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.
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.