sexual minority is now celebrated and provided benefits to compensate for their “marginalization” and “oppression.”

[Related: “The University of Toronto’s Jewish Problem”]

Any ideas that oppose the new racism and sexism are cancelled, especially the ideas of merit, achievement, and fairness, which are replaced by “diversity, equity, and inclusion.” Equality of opportunity is cancelled in favor of “equity,” or equality of outcome, whatever the reality of performance. Embarrassing disparities in performance must be masked by the cancellation of any procedures, such as standardized tests, that do not result in equality of outcome. Now we must pretend that the unequal are always equal, ignoring the pesky reality that tells us otherwise.

Also cancelled is Western Civilization, which has been tainted by the sins of white men. The great works of Western art, music, and fiction can no longer be taught, as they are manifestations of systemic sexism and racism. Classics can no longer be read, as the Greeks and Romans were deplorable white people. Humanities departments may only teach works produced by people high on the intersectional victim pyramid, preferably lesbians of color, followed by transsexuals, females of color, non-Westerners, and other “marginalized” populations (but not Asians or Jews). The job of the social sciences is to teach the intersectional victim pyramid and adduce evidence to support it.

The West is not only culpable for being white and male, but also for invading and oppressing non-Western peoples through its imperial and colonial expansion. “Postcolonial theory,” now the overwhelmingly dominant theoretical framework in the social sciences and humanities, alleges that Western imperialism introduced evil into a world previously characterized by peace, love, and environmental protection. According to postcolonial theory, social division and hierarchy did not exist in the rest of the world until Western imperialism imposed them, inventing tribes in Africa and caste in India.

And here is where we return to the “postcolonial” Palestinianism of the Middle East Studies Association. The Palestinian narrative is that Palestinians are the aboriginal people of the Levant, and that Jews had nothing to do with the region until they arrived, beginning in the 19th century, as European colonialists. Israel, according to the narrative, is thus a state invented by European colonial settlers. This is the Levant version of the postcolonial theory.

This is not the place to introduce the decisive historical evidence that refutes the Palestinian narrative. But we can say that Palestinian partisanship, which is now the official policy of MESA, takes it into the realm of imaginary historical accounts and unbalanced reports on the region, thus vitiating any claim that MESA once had to being a scholarly organization. MESA is now as ideologically corrupt as all other academic institutions, which makes it up-to-date, but worthless.


Image: Patrick Perkins, Public Domain

Philip Carl Salzman

Philip Carl Salzman is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and President of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

4 thoughts on “The Middle East Studies Association Betrays Academia

  1. Red-state Christians are more pro-Israel than most American Jews — it will be interesting to see what Red State legislatures say about this.

    They can’t control curriculum, but they can eliminate departments and majors….

  2. “MESA is now as ideologically corrupt as all other academic institutions, which makes it up-to-date, but worthless.”

    This hyperbole (about ‘all other academic institutions’ and their worth, not MESA) undermines Professor Salzman’s case.

    1. Not when it is generally cmsidered to be accurate.

      Sure, he could have included a few well-known examples such as the MLA, but he was writing about the MESA and not the associations in general.

      I’ve already read about the latter, I know about the ones in my field, and hence don’t consider it hyperbole.

      1. Doc, I suggest you read Robert Weissberg’s piece today April 2 to get something of what I am getting at.

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