The Middle East and Middle East Studies after Gaza

Marc Lynch, George Washington University

 

The attack by Hamas across the security perimeter surrounding the occupied Gaza Strip on October 7 killed over 1200 Israelis, with hundreds more captured and held as hostages.  In response, Israel unleashed one of the most destructive campaigns in modern history. Its systematic bombardment of a densely populated urban area has killed at least 35,000 Palestinians, the vast majority of them women, children and the elderly, with countless thousands more buried under the rubble of collapsed buildings. Nearly the entire population of 2.2 million has been displaced into extreme conditions, with no hope of returning to completely destroyed homes. Their dispossession – at an extraordinary pace and scale, as discussed by Fiona Adamson and Kelly Greenhill in this collection – has raised profound fears among Palestinians and across the region of another Nakba.  The comprehensive siege placed on Gaza by Israel, and its refusal to allow the entry of adequate humanitarian assistance, has resulted in historically unprecedented famine, creating not only the rapid onset of starvation but also the conditions for the spread of infectious disease.  The extremity of Israel’s destruction of Gaza, and the accompanying rhetoric from senior officials, has been such that the International Court of Justice ruled that there was a plausible case for it to constitute genocide.  Settler provocations in the West Bank, backed by key figures in Israel’s extreme right-wing coalition, have escalated with the spotlight on Gaza. These horrors directly affect scholars who have dedicated their lives to studying the Middle East, whether or not they currently reside in Gaza.  As Ibrahaim Rabaia and Lordes Habash of Birzeit University document in their contribution to this collection, the assault manifestly includes higher education, with virtually every university in Gaza targeted for destruction.

This special issue of POMEPS Studies offers a platform for scholars to think through what feels like a moment of rupture for the Middle East, for Middle East Studies, and for long-standing assumptions about the region’s politics. Put bluntly, Gaza no longer exists, not in its previous form.  While Hamas remains organizationally resilient and likely to survive Israel’s campaign, Gaza’s people have suffered beyond imagination and its infrastructure pulverized beyond hope of repair.  The Palestinian Authority and its President Mahmoud Abass have seen their already feeble popularity crater alongside their manifest inability to do anything to protect Palestinians from the onslaught.  As the horrors of October 7 and war fever have pushed Israeli politics relentlessly to the right, a vast chasm has opened between the worldview of most Israelis, who polling suggests largely believe that the war on Gaza is justified, and much of the rest of the world, which cannot imagine anything which could justify such atrocities. Despite the empty rhetoric of American officials speculating on “day after” plans, whatever dim hopes of a two state solution for Israeli-Palestinian peace remained before October 7 have rather conclusively ended.[1] Tensions between Israel and Iran still threaten to escalate into full-scale war, whether directly or in theaters such as Lebanon.  American support for Israel in its war has eroded the willingness of Arab civil society activists to work with the United States, as Hamzeh Hadad notes in Iraq and as the political scientists Annelle Sheline observed in her explanation of her principled resignation from the State Department.[2] In their contributions to the collection, Curtis Ryan and Kristian Ulrichsen offer subtle analyses of the limits and degrees of protest dynamics in Jordan and changing policy in the Gulf.

Not all would agree with the idea of a seismic change, of course: Israel has bombarded Gaza before, they argue, international tribunals are routinely ignored, Arab public opinion is often outraged to little effect, full-scale regional war has thus far been contained, self-interested Arab regimes will inevitably return to their pursuit of normalization with Israel and security agreements with the United States.  Ultimately, no Arab leaders, they argue based on long experience, will ultimately sacrifice their self-interest for Palestine, no matter how intensely public opinion mobilizes in its defense, and none of the security-obsessed regimes will be overthrown. Biden, they argue, proved masterful in orchestrating a collective regional response to protect Israel from Iranian missiles and is laying the groundwork for a post-Gaza renewal of American-led regional order.  I am skeptical. We shall see.

October 7 and its aftermath have also upended academia and the production of knowledge about the Middle East so central to the POMEPS mission.  The polarization around Gaza on campus has transformed into a national culture war centered on alleged antisemitism, with nuance obliterated in the heat of the political fray and institutional power bearing down hard to silence criticism of Israel’s war boiling up from below. Congressional hearings on campus antisemitism which led to the dismissal of the presidents of Harvard and Penn brought the issues facing many campuses – including heated student and faculty confrontations, pressure from external groups, media and donors and draconian efforts by administrations to police or suppress protests – into a national spotlight. These pressures have only accelerated. In the week since I began writing this essay alone, the University of Southern California barred its valedictorian from speaking at commencement because of her pro-Palestinian views, tenured professor Jodi Dean was removed from her classroom at Hobart and William Smith College after publishing an essay celebrating Palestinian resistance, senior political theorist Nancy Fraser was stripped of a fellowship in Germany for signing an open letter criticizing Israel’s war on Gaza, police assaulted a student protest at Pomona College, and Columbia University’s President was brought before yet another Congressional hearing where she defended her campus by bragging about how draconian her crackdown had been on pro-Palestinian mobilization.  Meanwhile, faced with such brazen and relentless assaults on freedom of speech, Congress busied itself passing a resolution declaring the slogan “from the river to the sea” to be antisemitic.

What can political science or political scientists do in the face of such unrelenting horror on the ground and in their own backyard?  In his extraordinary contribution to this collection, Alexei Abrahams bemoans the failure of the academic community to influence the course of events.  It is difficult to not share his frustration and pain as our collective expertise and efforts to engage with the public seemingly fail to stop the carnage.  Shortly before Israel began its invasion of Gaza, I published a short article in Foreign Affairs with the subtle title “Invading Gaza Will Be a Disaster For Israel”; I’ve published several other widely read articles since dealing with Gaza.[3] It has made little difference.  Many others have published articles, spoken at public events, or otherwise shared expertise, with equally little evident impact on policy. As bad as the United States has been, many European countries have been worse. Germany, as Janis Grimm and Benjamin Schuetze explain in their contributions to this collection, has virtually criminalized criticism of Israel, with draconian actions taken against those who have attempted to speak out. In the Czech Republic, as Jakub Zahora, Jakub Kolacek and Tereza Plistilova report, academic experts make virtually no impact at all, while on the issue of Yemen, as Eleonora Ardemagni argues, only those who support prevailing narratives about Iran get a hearing.

Those interventions have come at a cost, though, to countless individuals and to the core principles and norms of academic freedom.  A month after October 7, the Middle East Scholar Barometer which I administer with Shibley Telhami found truly shocking levels of self-censorship about Israeli-Palestinian issues among academics.[4] That’s because the level and degree of repression aimed at scholars with pro-Palestinian views has reached extraordinary levels.  Most casual news consumers are aware of the sensationalistic Congressional hearings which led to the dismissal of the presidents of Harvard and Penn, or perhaps of the turmoil at Columbia University, the banning of Students for Justice in Palestine at George Washington University and many other campuses, the dismissal of Indiana University Professor Abdelkadir Sinno for organizing a teach-in, or the doxxing trucks with photos of students and faculty deemed anti-Israeli driving around campuses.

The stories which have hit the headlines barely scratch the surface.  In his contribution to this collection, Nader Hashemi offers his personal experience with such pressures. The Middle East Scholars Barometer survey produced hundreds of such stories of repression and censorship, while a task force which I have been chairing for the Middle East Studies Association has received an unending stream of reports of canceled lectures, censored or secretly videotaped classrooms, silenced faculty, and hostile media attacks.  These campaigns have often been fought in the name of combating antisemitism, a noble and appropriate mission on its own merits but one which becomes fraught when criticism of Israeli policies is equated with antisemitism.  Efforts to legally adopt the controversial IHRA definition which equates criticism of Israeli policies with antisemitism has an even greater chilling effect on speech.[5]  A well-organized campaign has shaped the narrative of an alleged rising tide of antisemitism on campus, producing shocking numbers that present a highly distorted view of actual campus dynamics by including a wide range of minor incidents (tearing down posters or “feeling unsafe”). While there are certainly intensely polarized clashes between some Jewish students and some pro-Palestinian activists, the overwhelming weight of institutional power has been deployed against the latter.  Small wonder that 98% of untenured Middle East faculty say that they self-censor when addressing issues related to Israel and Palestine.

It is far too easy to skim over all this as an exercise in “free speech” abstractions. But the sheer mental and emotional toll of these attacks should not be minimized.  It has become alarmingly normalized that faculty working on the Middle East should simply expect to be the subjects of levels of abuse that would not be tolerated in virtually any other workplace environment, and that they should accept limitations on their academic freedoms and freedom of speech which would be accepted by virtually no other academics. Scholars who publish or speak about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially, routinely receive emails and letters full of often unspeakably vile abuse – often cc’d to their department chairs, deans, and even the board of trustees.  Many are the target of online smear campaigns, with snippets of publications or selectively edited video clips used to stoke outrage and hate.  Since October 7, others have been the target of doxxing, with their personal and family information publicized in order to facilitate harassment, or in especially egregious cases their faces and names emblazoned on trucks driving around campuses.  Even if such cases do not ultimately manifest in disciplinary action or lost jobs, they take an enormous physical, mental, and emotional toll – and, likely as intended, raise the costs and fears about the value of engaging in such research or public speaking at all.

Too often, college and university administrators are silent, weak, or even complicit in these abuses, encouraging their faculty to keep silent or subjecting them to internal investigations or pre-emptive punishments such as removal from the classroom rather than defending them.   Tenure is not the protection it should be, nor are long-defended norms of academic freedom which should be obviously applicable but are routinely discarded when it comes to Palestine.   Nor will the law likely help, when there is state and federal legislation moving in the direction of criminalizing criticism of Israel through the implementation of the IHRA definition of antisemitism as well as broader state-level interference with higher education in states such as Texas, Florida, Ohio, and Indiana. It is not hyperbole to say that teaching Middle East politics could rapidly become as personally and legally risky as offering abortions.

Campus politics surrounding Israel and Palestine have long been distinctive, of course, with decades gone by full of politicized attacks on Middle East Studies, attempts to get Arab and Palestinian faculty fired, and so forth. But it is important to recognize that the current assault on Middle East Studies intersects with a broader right wing attack on higher education, this time centering on all forms of progressive thought and practice such as critical race theory, gender studies, or anything deemed “woke”;  it should be lost on no-one how quickly and easily the successful assault on Harvard President Claudine Gay transitioned from alleged failures on antisemitism to transparently dishonest allegations of plagiarism.  For some involved in the current academic war zone, Israel is the only issue, but for others antisemitism is only the leading edge with which to divide defenders of higher education and find support from alleged liberals for draconian repression of the academy.

The effects on students, faculty and researchers on the Middle East in the United States and in most European countries will be felt profoundly downstream, very much to the detriment of public discourse, academic knowledge, and policy expertise.  Scholars fearing the consequences will steer clear of Israeli-Palestinian topics, those who speak out face blacklists and the risk of hostile tenure letters, and many who are soured on the campus experience may quietly leave the academy.  That slow hollowing out of Middle East Studies would have incalculable costs for academic knowledge, public discourse and policymaking – all of which would quite well serve the interests of those who would prefer that Middle East policy not incorporate such expertise.

One issue which is developing beneath the surface is the impact of the war on Middle East academic professional networks. In a recent discussion on my podcast, Alexander Cooley of Barnard College observed how boycotts of Russian academics following the invasion of Ukraine crippled long-running academic networks, partnerships and institutions.[6]  Academic boycotts of Israeli institutions were already a leading topic of controversy in our field long before Gaza, endorsed by multiple professional associations including the Middle East Studies Association and the American Anthropological Association. Formal and informal boycotts of Israeli scholars have become increasingly common among those outraged by Gaza, with Palestinian and other scholars refusing to participate alongside Israeli counterparts. On the other side, Palestinian and Arab scholars have faced significant exclusions and pressures within other academic networks. Both should be of concern to our field. According to a recent survey of Israeli academics, high percentages of those involved in international partnerships and research networks fear exclusion as a result of the global mobilization against Israel’s war on Gaza, whether through the revocation of invitations to participate in events or through difficulties in publishing because of their Israeli citizenship.[7]  Whether those struggles should be understood as validation of the power of academic boycotts, a quintessential form of nonviolent activism recently endorsed by the Middle East Studies Association, or as a disastrous sidelining of one of the most liberal and anti-occupation sectors of Israeli society represents yet another of the dilemmas confronting Middle East Studies which will continue to intensify. Those fighting for academic freedom and human rights must support all who suffer from their violation, not just those on their side.

The ferocity of the attempted repression of views critical of Israel since October 7 may seem to be a show of strength by those seeking to impose narrative conformity but should in fact be read as a sign of weakness. Genuinely hegemonic views do not require the active use of power to enforce them.  And public attitudes and discourse are clearly changing. While it is impossible to say whether academic writing and speaking has mattered much compared with TikTok influencers or the circulation of graphic video evidence of atrocities in Gaza, it is clear that very significant changes are happening at the level of public opinion and political activism.  A March 2024 Pew Research Center survey found that younger adults were far more critical than older Americans of Israel’s war, with an equal number of the youth (34% each) saying that Israel and Hamas had valid reasons for fighting.  60% of young Americans in that survey said that they had a favorable view of the Palestinian people, compared to only 46% who said the same about the Israeli people – and only 24% said the same about the Israeli government.[8]   This generational divide helps to explain why the Biden administration’s full-throated support for Israel’s war has opened an unprecedented rift within the Democratic Party which could tip the upcoming Presidential election.

Stephen Zunes, in his paper in this collection, notes the truly exceptional nature of this wave of pro-Palestinian activism in the United States in relation to the decades of such action which came before, as it draws in far wider constituencies and achieves something like hegemonic status among youth and progressives. That activism is not confined to campuses, but they are often ground zero for mobilization and for national scrutiny.  Zunes, like Claudia de Martino in her discussion of Europe, worries about the intersection of such activism with real antisemitism, particularly as frustrated activists look for who to blame for political inaction and bridle at the weaponization of discourses of antisemitism and the invocation of the Holocaust to silence discussion of what they see as an actual genocide happening in real time.  More broadly, the vast divide between political discourse and attitudes at the popular level and at the level of institutional politics suggests that academics working on these issues may need to rethink outreach and engagement strategies which primarily target government and official policy audiences.

This POMEPS collection originated as an open call for papers for scholars affected by or invested in these urgent issues, in an initial effort to give a platform and a voice to those in our network who have grappled with these trends. We kept the call intentionally broad, asking potential authors to reflect on the effects of October 7 and the Gaza War on politics or scholarship.  As it turned out, most of the contributors wanted to talk about academic freedoms and the conditions of public discourse in their countries – perhaps because of how profoundly they felt this crisis, perhaps because of the availability of other platforms to discuss the war itself.  European scholars, especially in Germany, were especially keen to contribute, understandably given the frenzy which has overtaken discussion of Israel and Palestine and led to the veritable criminalization of criticism of Israel and the forced cancelation of a wide range of events, scholars, and activists for their pro-Palestinian speech.  There are so many more topics which merit exploration, here and elsewhere; we received no submissions focused on the experience of Israeli academics, the implications of the ICJ ruling for studies of international law, the political theory of violence and resistance, the technical definition of genocide, the unprecedented nature of the humanitarian crisis engineered by Israel’s blockade, the fallout for Lebanon, and so much more.  The issues confronting our field have never been more urgent and the need for academic networks and institutions to rise up to defend it has never been greater.

 

 

[1] Marc Lynch and Shibley Telhami, “The Two State Mirage: How to Break the Cycle of Violence in a One State Reality,” Foreign Affairs (March/April 2024).

[2] https://www.cnn.com/2024/03/27/opinions/gaza-israel-resigning-state-department-sheline/index.html

[3] Marc Lynch, “An Invasion of Gaza Would Be a Disaster for Israel,” Foreign Affairs 14 October 2023 (online only: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/middle-east/invasion-gaza-would-be-disaster-israel)

[4] Marc Lynch and Shibley Telhami, “Scholars Who Study the Middle East Are Afraid to Speak Out,” Chronicle of Higher Education, 5 December 2023, available at https://www.chronicle.com/article/scholars-who-study-the-middle-east-are-afraid-to-speak-out; Marc Lynch and Shibley Telhami, “The Middle East Scholars Barometer,” MENA Politics 7, 1 (2024).

[5] https://lawfare.fmep.org/resources/defining-criticism-of-israel-as-antisemitism/

[6] https://abuaardvark.substack.com/p/reading-middle-east-political-science

[7] https://young.academy.ac.il/News/NewsItem.aspx?nodeId=955&id=634

[8] https://www.pewresearch.org/2024/03/21/majority-in-u-s-say-israel-has-valid-reasons-for-fighting-fewer-say-the-same-about-hamas/