MESA’s Anti-Semitism Got Evicted—But American Academia Has a Long Way to Go

George Washington University (GWU) will be a less anti-Semitic place after its recent decision to evict the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). In a terse note, GWU stated that the relationship between the university and MESA “had run its course” and that the two institutions were “now parting ways amicably.” Observers of Middle East studies at the Middle East Forum noted the timing of MESA’s expulsion, which comes a year after the organization’s March 2022 endorsement of the anti-Israel “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” (BDS) movement.

GWU made the right decision to cease hosting MESA. However, that it even hosted MESA in the first place speaks volumes about the acceptance of anti-Semitism on today’s college campus. MESA is but one of many academic associations that substitute ideology for scholarship and that make hating Israel part of its activist shtick.

Indeed, MESA has many kindred spirits throughout the professoriate. Over 25% of the American Anthropological Association’s members adopted the same stance as MESA while endorsing BDS. The American Studies Association, along with the Association for Asian American Studies, the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies, the National Women’s Studies Association, the Peace and Justice Studies Association, and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, have all jumped on the anti-Israel bandwagon. A hatred of Israel and an embrace of anti-Semitism to advance ideological aims unite them all.

MESA has a special relationship to anti-Israel activism, with notable Israel-bashers serving as the organization’s past leaders. In January of last year, MESA recognized San Francisco State University professor Rabab Abdulhadi for its Jere L. Bacharach Service Award. MESA did this despite her history of comments in support of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a terrorist group, and her work as a founding member the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

Columbia University historian and Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, Rashid Khalidi, served as MESA’s president from 1993–1995. Khalidi is well known for his anti-Israel remarks. In 2018, Khalidi declared Israel to be a “failed settler-colonial experiment,” while he lauded colleges and universities for taking pro-BDS stances, claiming that the leadership of the Democratic Party was “addled by Israel-advocacy Kool-Aid.” In 2014, Khalidi attended the 7th annual conference of American Muslims for Palestine, a notoriously anti-Israel organization. Khalidi even evoked classical Nazi themes of “infestation” when describing the presence of pro-Israel individuals in the Trump administration.

[Related: “The Middle East Studies Association Betrays Academia”]

Figures like Abdulhadi and Khalidi are not isolated—rather, they are symptomatic of an academy that is animated by political activism over scholarship, and they represent a field of study that is politically polarized to its core. The National Association of Scholars (NAS) noted the origins of MESA in our 2022 report, Hijacked: The Capture of America’s Middle East Studies Centers. We noted how raucous factionalism over Israel, Iran, and the Suez Crisis within Middle East studies helped form MESA’s foundation in 1966.

Identity politics without nuance is embedded in MESA’s structure through the work of its Task Force on Civil and Human Rights. The stated purpose of the Task Force is to “track official rhetoric that targets Muslim and Middle Eastern communities” and to “respond effectively to the federal administration and its policies.”

Conspicuously absent from this work are condemnations of bigotry against the world’s only Jewish state, denunciations of atrocities committed by the Islamic State, responses to the plight facing Middle Eastern Christians, and celebrations of peace agreements such as the Abraham Accords. The incongruity lies in MESA’s inherent anti-Semitic orientation and its animosity toward the West. Indeed, MESA cannot seem to fathom that Israel and Jews are integral to the Middle East. Denying that reality is the result of bigotry-guided scholarship.

It would be tempting to claim that Middle East studies has been lost to ideological capture. That is, in fact, far from the case. Many scholars of the region, including professors and students both with and without Middle Eastern heritage, are turning their backs on MESA and its ideological culture for the sake of academic integrity. Ultimately, MESA’s ideological antics drove scholars to form a separate organization—the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA)—in 2007. As noted by then-ASMEA president Mark Clark, MESA was “still dealing with nationalism in the territories, and anti-colonialism,” as well as “old battles from the ‘60s and ‘70s.” ASMEA’s assertion that MESA is an “advocacy group” with an “expressly anti-Israel agenda” is well-founded given MESA’s endorsement of BDS.

George Washington University made the right decision to evict MESA. However, MESA is not the sole home of anti-Semitism in American academia. Hosting organizations such as ASMEA in lieu of MESA would signal a shift in how the field of Middle East studies could evolve beyond its current anti-Semitic reputation. However, until academia ceases its worship of identity politics, serious scholars and institutions should seek ASMEA-like organizations in their respective fields. GWU, Middle East studies, and academia deserve better.

Correction: This article originally stated that “over 70%” of the American Anthropological Association’s members endorsed BDS. In reality, it was over 70% of the 37% of members who voted, not of the total membership, meaning that around 26% of the association endorsed BDS. The article has been corrected accordingly.

Image: Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license


8 thoughts on “MESA’s Anti-Semitism Got Evicted—But American Academia Has a Long Way to Go

  1. It is ridiculous to assert that being anti-Zionism or anti-Israel is equivalent to antisemitism. Some of the most passionate arguments against Zionism come from Jews – secular Jews, “real Torah Jews,” and others. Zionists will counter that these are “self-hating Jews”. This is the same as asserting that Black conservatives are “coons”, or that anyone from a minority group who criticizes woke culture is a sell-out. Furthermore, given that both conservatives and democrats are happy to spend billions of our tax payer dollars bolstering up the state of Israel, I think it’s a good thing, from the point of view of freedom of speech and diversity of opinion, to allow academia to air criticism of Israel.

  2. “Conspicuously absent from this work are condemnations of bigotry against the world’s only Jewish state, denunciations of atrocities committed by the Islamic State, responses to the plight facing Middle Eastern Christians, and celebrations of peace agreements such as the Abraham Accords”</i?

    There are three important but often overlooked issues here.

    First, if one wants to oppose theocracies qua theocracies, that is a defensible argument. Massachusetts was one until 1855 and this included hanging both Quakers on the Boston Common in the 1640s and then purported witches from Danvers (not Salem) a half century later.

    But if one wants to argue that church and state should be separate for the social good, one has to also include the Islamic theocracies — not only Iran but the semi-sane one in Saudi Arabia. And maybe this is sheer cowardice — one can bash Israel with impunity because the Jews aren't going to behead you while the Muslims well might.

    Second, if one wishes to talk about "atrocities", particularly "atrocities against minorities", one has to put it in perspective of an ugly world where a lot of such things happen. Until recently, Zimbabwe went from being Rhodesia with relatively stable (albeit racist) White rule to being ruled by a crazy Black dictator who killed people and elephants with such reckless abandon that the world finally had to say "no mas." Neighboring South Africa isn't much better, after thirty years of an ANC dictatorship, there are now also shortages of food, water, and electricity. And we won't even discuss the prison camp known as the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (North Korea).

    Let's just talk about atrocities against Muslims as that's what Israel is accused of — what about the Uyghurs in China? Forgetting all the other reasons we should be upset with China, is anyone talking about a BDS against China for this?!?

    And Israel is the only country in the Middle East where Christians aren't being slaughtered.

    Third, while he'll never get it, Donald Trump deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the Abraham Accords — and pointing out the shared roots of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity — that it is the *same* God that all three religions worship. And on a more pragmatic basis, peace is more pragmatic (and profitable) than war.

    But peace is also more boring than war, and without the simplistic argument of "Israel Evil", how are you going to get the interest of undergraduates, let alone maintain their attention? I'd imagine it's like trying to maintain their attention in a discussion of the differences between the Progressive and Populist movements of a century ago — it's much easier to teach about wars because they are dynamic and (usually) have clear victors.

    Without its shared hatred of Israel — say Israel had never existed and the Jewish people instead had a historical legacy in Vermont — would the MESA even exist? Can it exist without the unifying hatred towards Israel?

  3. Thanks for your article. Here is a slight correction that has some consequences for people fighting the BDS agenda. In the American Anthropological Assn, only 37% of the members bothered to vote at all on the Israeli boycott. Of that group, 70% approved the resolution. That means that only 26% of the members actually voted in favor of BDS (not 70%, as your article states). This means there are A LOT of potential allies in the fight against identity politics and the politicized hijacking of academia.

    1. Thank you for this comment—you are right. I just corrected the article and issued a correction note at the bottom.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *