The Middle East Studies Association's Shameful Betrayal of Academic Freedom

An obsessive hatred of the Jewish state.

Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.

Unsurprisingly for an organization whose membership has been perennially hostile to Israel, members of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) voted at their recent annual meeting to advance a resolution endorsing an academic boycott of Israeli academics to a full membership vote in 2022.

The sententious language of the MESA boycott resolution, which ironically purports to protect academic freedom, asserts that there is evidence of “successive Israeli governments’ systematic violations of the human rights of Palestinians living under Israeli direct or indirect control” and that these so-called “systemic violations include restricting freedom of movement for Palestinians; isolating, undermining, or otherwise attacking Palestinian educational institutions; harassing Palestinian professors, teachers, and students . . ; and maintaining inequality in educational resources between Palestinians and Israelis.”

But MESA’s notion that Israeli universities are “imbricated in these systematic violations” is flawed in at least two respects. It, first, exonerates academics in any country other than Israel for any misdeeds committed by their own governments, for which, by the same standard that the boycotters apply to Israel, they as concerned citizens and scholars should have to answer. The notion that Israeli academics should, or could, be held responsible for the actions of their own government was at best hypocritical, and at worst yet another example of how, where Israel is concerned, the standards applied in measuring its actions are impossibly high.

Secondly, making Israeli academics complicit in the actions of their government ignores the reality that, as is the case on European, Canadian, and American campuses, many Israeli professors veer to the Left politically and many, incredibly, share the same virulent anti-Israel, anti-Zionism sentiments so proudly touted by the boycott supporters.

In fact, MESA President Dina Rizk Khoury ludicrously claimed that the boycott would not only help Palestinian scholars whose rights are allegedly denied by Israel but would also help insulate anti-Israel Israeli academics, too, academics she contends face imaginary “attacks” from their peers within Israel. “Today’s vote clears a path for our full membership to collectively determine how we can do our part to support the academic freedom and education rights of Palestinian scholars and students,” Khoury proclaimed, “not to mention Israeli scholars facing attacks from their own government for criticizing its policies.”

So, MESA thoughtfully will look out for those “good” Jews in Israel who share their own animus to the Jewish state and suffer so-called attacks from the government for their anti-Israel activism. But Khoury, like her fellow travelers in the anti-Israel BDS movement regularly do, defines responses to pro-Palestinian activism—that is, the defense of Israel—as being “attacks” on their ideology, the suppression of solidarity with Palestinian self-determination, Islamophobia, and a host of other accusations about the harm and “violence” being committed against pro-Palestinians. That they do not expect a vigorous response from their ideological opponents indicates how blinded they are by their self-righteousness and the confidence they seemingly have in their cause.

MESA also makes the oft-repeated, though disingenuous, claim that the boycott will only target institutions, not individuals, asserting, weakly, “that the BDS campaign against Israel is one that targets institutions and not individuals;” but that excuse is a lie and another way of obscuring the harm that boycotts inflict on actual scholars—the same people that MESA claims to care so much about, assuming they are not Israeli and Jewish. Institutions do not conduct research, collaborate with scholars in other countries, write books, teach classes, or present papers at academic conferences; individuals do.

But the most serious ideological defect in calling for an academic boycott against Israel is that it assumes Israel is completely to blame for the ills found within Palestinian universities. In this Manichean view, MESA sees only Israel’s role and complicity in hobbling and weakening Palestinian institutions of higher education, seemingly exonerating the Palestinians from any responsibility. As Israel-haters in the West and elsewhere are prone to do, MESA assumes the Palestinians have no agency in creating campus climates far from the idyllic picture one normally has when thinking about institutions of higher education.

In fact, despite the jaundiced view of MESA and other of Israel’s critics, Palestinian higher education is defined by radical politics, rival political factions who use harassment, violence, and intimidation to promote their views, alignment with terror groups such as Hamas, repression of opposing views, the use of terror cells within university facilities for weapon production, and violence against and even the murder of dissenting faculty who do not conform to the prevailing hatred of the Jewish state or allegiance to Islamism.

An honest examination of the state of Palestinian universities would reveal that, despite MESA’s contention, it is the Palestinians themselves who shoulder much of the responsibility for the fragile state of academic freedom and free speech at their universities.

Apparently, for instance, MESA has not bothered to look at the values and teaching traditions that actually define Palestinian institutions of higher education. In fact, Gaza’s Islamic University, which in the past had to be destroyed by the IDF for its troublesome habit of being a weapons facility, is hardly a bucolic college campus, free of the perverse indoctrination and teaching of terror. When Hamas formed its cabinet after being voted into office, for example, 13 of its ministers had been teachers at either the Islamic University in Gaza or at the An-Najah National University in Nablus, and virtually every leading figure of Hamas has taught or studied at Islamic University. The research labs of the university have also been used to refine the lethality and range of the Qassam rockets that have been terrorizing southern Israeli towns since Israel’s disengagement from Gaza in 2005.

In announcing the boycott, MESA proclaimed that “The call for an academic boycott extends to Israeli institutions which are complicit in Israel’s violations of human rights and international law through their provision of direct assistance to the Israeli military and intelligence establishment,” but apparently MESA does not apply the same standard to Palestinian universities, which are clearly complicit and actively engaged in the creation of the weaponry and strategy of terrorism against Israeli civilians.

Despite the naivete of groups such as MESA and their fellow travelers in the West, systemic radical ideology, the politicization of scholarship, ingrained Jew-hatred and enmity toward the Jewish state, and a willingness to suppress opposing views—with violence, if necessary—more accurately define Palestinian universities. What this means is that MESA’s relentless inclination to blame the IDF and Israel’s government for suppressing Palestinians academic freedom is wrong-headed, because these actions are based on the reality that Palestinian universities operate in a way in which politics, Islamism, and terrorism animate and inform the teaching and political activity of students and faculty alike.

Those campus environments help incubate and promote lethal politics and terroristic activity, both on campus and in Palestinian society in general. Nor is Islamic University alone in its role in helping to germinate radical Islam and jihadism. Matthew Levitt, director of the Washington Institute’s Stein Program on Terrorism, Intelligence, and Policy, noted, for instance, that the 11,000-student An-Najah is the largest university in the territories, and “the terrorist recruitment, indoctrination and radicalization of students for which An-Najah is known typically take place via various student groups,” among them the Hamas-affiliated Islamic Bloc. “Of the thirteen members of An-Najah’s 2004 student council, eight,” Levitt wrote—“including the chairperson—belong to Hamas’s Islamic Bloc.”

There is no surprise that an academic association like the MESA would call for a boycott against only one country—Israel—precisely because a large number of its ranks are evidently steeped in a world view defined by post-colonial, anti-American, anti-Israel thinking, and dedicated to the elevation of identity politics and a cult of victimhood. That they profess to hold high-minded, well-intentioned motives, and speak with such rectitude, does not excuse the fact that their efforts are in the end a betrayal of what the study of history and the university have, and should, stand for—the free exchange of ideas, even ones bad, without political or ideological litmus tests.

The moral arrogance of MESA’s boycott proposal is breathtaking, and not only because of its grotesque version of the anti-Semitic practice of making all Israeli academics responsible for the political actions of the Jewish state. It reveals that the pro-Palestinian movement is so enthralled with the righteousness of its cause that anyone who harbors or expresses other views is considered a pariah, unworthy to have his or her ideas heard in the marketplace of ideas on campus. It collectively punished all academics within Israel regardless of their political leanings or views on the Israeli/Palestine conflict.

And, most absurdly, it pretends that by implementing an academic boycott against Israel that action will result in productive change, that by punishing Israel by purging its academics from the world community of scholars, Israel’s leaders will cave to the demands of those who actually wish to weaken and destroy the Jewish state completely.

Insightful commentator Melanie Phillips, in speaking about a British lecturer union’s call for an academic boycott, lamented how those academics, with a long tradition of learning, had incredulously shamed that legacy and that their action, as she put it, “represents a profound betrayal of the cardinal principle of intellectual endeavour [sic], which is freedom of speech and debate.”

The act of condemning Israel’s universities, of excluding them from the fellowship of the international academic community, was, and is, Phillips thought, a disgraceful calumny that contradicted the primary values of a university. By proposing that Israeli scholars be banned from universities’ “marketplace of ideas,” from vigorous inquiry and debate, MESA members are violating what should be the core precepts of the academy: bringing in many views so that the better ones are revealed, and not suppressing dissent based on whose views and ideology are currently in favor.

In trying to weaken and destroy Israel—and make it a pariah in the world community of scholars—MESA’s tenured radicals are violating one of the highest precepts of education, one which they normally are expected both to protect and hold dear.

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