Middle East Studies Association to Israelis: “Go to the Back of the Bus”



Alan Luxenberg is President of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

A scandalous -- but unreported -- event took place in Washington, D.C. late last year at the Annual Meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), a constituent organization of the prestigious American Council of Learned Societies.

As is customary at such meetings there were well over 200 panels to discuss a wide range of topics -- historical, political, and cultural -- with four or five scholars presenting different perspectives at each panel. The purpose of such meetings is to provide a forum for these scholars to exchange ideas, present their research findings for critical review by peers, and in general to promote the advance of knowledge. Scholars come from all over the world to participate. All of this is unremarkable but what happened at one particular panel this past December merits public attention.

The subject of the panel was "Lebanon and the UN Special Tribunal: Balancing Justice and Stability.” Five scholars were scheduled to present papers -- two from Lebanon, two from Israel (one of them an Italian national), and one from Egypt. The panel chair was an American. About eighteen hours before the panel was scheduled to begin (Saturday, December 3, at 2:30), the two scholars from Lebanon informed MESA that they could not share the dais or co-present with the two scholars from Israel, owing to a 1955 Lebanese law banning such exchanges, and therefore requested the opportunity to make their presentations without the Israel-based scholars present at the dais. According to a written communication from MESA after the conference, MESA officials were taken completely by surprise, having never received such a request before. They were at a loss as to what to do. (After reviewing an earlier draft of this essay, one of the Lebanese scholars informed me that in past years Lebanese scholars either made similar requests or simply absented themselves from panels featuring Israelis.)

The decision was made to accommodate the request to allow the Lebanese scholars to make presentations without the Israelis present on the dais. So, while the Lebanese gave their presentations, the Israeli presenters were asked to take their seats in the audience. When that part of the program was completed, the Lebanese took their seats in the audience and the Israel-based scholars were invited up to the dais to make their presentations. Thus were the scholars from Israel segregated while the Lebanese were rescued from breaking Lebanese law in America’s capital at an international conference sponsored by an elite professional association -- one ostensibly devoted to the free exchange of ideas.

Subsequently, the Israel-based scholars, feeling humiliated, registered a complaint with the leadership of MESA, and the leadership wrote a letter of apology (confirming, incidentally, all the details I have reported above). They indicated it will never happen again: “It’s not MESA’s responsibility,” the MESA officials concluded in hindsight, “to enforce the laws of any foreign nation, particularly those that violate MESA’s fundamental principles of academic freedom.” The MESA officials (the president and the executive director) went on to write: “MESA is on the record as opposing academic boycotts like that of the BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] movement and other forms of academic blacklists.”

This last statement seems disingenuous -- and for multiple reasons.

First, on its website, the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel lists 690 academics from US institutions of higher learning and 104 academics from foreign institutions of higher learning that endorse the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel -- among them, the chairman of the panel in question and the 2011 President of the Middle East Studies Association.

Second, MESA’s own website, which includes an extensive section on Academic Freedom, contains no mention of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, no mention of the BDS movement, and no mention of academic boycotts in general, though there is one 2005 letter expressing objection to the decision of the British Association of University Teachers to bar any relations with two Israeli universities. In reviewing their web-based archive of MESA’s “letters of intervention” for the years 2010-2012, I found six letters to Israeli authorities objecting to their abridgement of Palestinian academic freedom, five letters to Iranian authorities, and one or two letters to several other Middle Eastern governments. It appears, then, that Israel is the worst offender of academic freedom in the Middle East -- in the view of the Middle East Studies Association. I found only one letter to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and none to Syria -- and none even to Lebanon whose 1955 law bans the kind of academic exchanges that MESA exists to promote and which gave rise to my investigation. Except for Israel and Iran, the Middle East appears to be a bastion of academic freedom -- in the view of the Middle East Studies Association.

Third, according to an account published by the Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs (a publication sympathetic to the Palestinians), MESA sponsored a symposium in 2006 on “Academic Freedom and Academic Boycotts.” The symposium featured four panelists -- two advocating the academic boycott of Israel and two opposed. ALL four panelists, according to the account, expressed support for the BDS movement.

In permitting the segregation of Israeli professors at its Annual Meeting, MESA has betrayed its professed belief in the principles of academic freedom, tarnishing not only its own reputation but that of its parent organization, the American Council of Learned Societies. The private apology was nice, but what is required is for MESA and ACLS to take a public stand in favor of the untrammeled exchange of ideas and against academic boycotts of any kind.

* * * *

UPDATE 8-22-12

The editor received an email from Laurie Brand, Chair of the Committee on Academic Freedom for the Middle East Studies Association, responding directly to Mr. Luxenberg's criticisms of the incident at the 2011 conference. It is reprinted here in full.

Dear Mr. Luxenberg,

I am writing in response to the e-mail message dated August 19, 2012 that you sent to members of the Middle East Studies Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom (CAF) and that included the text of an article you published on the History News Network on August 13, 2012. In that article you expressed concerns about: (1) a problem that arose with regard to participation on a panel at the Middle East Studies Association’s annual meeting in December 2011; (2) what you claim is CAF’s disproportionate focus on violations of academic freedom by Israel; and (3) MESA’s position with regard to the public campaign advocating the academic boycott of Israel.

(1) At the 2011 annual meeting, the two Israeli scholars involved, both of them MESA members, complained to MESA’s executive secretary and president about what had transpired at the panel. MESA’s president subsequently issued a letter of apology to the two scholars. As your article indicated, that letter also clarified MESA’s position on the issues involved and conveyed its commitment that what happened with that panel would not be allowed to recur. The two Israeli scholars graciously accepted this apology and promise regarding future panels. Given that the issue was fully addressed and resolved by MESA’s board, there was no reason for further intervention by CAF; nor do we see any reasonable grounds for claiming that MESA’s actions in this case were disingenuous or betrayed its firm and longstanding commitment to academic freedom, as your article alleges.

(2) The members of CAF are scholars who have diverse backgrounds, country and regional expertise and disciplinary training; they volunteer their time and energy out of a common commitment to defending academic freedom, in the Middle East and North Africa as well as in North America. CAF addresses cases as they come to its attention, either through its members’ contacts or by referral from other MESA members or the Middle East studies community more broadly. It is not now, nor has it ever been, CAF’s policy or practice to focus disproportionately on any particular country or set of countries. Examination of the page on MESA’s website at which CAF’s letters are posted (http://www.mesa.arizona.edu/committees/academic-freedom/intervention/index.html) will demonstrate that CAF has protested violations of or threats to academic freedom in a wide range of countries; similarly, MESA has given its annual Academic Freedom Award to individuals and organizations based in many different countries, in the region and beyond (http://www.mesa.arizona.edu/awards/mesa-academic-freedom.html). We therefore reject your allegation that Israel has been unfairly singled out for criticism.

(3) While individual members of MESA are of course free to take whatever stand they feel appropriate with regard to the campaign for the academic boycott of Israel, CAF’s letter of May 13, 2005 continues to reflect that body’s position with regard to this question.

In this connection I would also point out that your HNN article inaccurately conveys what actually happened at the debate on academic boycotts held at MESA’s 2006 annual meeting. As you acknowledge, two of the four panelists vigorously opposed academic boycotts, including the academic boycott of Israel; your subsequent statement that “ALL [sic] four panelists … expressed support for the BDS movement” is, therefore, misleading.

We would appreciate it if you would circulate this letter to all those individuals, organizations and media outlets to whom you circulated your original article, so that they can have our perspective on the issues you raised.


Laurie A. Brand, CAF Chair

Laurie A. Brand
Robert Grandford Wright Professor
Professor of International Relations
USC Dana and David Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences
University of Southern California

Chair, Committee on Academic Freedom
Middle East Studies Association (MESA)

* * * *

UPDATE 9-10-12

The editor received this email from Alan Luxenberg responding to Ms. Brand. It is reprinted here in full.

Dear Professor Brand,

I appreciated your open letter to me posted on the History News Network, and I especially applaud your frank acknowledgement of the Middle East Studies Association's mishandling of a request to segregate Israeli scholars at MESA's 2011 Annual Meeting.

Allow me to respond to your points in reverse order.

1) You indicate that I described MESA's 2006 debate on academic boycotts inaccurately. You write: "As you acknowledge, two of the four panelists vigorously opposed academic boycotts, including the academic boycott of Israel; your subsequent statement that 'ALL (sic) four panelists ... expressed support for the BDS movement' is, therefore, misleading."

Evidently, you made the logical deduction that if you oppose academic boycotts, then you must oppose BDS (the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement). But, here's the report of the Washington Report on Middle Eastern Affairs from March 7, 2007, which notes the bewilderment of the audience that could not quite make sense of those on the panel who opposed the academic boycotts while supporting BDS: "Given that all the panelists expressed support for the use of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel generally, many audience members expressed frustration at the abstractness of the debate in the face of worsening realities. They saw opposition to the tactic of academic boycott as inaction."

A second report on the conference published in the New York Sun does not specifically say that all the panelists supported BDS but does say they all characterized Israel as an apartheid society, confirming that all four panelists evinced hostility to the state of Israel. To me, that does not sound exactly like a "debate." As the Sun noted, "At times abstruse, the vocal argumentation evoked the heated discussions among the various shades of leftist at the CCNY Alcoves in the 1930s."

2) In response to my point about the disproportionate focus of MESA's Committee on Academic Freedom on Israel's violations of academic freedom, you write "It is not now, nor has it ever been, CAF's policy or practice to focus disproportionately on any particular country."

I accept the statement that CAF does not have a policy focusing on Israel's violations of academic freedom. But its practice is a matter of record documented on your own website; the only thing I did was to tally up the "letters of intervention." I attach a chart showing the numbers of intervention letters by country since 2002, documenting that Iran and Israel are far and away the greatest violators of academic freedom in the Middle East -- in the view of MESA's Committee on Academic Freedom, whereas most Mideast countries have very few violations at all over this ten-year period (and some, like Libya, have none!) I understand the practice of CAF is simply to act on complaints by members of MESA or that of others who have referred cases to MESA. In other words, CAF has a program of "reaction" rather than a program of systematic evaluation of the state of academic freedom country by country. My suggestion is for CAF to move away from its current procedures to a new set of procedures; otherwise it will continue to pretend that Israel leads all the dictatorships of the Middle East in violating academic freedom. What's missing is a basic reality check.


3) You write: "nor do we see any reasonable grounds for claiming that MESA's actions in this case were disingenuous."

But I was quite specific in what I found disingenuous and that was this sentence in MESA President Fred Donner's letter of apology: "MESA is on the record as opposing academic boycotts like that of the BDS movement and other forms of academic blacklists." It is true there is one 2005 letter from MESA to the British Association of University Teachers (which had voted initially to bar any contacts with scholars from two Israeli universities) in which MESA's CAF states its opposition to the AUT vote and which seems to affirm opposition to academic boycotts of any kind. In 2005, MESA's CAF wrote to the AUT, saying: "We are on record as opposing restrictions against individual scholars except in instances where those individuals have violated clearly established legal and ethical norms. We especially oppose penalizing entire segments of an academic community for any reason whatsoever." This is a good statement as far as it goes, but there has been no statement on MESA's part specifically referring to the BDS movement or to the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which has been very active on U.S. campuses (most recently at the University of Pennsylvania). MESA opposes the British Association of University Teachers; why doesn't it expressly oppose the U.S. Campaign?

Finally, after I wrote the article on the incident at MESA's meeting to which you responded, I did some further research on MESA's website and I came across a "letter of intervention" to Hamas, the terrorist group that took credit for bombings at Hebrew University in 2002. MESA wrote to Hamas saying: "by targeting a university, the Islamic Resistance Movement grievously assaulted the academic freedom of Hebrew University students and their ability to exercise their right to exchange and receive information without putting themselves at risk of death or serious injury." I guess this means that if Osama bin Laden had bombed Columbia University rather than the World Trade Center, then MESA would have written a letter to him as well. I don't know what to make of such a letter; it is either incredibly arrogant or incredibly naïve, or both.

I hope you will share this letter with your membership.


Alan H. Luxenberg
President, Foreign Policy Research Institute

comments powered by Disqus