Do academic organizations represent intellectual values—above all objectivity? Or do they represent the current state of their communities and those communities' prejudices and obsessions?
Hamas' horrific Oct. 7 massacre is a litmus test for human decency. So, how did academics and intellectuals react?
The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) has made its position known, saying, "There can be no justification for the targeting of civilians. Many of our members have been directly affected and we join them in grieving."
But the next 845 words of MESA's statement did not focus on Hamas, but instead excoriated Israel's response to the Hamas massacre, accusing Israel of "indiscriminately bombarding [Gaza's] population and infrastructure" and committing "ethnic cleansing" by calling on civilians to leave Hamas-controlled territories lest they "face certain death in a ground invasion." MESA also emphasized Israel's "broader political, administrative and legal system of racial discrimination and domination—regularly enforced through violence."
No additional thoughts were spared for Israelis until the last sentence, which stated "the only path forward on the ground is one premised on the equal rights of Palestinians and Israelis to live in dignity and safety," which implies a magical "one-state solution" that will certainly not be called "Israel."
MESA's fall into moral decrepitude is emblematic of most of academia. Founded in 1966, the organization represents over 2,000 academics specializing in the Middle East. Like many academic associations, it sponsors a journal and conference.
The number of individual members has dropped, however, since MESA chose to boycott Israel in 2022. It has a diminishing number of institutional members as well, since universities do not want to be seen as adopting policies of discrimination based on racial, ethnic or national origin. George Washington University, which housed MESA until this year, was one of those that broke their association. The organization is now homeless and its conference has become biannual due to lack of interest.
But MESA is far from the only group of academics to cheer Hamas, let alone adopt Israel boycotts. At the University of Michigan, over 1,000 faculty members signed a letter blaming the "decades-long Israeli occupation of Palestine and the structural apartheid Palestinians residing both within Israel and the Occupied Territories endure on a daily basis" for Hamas's genocidal violence. Apparently, the signatories believe that Hamas and the Gaza civilians who followed them on their rampage have no moral capacities whatsoever and can only behave like utter barbarians, including live-streamed dismemberment.
New York University's Faculty for Justice in Palestine condemned "the brutal killing of civilians that occurred in Israel on October 7th, which constitutes a war crime," but excoriated Israel for "occupation, expropriation, ethnic cleansing and the denial to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza of the most basic human and civil rights," as well as "colonial racial violence."
The statement also accused the university of bending to "immense pressure from trustees, alumni and donors to be perceived as 'pro-Israel,' even at the cost of tolerating or promoting violations of academic freedom and free speech rights." The signatories appear to believe that academics can never be questioned or criticized. Such beliefs are typical of totalitarian states, but have little to do with "academic freedom" or "free speech."
At the notoriously bigoted City University of New York, the faculty union escalated the hatred in emails to its 23,000 members decrying what it called a "Zionist genocidal campaign." The union encouraged members "to channel your grief and rage over the nearly 1,000 Palestinians martyred, including nearly 300 children, into upcoming rallies across CUNY campuses and New York City." The faculty it seems, embraces the Islamic fundamentalist concept of the "martyr," just as Hamas does.
Perhaps the most deranged statement was from Oxford University's University and College Union, which claimed the war was "a direct consequence of decades of violent oppression of the Palestinian people by the Israeli state" and that "only a mass uprising on both sides of the green line and across the Middle East can free the Palestinian people." This call for a massive war that would consume the entire region is a horrific one, but has been echoed by many other academics.
Reflexively anti-Israel and anti-American biases in academia are partially the work of the tenured radicals of the 1960s and 1970s, steeped in fetishization of the Third World and vicarious admiration for hideously violent and often terrorist "liberation movements," the "Palestinian cause" and "struggles against colonialism." These academics have now trained generations of students who have assumed leading roles in numerous universities.
Moreover, fields like Middle East studies are increasingly dominated by individuals from communities in the U.S. and abroad that have imbibed the prejudices of their cultures of origin, which are then confirmed by their teachers.
Thus, wide swaths of academia now see themselves as scholar-activists, saviors working for "liberation." But who and what to "liberate" is an open question. So, for them, evil needs a specific name and location. In this Manichean theology, saving Palestinians take first place, with the Jews cast as metaphysical villains, giving license to overt antisemitism. This is not scholarship; it is political religion. It is an apocalyptic fundamentalism in which the downtrodden must be saved, evil defeated and the empty lives of activists given new meaning.
None of this has anything to do with an objective understanding of the world. It is a crusade to wrestle the future into a particular shape, one in which Israel does not exist.
It would be possible to dismiss all this if the crusaders were confined to the ivory tower, but they are not, and people are getting hurt. The consequences of their bigoted ideology have resulted in ugly demonstrations on campus and in the streets, as well as acts of antisemitic violence.
Students, along with allies on the far-left, including Antifa and BLM, have applauded Hamas's slaughter of Israelis or denied it occurred at all. They lie relentlessly, blaming Israel for a "genocide" that is not happening and for bombing a hospital Israel did not bomb. As a direct result, Jewish individuals, institutions and neighborhoods have been targeted.
There are no easy solutions to this problem except for holding bigoted academics and their equally bigoted students responsible for their hatreds. Exposing their words and forcing them to act within the bounds of normal human decency is a good start.
Alex Joffe is the Director of Strategic Initiatives of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA). Asaf Romirowsky is the Executive Director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) and the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA)