How the Middle East Studies Association Warped America’s Universities

Colleges have become doctrinaire in their narrative of Palestinian victimhood as a consequence of Western colonialism and Israeli ‘apartheid’ with no alternative viewpoints tolerated.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images
Columbia University students at a rally on October 12, 2023 at New York City. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

It was not long ago that America’s universities were considered jewels of culture, science, and merit. Yet it is obvious to many Americans they are now deeply out of step with our society as a whole, frequently encourage intolerance and division, and too often undermine the goal of liberal arts education in producing critical-thinking citizens. These past few weeks, we have seen our universities at their worst, ranging from widespread intimidation at Tulane and Cooper Union to a specific threat to rape and kill Jewish students at Cornell.

Much of the blame for the state of our universities lies with the Middle East Studies Association, convening this week in Montreal for its 57th annual meeting.

The Middle East Studies Association tightly controls what is taught in nearly every American university’s course catalog related to the Middle East. Academicians who do not adhere to their very particular worldview are blocked from faculty appointments, denied publishing, promotion and tenure opportunities, and ostracized by colleagues. As a result, the Middle East studies departments of nearly every American university have become doctrinaire in their narrative of Palestinian victimhood as a consequence of Western colonialism and Israeli “apartheid,” with no alternative viewpoints tolerated.

The associations’s planned meeting agenda for this week is instructive. Professor Aisha Mershani of Gettysburg College is delivering a presentation titled “Decolonizing Resistance: Stone Throwing and Palestine Solidarity Activism.” 

The description of her lecture begins: “In June 2002, Israel began constructing the Apartheid Wall in the West Bank, another feature of its colonial expansion.” Ignoring, of course, that prior to the construction of Ms. Mershani’s “Apartheid Wall,” Palestinian suicide bombers were blowing Israeli civilians — and themselves — up at cafes, teen dancehalls, Jewish religious celebrations, on public buses, and anywhere else they could murder Jews. Ms. Mershani’s students are not presented with such alternate viewpoints, just the “facts” of the “Apartheid Wall” as just another “feature” of “colonial expansion.”

Ms. Mershani’s presentation at the association’s meeting this week is wholly typical. She is joined on her panel by the University of California, Santa Barbara’s Sebaah Hamad who explains that “Israel, as a settler-colonial state, disrupts the relationship between the Indigenous population and the environment, while the principle of sumud [to defy or resist] attempts to resist this disruption and assert presence.”

Professor Meryem Kamil  of the University of California, Irvine, plans a presentation focused on “Palestinian political poster art not as a space of exception, but as an affective space of appearance through which Palestine is re-appeared and re-centered in aesthetic and political interventions in the relationship between Palestinians, as the ruled, and Israel, as the ruler.”

Apparently, it was in the spirit of “academic exchange” that Ms. Kamil’s faculty colleague, Jemma Decristo, posted on X, “One group of ppl we have easy access to in the US is all these Zionist journalists who spread propaganda & misinformation… they have houses w addresses, kids in school… they can fear their bosses, but they should fear us more.” Ms. Decristo finished the post with emojis of a knife, ax, and drops of blood.

The association’s mission statement not only excuses activism among its scholars, it requires it. The tax-free organization’s Vision Statement explains that “the strength of MESA lies in its dual commitment to scholarship and advocacy.” Last year, its members voted 768-167 in favor of boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning all Israeli academic institutions. “Our members have cast a clear vote to answer the call for solidarity from Palestinian scholars and students experiencing violations of their right to education and other human rights,” the president of the association, Eve Troutt Powell, explained.

No surprise that following the massacre of 1,400 Israelis on October 7, the group’s board could not bring itself to even condemn Hamas, instead lamenting “the loss of Israeli and Palestinian lives” and the effects of “the Israeli siege and bombardment of Gaza.” Missing: any concern for the more than 200 hostages taken by Hamas and held at Gaza, suggesting that its commitment to “human rights” is highly selective.

The Middle East Studies Association’s rise closely tracks the trend of Middle East studies departments across the country being heavily funded by Islamist regimes. As far back as 2005, both Harvard and Georgetown had each received $20 million from Saudi Arabia to establish or bolster Islamic studies programs.

Cornell, which, according to reporting by the Wall Street Journal, failed to report $1.2 billion in foreign funding, got $760 million to build a campus at Qatar. Cornell is the same institution that placed its Jewish students under guard due to death threats this week and the home of Professor Russell Rickford, who told a rally that he found the Hamas massacre of October 7 “exhilarating.”

For decades, America’s university administrators kept us in the dark and have told us not to worry: that the billions of dollars they have collectively received from autocratic, Islamist regimes would not have any influence on their institutions and that our students’ educations were in good hands under the tutelage of scholars connected to the Middle East Studies Association.

As the events of the last month have shown, they were wrong on both counts, with tragic consequences for their schools and for our nation.

The New York Sun

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