The Chronicle Review

Why the Middle East Studies Association Must Remain ‘Non-Political’

March 06, 2017

The Middle East Studies Association has struggled painfully with its public image because of the passionate political convictions held by many of its members. The organization is now voting on whether to remove the modifier "non-political" from the "Nature and Objectives" section of its bylaws. The unspoken issue, of course, is Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For a significant number of MESA members, it has become an article of faith that Israel is a settler-colonialist state, one that dispossessed an indigenous Arab population to establish a Jewish homeland and that now resists by all means possible any chance for Palestinians to realize their political ambitions.

Once these views become ingrained as unimpeachable truths, dialogue with those sympathetic to Israel — even those who believe a two-state solution is necessary and are engaged in promoting two states for two peoples — begins to seem superfluous or even indecent. The movement to remove "non-political" is designed to make it easier for the organization not only to condemn Israeli policies but also, perhaps, to work collectively for the elimination of the Jewish state.

Of course MESA members, including Neve Gordon, are already free to take such positions, either individually or collectively as part of explicitly political organizations. Many of those who advocate for academic associations to boycott Israeli universities are impatient with the more targeted advocacy that academics can take up in an informed way if they acquire sufficient expertise to do so.

There should be specific pressure on Israel to cease settlement expansion east of the security barrier and to cede control of the small amount of the West Bank needed to create contiguous Palestinian-controlled territory. I have argued for more-ambitious staged and coordinated withdrawals, beginning with the north-central West Bank area between Jenin and Nablus. But I have never thought it appropriate to ask a scholarly organization to do such advocacy. MESA members do a wide variety of area research, including historical work that does not make them experts on current political conflicts.

I became interested in MESA several years ago, when I began to do research on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. My most recent book, Dreams Deferred: A Concise Guide to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the Movement to Boycott Israel, co-published by Indiana University Press in 2016, combines scholarship with advocacy. Its essays include "Proportionality in Asymmetric Warfare," "The Nakba," and "The Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif." But I undertook this work in my capacity as an individual faculty member exercising my academic freedom. Neve Gordon can do the same.

A "non-political" scholarly organization gains its credibility in part from its commitment to approaching topics with an open mind about what the facts and the truth may be. A political organization often proceeds with an agenda; its members may be persuaded that they hew to a greater truth, one that trumps inconvenient evidence.

A 'non-political' scholarly organization gains its credibility in part from its commitment to approaching topics with an open mind.
While MESA has been hovering at the point that divides the two kinds of organizations, it has so far avoided fully stepping over the line. Deleting the qualifier "non-political" from its bylaws would signal the end of any pretense of academic neutrality. That is not the same, however, as a claim that absolute objectivity is possible. We often view facts through cultural and historical lenses.

MESA would then be free to pursue political advocacy without worrying whether it contradicted its commitment to disinterested scholarly judgments. As with any majority imposition of political views on all its members, however, those opposing a given political statement would effectively be coerced into a position they reject as individuals. For much the same reason, we do not want colleges to adopt political stands. We want to preserve the clear freedom that academics have to do so as individuals.

That is one of the reasons I have resisted the politicization of American Association of University Professors and the Modern Language Association. In the course of its 100-year history, the AAUP has written thousands of letters in defense of academic freedom. It has done so from the vantage point of principle, not politics; that is exactly what MESA should continue to do.

It was Neve Gordon’s individual rights that I defended in 2009, when I argued that a faculty member should be free not only to advocate a boycott of Israel, as Gordon has for years, but also to say that his or her nation lacks fundamental moral and legal legitimacy. I stand by that position. But it is not the job of universities or of scholarly associations to take such stands for all those in their communities. When university presidents properly spoke out against Trump’s Muslim-immigration ban, they were doing so as individuals.

There is now an elephant in the room: Trump. His election makes it still more important that MESA and other scholarly organizations stand on evidence and principle, not politics. With the commitment to fact-based analysis abandoned by the Trump administration, it is crucial that academe present a very different standard, both for its own integrity and in order to serve the country properly.

Cary Nelson is a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an affiliated faculty member of the University of Haifa.