The flight from MESA

by Martin Kramer
March 27, 2023
Read the original post in the blog Sandbox.

It has been one year since the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) officially adopted a resolution endorsing the academic boycott of Israeli universities and colleges. At that moment, MESA transformed itself from an academic association to a political advocacy group. That raises an acute question. MESA has a category of institutional members which (so it claims) “share MESA’s commitment… [to] defending the rights of scholars and academics around the world.” How many of these members have continued their membership in MESA, given that the association has violated the rights of Israeli scholars and academics?

We now have a clearer answer to that question. Numbers tell part of the story. At the end of 2022, there were 43 institutional members. At present there are only 31. The downward trend has been evident for a while: in 2010, MESA had 62 institutional members. But the most recent drop has been swift and steep.

Still, it’s the qualitative deterioration that’s truly remarkable. Some of the nation’s leading Middle East centers no longer appear on the membership rolls. Here are some of those that have quietly gone missing since the end of last year:

  • Columbia University, Middle East Institute
  • Cornell University, Department of Near Eastern Studies
  • Georgetown University, Center for Contemporary Arab Studies
  • Georgetown University, Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies
  • Harvard University, Center for Middle Eastern Studies 
  • New York University, Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies
  • North Carolina Consortium for Middle East Studies (Duke University, Middle East Studies Center + University of North Carolina, Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies)
  • University of Arizona, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
  • University of California, Berkeley, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
  • University of California, Los Angeles, Center for Near Eastern Studies
  • University of Chicago, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
  • University of Texas at Austin, Center for Middle Eastern Studies

There may be a few checks in the mail, and the list of dropouts could change. But it’s safe to say that MESA has been abandoned by many of the most established Middle East centers in the country.

Given the timing, one suspects that MESA’s boycott resolution is responsible for the flight, at least in part. These veteran Middle East centers are precisely the ones that compete for federal funding as National Resource Centers. Having their names associated with the aims of a BDS organization may be perceived as a risk. Better just to leave the MESA renewal notice in the “to-do” box or toss it out. At present, only two of the eleven National Resource Centers for the Middle East are institutional members of MESA.

There’s another telling sign of decline. Individual membership numbers are falling. Six months ago, MESA still claimed in letters to represent “over 2,800 members.” Now it claims to represent “over 2,400 members.” That’s a fourteen percent decline.

The total might drop still further, because MESA can no longer offer members an annual in-person conference. MESA has pointed to a “trend of declining in-person attendance” at its conferences. There aren’t enough attendees to fill the bloc of hotel rooms MESA has to reserve. If not enough members turn up, MESA is stuck with the bill.

So MESA anticipates “alternating between virtual and in-person meetings on an annual basis. Alternatively, it might mean meeting virtually every third year. We are not certain.” MESA has held an annual in-person conference since its inception. Such a meeting is a standard feature of every comparable association. If MESA can’t deliver anymore on an annual get-together, membership might continue to dwindle.

In sum, MESA just isn’t what it used to be. But if you’re a member, don’t despair. You can always join the alternative shop, the Association for the Study of the Middle East (ASMEA). There you can be assured of an annual meeting in a great city (ASMEA meets each fall in Washington), in an atmosphere devoted to serious scholarship rather than radical politics. Try it this year.

Update, July 24, 2023. As I wrote back in March, there might be some more checks in the mail, and four of them arrived from institutions on the above list of twelve. The following are institutional members, as of today:

  • Cornell University, Department of Near Eastern Studies
  • University of Arizona, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
  • University of California, Berkeley, Center for Middle Eastern Studies
  • University of Texas at Austin, Center for Middle Eastern Studies

Two of these, Arizona and Texas, are National Resource Centers. That brings the number of National Resource Centers which are members of MESA to four, out of a total of eleven.

In the meantime, such powerhouse centers as Columbia, Harvard, NYU, UCLA, and Chicago are keeping their distance. But more important, George Washington University, which has been the institutional home of MESA since 2019, will no longer serve as such. An email from the university spokesman (mentioned here) now announces the following:

"GW and MESA agreed to enter into a four-year partnership that has run its course, and we are now parting ways amicably. The agreement will expire by the end of the calendar year."

Interpret that as you will. (My interpretation: BDS sank the partnership.) In the fall, MESA’s wanderings will begin anew. It will be telling to see which institution, if any, will serve as a refuge.

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