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Part I—Tensions in Academia
The growing divide in the United States between Zionists and supporters of Palestinian rights has led to pronounced tensions in academia. Much has been said about increasing pro-Palestinian student protests as well as the activities of pro-Israel boards of governors, presidents, deans, etc. The latter try to guard their campuses from pro-Palestinian faculty, student clubs, invited speakers and the like.
These tensions have found yet another academic front on which to contest. There are two historical associations in the U.S. for scholars of Middle East studies reflecting opposing attitudes toward Israel and its behavior toward the Palestinians. And this divide presents us with a dichotomy of values at the professional academic level.
The oldest of these is the Middle East Studies Association (MESA). It was founded in 1966 and currently has a membership of more than 2700. It also serves as a “constituent society of thirty-six affiliated organizations.” It puts out a quarterly journal and has an active Committee on Academic Freedom. MESA is a very successful learned society. Its scholars cover all of the Middle East and North Africa. It is dedicated to high standards of scholarship and diversity of interpretation.
By the 2000s the debate within academia over the expansionist nature of Israel and its treatment of conquered Palestinians was heating up. Because most of MESA members have a broad knowledge of the area, a sense of local perspectives, and also know the history of the Arab Israeli conflict, their positions tend to be critical of Israeli behavior and American support for it. And that led to an organizational split.
In 2007 two scholars, Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, decided to start a rival organization, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). They did so because, according to them, MESA was “dominated by academics who have been critical of Israel and America’s role in the Middle East.”
One might wonder why the position taken by many MESA members upset Lewis and Ajami. After all, debating issues from an historical perspective is, in part, what academics are supposed to do. If MESA was allegedly “dominated” by those critical of Israeli behavior, Lewis and Ajami’s answer was to establish a “politicized” organization “dominated” by Zionists. It made little sense in terms of dialog, but tactically it fit right in with how Zionists—those who uphold the legitimacy of a Jewish state in Palestine—react to criticism.
Over the last quarter century, a common tactic of Zionists has been to withdraw from public debate and, where they can, bring about enforced silence of anyone who is critical of Israel. That, of course, is what those pro-Israeli academic administrators and boards were and are doing. Part of this effort entails labelling those critical of Israel as anti-Semites. This stratagem is generally used to shut down negative assessments in the West. Seeking to expand the scope of this effort, ASMEA’s much lauded founder, Bernard Lewis, who died in May of 2018, sought to defame Islam with the same charge. That approach is carried on by ASMEA. The organization awards a Bernard Lewis Prize, a description of which quotes Lewis, “to an astonishing degree, the ideas, the literature, even the crudest inventions of the Nazis and their predecessors have been internalized and Islamized.” In competition for this award, young Middle East scholars are encouraged by ASMEA to identify Muslim Arab opposition to Israel with anti-Semitism.
Part II—Expressing Values
The two organizations have recently shown where this tension has taken them in terms of human rights. This was occasioned by the recent outbreak Palestinian resistance caused by threats of evictions (ethnic cleansing) of Arab families in Jerusalem, and aggressive Israeli actions at the site of Al-Aqsa Mosque. The latter actions, in particular, triggered rocket attacks from Gaza.
Here is part of a long and detailed MESA statement. The shorter ASMEA statement is given in full:
MESA (21 May 2021) Issued by the organization’s Board of Directors.
“The Board of Directors of the Middle East Studies Association of North America condemns the ongoing and intensified Israeli government assault on the Palestinians of East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip and those who are Israeli citizens. During May 7–20, 2021, Israeli military attacks on the occupied Gaza Strip damaged at least 51 educational facilities, including 2 kindergartens, 46 schools, 1 university, 1 vocational training center, and 1 Ministry of Education facility—among other vital infrastructure. Israeli air strikes and tank shells directly hit a number of these buildings. The deadly conditions created by the Israeli military attacks in Gaza forced all schools to remain closed for at least five days after the end of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, affecting the lives and access to education of 591,685 students. In addition, Israeli military strikes internally displaced at least 66,000 Palestinians who then sought refuge in 58 schools run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), causing further disruptions to the population’s education–indeed, to their lives. …
“There is little doubt that successive Israeli governments across the political spectrum have carried out a decades-long attack on Palestinian students, teachers, and educational facilities. Indeed, this attack is part of a broader political, administrative, and legal system of racial discrimination and domination—regularly enforced through violence—that has defined the Israeli government’s treatment of the Palestinian people. And, as the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem and the international non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch have found, the Israeli government’s purposeful and systematic privileging of Jewish Israelis while dominating and oppressing the Palestinian people amounts to apartheid.”
ASMEA (25 May 2021) Issued by the organization’s Chairman, Professor Norman Stillman
“The recent wave of violence in the ongoing struggle between Israel and Hamas has left many members of our community of scholars deeply concerned. While we hope and pray no harm befalls any of our members, anywhere, and their loved ones, ASMEA remains committed to our founding principles as an academic association.
“As scholars, we believe in the pursuit of objective truth when studying and teaching the issues and topics affecting the regions of our academic concern. We recognize that these principles can create division and disagreement, but so long as scholarship contributes to the body of knowledge, we welcome and encourage vigorous debate.
“We stand behind and support our members in Israel and deride those more intent on infusing the academic landscape with pointless over-politicization and rank partisanship than restoring balance to the Academy and protecting academic freedom in Middle East and African studies, and related disciplines.”
There are a couple of things to note about these two statements: (1) The MESA statement is issued in support of the Palestinians, and specifically their collective human right to education. It contains assertions about the Israeli violations of that right—assertions that can be fact checked. The statement also references the reports of international organizations concerned with civil and human rights. (2) The ASMEA statement claims objectivity and a willingness to debate, but then proceeds to defame and trivialize those who disagree with their position—“those more intent on infusing the academic landscape with pointless over-politicization and rank partisanship.” Actually, one can characterize this charge as a psychological projection of the statement’s author who, being a Zionist stalwart must be, by definition, both politicized and partisan. The statement also makes no reference to the Palestinian situation under Israeli rule and reduces the struggle to one between Hamas and Israeli—an objectively incorrect and thus untrue assertion. This reductionist gambit is used by almost all contemporary supporters of Israel.
Part III—Crossing the Rubicon
There is a Rubicon (a fundamental crossing point) that all Jewish intellectuals are now confronting. Whether or not one crosses this line reveals the nature of their values. To cross it is to take the side of human rights and the rule of law. To refuse to cross is to take the side of state power—in this case, to align with the power of a proven apartheid state.
To add context to this choice, consider the case of Eva Illouz, a professor of sociology at Hebrew University. On 14 April 2014, she wrote an essay for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz entitled, “Is It Possible to be a Jewish Intellectual?” In this piece she sets forth two opposing positions: one is the Zionist/Israeli demand for the primacy of “ahavat Israel,” or the “love of the Jewish nation and people”–-the claim that all Jews have a “duty of the heart” to be loyal to the “Jewish nation.” The other position is that of the lone intellectual (here her model is the philosopher Hannah Arendt), whose obligation is to maintain the “disinterested intelligence” necessary to “speak truth to power.”
Illouz explains that Zionists have a “suspicion of critique” and use “the memorialization of the Shoah” (the Holocaust) and “ahavat Israel” to mute it. “The imperative of solidarity brings with it the injunction to not oppose or express publicly disagreement with official Jewish bodies.” It is within this context that she can ask if it is still possible to be a Jewish intellectual. Illouz’s conclusion is that it has become exceedingly difficult to be so because the demands for Jewish solidarity are particularly “brutal.” And then she
makes her choice and, if you will, crosses the Rubicon. “In the face of the ongoing, unrelenting injustices toward Palestinians and Arabs living in Israel, his/her moral duty is to let go, achingly, of that solidarity.”
It is not difficult to recognize that ASMEA stands at the bank of this Rubicon and refuses to cross. The organization’s values do not reflect any devotion to universal principles such as human rights and the rule of law, much less “objective truth.” Their leadership, at least, has no interest in critiquing the use of power but rather is dedicated to protecting and enhancing the interests of a specific power. The values exalted here are the parochial codes those intellectuals (among others) use to rationalize service to a state even when it turns criminal. The independent-minded, outspoken intellectuals, such as Eva Illouz, demanding broader moral integrity and responsibility from their contemporaries, are rarities.
Any speculation about which side of the Rubicon line “History” favors is really silly. Historical prediction, like the weather, is a short-range affair. However, one might sense a present shift in sentiment in the U.S. and the Western world generally. It is an apparent shift in favor of the Palestinians and against apartheid Israel. One might even hazard a guess that the shift will continue to grow. Why so? The reason is straightforward and quite simple. It should continue to grow just as long as Israel does not stop. That is, as long as it continues to evolve as a racist state—simultaneously destroying human rights and international law.
Lawrence Davidson is professor of history emeritus at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He has been publishing his analyses of topics in U.S. domestic and foreign policy, international and humanitarian law and Israel/Zionist practices and policies since 2010.