The Duck of Minerva

Which will matter more, MESA’s BDS vote or the Negev Summit?

28 March 2022

This has been either a bad week for Israel, or a great week for Israel, depending on whom you ask or what your Twitter feed looks like. In the end, this may matter more for the relevance and impact of Middle East studies than anything else.

A tale of two resolutions

Last week, the Middle East Studies Association passed a resolution endorsing the “boycott, divest and sanction” (BDS) movement against Israel. The resolution doesn’t give any specifics–and I doubt MESA had many investments in Israeli businesses–but it is a formal statement that the group believes interacting officially with Israel or Israeli institutions is not ok.

Around the same time, the UN’s Special Rapporteur for Palestine released a report claiming that Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories constitutes apartheid. UN disapproval of Israel is nothing new–I actually had to formally control for it in a study I wrote on voting in the UN Human Rights Council–but, again, it’s a formal censure of Israel by an important institution.

Despite the ubiquity of BDS–and near unanimous opposition to Israel–in some circles, this is not a very widespread or popular opinion.

This seems like a big deal. There were many several tweets about the BDS call and supportive ones of the UN report. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz described the MESA vote as a “win” for the BDS movement. Groups monitoring and fighting anti-Semitism expressed concern at the effects of the vote.

The Israeli government, however, is otherwise occupied. Officials from Israel, the US, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt met in Israel in what some are calling the “Negev Summit.” They resolved to “expand economic and diplomatic cooperation” in a meeting some are calling “unprecedented.” This grew out of the Abraham Accords, the normalization of diplomatic ties between Israel and Arab states begun under the Trump administration.

BD-what?

So what does this mean? What implications can we draw from the near-simultaneous moves isolating and integrating Israel into the world?

Some supporters of BDS may claim that there is no problem here. The Abraham Accords did not try to address the Palestinian issue, so there is no reason to expect the UAE and other conservative states to listen to calls for isolating Israel.

But there may be bigger issues with this movement, and its tactics.

Despite the ubiquity of BDS–and near unanimous opposition to Israel–in some circles, this is not a very widespread or popular opinion. Berkeley Professor Ron Hassner recently fielded a survey of his students, finding that they were skeptical of academic boycotts and not very familiar with the BDS movement. He noted this patterns broader opinions and awareness in society, something I also discussed here.

By adopting an officially antagonistic stance towards Israel, MESA risks having nothing to say on the growing trend of normalized ties between Israel and Arab states.

The BDS movement may compel action from specific businesses or convince already sympathetic organizations (like MESA) to sign on. But its arguments are not resonating with the broader society; they aren’t even resonating with supposedly left-wing Berkeley students. And it’s not clear they’re resonating with MESA; yes 80% of respondents voted in favor of the resolution but only 1/3 of MESA members voted. As I noted after the vote, it seemed like many people on Middle East studies Twitter were not saying anything about the vote.

What does this have to do with MESA?

So those who hope for a change in Israel’s policies may not accomplish much with BDS. MESA signing on may also harm Middle East studies in general.

If you’ve read my posts here, I’m…less than a fan of Middle East studies. As someone who studies religion and conflict I’ve never found much of a place in this community. There’s a rather narrow set of assumptions guiding what matters, with a strange combination of either critical or materialist approaches. The community–in both its policy and academic forms–falls prey to groupthink on many issues, with a “common wisdom” suddenly emerging with little evidence or debate.

I’ve pointed to this “sneaky common wisdom” on Iran. Most Middle East watchers assumed that Saudi Arabia was frustrated America was not being hostile enough towards Iran under Trump and thus began reaching out to Iran; as I argued, that’s plausible but no one had offered any evidence.

I also noted it with the Abraham Accords. The prevailing assumption about the deal was that it would have little impact on international relations. I was skeptical, pointing to initial shifts. And the recent meeting in Israel should indicate such claims were wrong.

Whether or not Middle East studies scholars like it, the past several decades have seen a gradual process through which Arab states are setting aside issues with Israel and normalizing relations. And whether or not we like it, this will define the Middle East for the foreseeable future.

MESA’s BDS resolution goes beyond hosting panels critical of Israel at its conference, or generally feeling an unwelcome place for those who support Israel. MESA has adopted an officially antagonistic stance towards Israel, and risks having nothing to say on the above trend. Even worse, Middle East studies may (continue to) downplay the significance of these normalized ties, providing inaccurate takes on the region that will (even further) marginalize Middle East studies from the policy community.

Of imbrication and roofing tiles

To illustrate my point, let’s return to the resolution. While justifying targeting Israeli institutions, the resolution notes that “Israeli universities are imbricated in these systematic violations through their provision of direct assistance to the Israeli military and intelligence establishments” [emphasis mine]. According to Merriam-Webster, “imbricated” literally means “overlapping” like “roof tiles.” Academics have started to use this word, although it’s always a little unclear what exactly they mean by it. Did they mean to write implicated (I suspected that for the MESA resolution)? Did they want a synonym for “connected to?”

Whatever the intention, the effect is to make it seem as if you’re saying something significant, while really confusing and possibly turning off readers. I’ll just leave it at that.