No sooner had U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order applying the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) working definition of anti-Semitism to college campuses than the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) issued a letter condemning his act.
Claiming the order would “threaten the right to free speech guaranteed by the First Amendment and undermine the principles of academic freedom,” MESA’s letter demonstrates (again) its commitment to undermining Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state.
In a classic example of misinformation, MESA charges the IHRA’s working definition of anti-Semitism with conflating “criticism of Israeli actions and policies, and of Zionism as a political ideology, with anti-Semitism.”
Yet a careful reading of IHRA’s text proves this charge false. Its definition clearly states that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” Rather, as IHRA makes clear, the problem isn’t criticism of Israel, per se, but the application of unfair double standards and demonization.
MESA also willfully distorts the intent of the executive order. When Trump signed it, he declared: “My administration will never tolerate the suppression, persecution, or silencing of the Jewish people. We have also taken a firm stand against the so-called Divestment and Sanctions Movement, or BDS.” The administration’s aim is to protect Jews from persecution, not silence Israel’s critics.
Moreover, MESA’s letter didn’t just support BDS, it falsified history.
“As you surely know, Jews in the United States and elsewhere identify themselves in a wide variety of ways, so the implication that all Jews share a common national origin is not a statement of fact but an ideological assertion,” the letter stated. For an organization dedicated to the study of the Middle East, this argument displays a shocking level of ignorance.
“Jew” is derived from Judah/Judea, an area of what is now Israel; Judea is where the tribe of Judah, Jacob’s son, resided. This biblical and historical connection between Jews and Israel is backed up by contemporary archaeology. By no standard is a “common national origin” of the Jews an “ideological assertion”; it is a statement of fact, supported by thousands of years of evidence. The letter’s ahistorical argument demonstrates MESA’s disregard for truth and its continued politicization at the expense of scholarship.
The same vices plague BDS proponents who, by design, single out Israelis for persecution while stomping out free speech and academic inquiry. In campuses across the country, BDS activists shout down Israeli speakers and target and harass Jewish and pro-Israel students. In at least two cases, pro-BDS faculty members violated their academic responsibilities by refusing to write recommendations for students to study in Israel. The BDS campaign, which MESA defended in its letter, shuts down debate and undermines principles of academic inquiry, which the organization claims to champion.
To anyone familiar with MESA’s record, none of this is surprising. MESA has regularly waded into the thicket of Middle East politics, and consistently taken a position hostile to Israel. Earlier this year, it sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo protesting the government’s refusal to grant a visa to Palestinian activist Hanan Ashrawi on grounds that she is “an advocate for peace.” Contrary to MESA’s assertion, Ashrawi, far from being an advocate for peace, has been an apologist, if not an advocate, for terrorism against Israel.
That’s in keeping with MESA’s consistent downplaying or even denial of the terror threat to Israel. In a so-called “advocacy letter” last February, MESA accused Israel of conducting “arbitrary arrests at and incursions into Palestinian universities.” Nowhere did the association mention that terror groups such as Fatah and Hamas recruit regularly on Palestinian campuses. As with Ashrawi’s record, MESA ignored the terror support that necessitated Israeli action.
Unfortunately, MESA’s record at home in the United States regarding Jews isn’t any better. In a preview of its objection to Trump’s executive order, MESA opposed the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2018 when it was introduced into Congress. In a letter written to both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, MESA said that the legislation would have a “chilling effect” on free speech and warned darkly of organizations “outside of academia” that supported the bill.
More recently, at its annual meeting last month, MESA issued a statement defending BDS as “criticism of Israeli actions and policies, and of Zionism as a political ideology.” Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill (who has no academic expertise in the Middle East) delivered the keynote address, calling on the attendees to support BDS even at the cost of their academic careers—an empty gesture, since the discipline of Middle East studies rewards rather than penalizes supporters of BDS.
MESA’s deplorable record of biased, anti-Israel action proves it has no credibility in claiming its protest of Trump’s executive order is a defense of objective scholarship in the service of academic freedom. To the contrary, it has consistently ignored or denied anti-Israel terrorism and falsely branded efforts to combat anti-Semitism as threats to free speech. Politicized to its core, dishonest in its public claims and contemptuous of the ideals of rigorous, apolitical academic work, MESA demonstrates why Middle East studies remains among the most troubled, harmful disciplines.