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Middle East Studies: How Did a Demanding Academic Discipline Become a Haven for Activism?

Donna Robinson Divine
Sapir Journal, Mar. 18, 2024

“Academic scholars of the Middle East could indeed have helped people understand the historical background, the appeal, and the possible implications of such savagery, but the experts who were up to the task of taking on a valid and credible analysis were nowhere to be found, at least not on campus.”

I was recently told a story about a Jewish professor of Islamic studies who, some years ago, was seen standing bewildered outside the hotel gift shop at the annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) in a North American city. When asked what he was doing there, the professor responded in a mystified tone, “Someone at this conference is either brave or stupid enough to be wearing a kippah, and he just walked into this gift shop. I need to find out who he is.”

That there is a single academic environment in today’s North America where it is considered unsafe to be outwardly Jewish should tell us something. As should the statements of that learned society. On October 16, MESA released a statement about the unfolding war between Hamas and Israel. After paying one sentence of lip service to the Israeli victims of Hamas’s murderous rampage, the next five and a half paragraphs were devoted to a moralizing, accusatory, and error-laden explanation for why Israelis had been killed:

Past precedent has shown that besieging the Gaza Strip and indiscriminately bombarding its population and infrastructure kills, maims, and displaces Palestinians, exacerbating the structural violence of Israeli rule and does little to increase the safety of Israelis. . . . The majority of Gazans are themselves refugees from 1948; they are now contemplating a second forcible removal from their homes, in what risks becoming a campaign of ethnic cleansing. . . . At a time when our members have much to offer through their expertise to understanding these developments and to providing analyses that might contribute to slowing or stopping the escalation of violence, we are deeply disturbed by the chilling of speech and academic freedom on campuses across North America.

… [To read the full article, click here]

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