To boycott or not to boycott?

by Martin Kramer
March 15, 2023
Read the original post in the blog Sandbox.

In the fall, I delivered the keynote address at the annual conference of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). The topic: “The State of Middle Eastern Studies, Revisited.” In that address, I assessed the state of Middle Eastern studies according to three parameters first defined by ASMEA co-founder Bernard Lewis: standards, politicization, and funding. In all three areas, the field remains plagued by endemic problems. 

A video became available almost immediately; the address has now been published in ASMEA’s journal. It’s open access, so you can read and share it by going to this link

I can now add a footnote. In my address, I criticized (or more precisely, ridiculed) the academic boycott resolution adopted by the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) last spring. (March 22 will be the first anniversary of that resolution.) I mentioned that one of MESA’s past presidents, the University of Chicago historian Fred Donner, had consistently argued against such a resolution. Donner called it “short-sighted in the extreme” and “utterly irresponsible.” But in the end, I said, “serious scholars like Donner were shunted aside” by the “determined militants [who had] infiltrated MESA’s ranks.”

What made Donner’s stand all the more interesting is that he himself did sign a boycott letter back in 2014. There the signatories pledged “not to collaborate on projects and events involving Israeli academic institutions, not to teach at or to attend conferences and other events at such institutions, and not to publish in academic journals based in Israel.” The letter argued that Israeli academic institutions were “complicit in the occupation and oppression of Palestinians.” So Donner supported the boycott as an individual, although he thought that MESA, as an academic association, should have nothing to do with it.

Imagine my surprise when I read that Donner would be speaking today in person at Tel Aviv University, my university. His topic: “Further Reflections on Islam’s Origins.” I attended the lecture, delivered in a packed seminar room to about fifty faculty and students, Jews and Muslims. Donner made an elegant presentation, and while his core thesis is controversial, he showed the requisite humility of a historian handicapped by a paucity of reliable sources.

In my ASMEA address, I said this:

"I imagine there are hundreds of people in MESA… who recoil at this sort of politicization [BDS], and think it is a travesty. But I only imagine it because they haven’t spoken up. Where are the scholars with the courage of their convictions? The majority of MESA’s members didn’t cast a vote in the BDS referendum. Do they believe that such self-imposed silence is a counterweight to the BDS vote?"

I didn’t take into account the possibility that MESA members could counter the boycott resolution simply by participating in the intellectual life of Israel’s universities. Actions sometimes do speak louder than words.

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