How low would the Middle East Studies Association go in advocating academic freedom for anti-Israel ideologues?
By A.J. Caschetta, JNS
Shortly after the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) intervened on behalf of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) leader Omar Barghouti, the organization has now come to the rescue of another of Israel’s enemies, Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) executive committee member Hanan Ashrawi.
Like Barghouti, Ashrawi was denied an entrance visa to the United States, in her case in May. MESA protested with a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, bemoaning (in effect) the difficulty anti-Israel ideologues experience trying to reach American audiences. As with its April 17 letter to Pompeo on behalf of Barghouti, MESA falsely framed Ashrawi’s case as a matter of academic freedom, tantamount to the suppression of ideas.
Barghouti is an obscure figure to most Americans, but Ashrawi has been known for decades in the United States as Yasser Arafat’s foil—the soft side of the PLO, the girlfriend of the late ABC news anchor Peter Jennings, no less. But she has always been PLO to the core: spokeswoman, member of the legislative council, Minister of Higher Education and Culture—she has worn many hats.
MESA’s letter identifies Ashrawi as a member of “the Palestinian [sic] Liberation Organization, where she heads the Department of Culture and Information.” The self-appointed mandarins at MESA apparently don’t know that the “P” in PLO stands for “Palestine,” not “Palestinian.” This is a major oversight considering her platform is centered on the denial of Israel’s existence and endless affirmations of a country called “Palestine” that does not exist, mainly because her organization has refused every opportunity to create a nation that does not also wipe out Israel.
An advocate for killing Israeli civilians
In the space of fewer than 600 words, MESA’s letter defends Ahrawi as “an advocate for peace,” “an advocate for peace and justice” and “a real advocate for Palestinian rights.” While Ashrawi fashions herself an advocate for Palestinian rights, she is definitely not an advocate for peace. She is, however, an advocate for killing Israeli civilians.
In 2000, she told the Associated Press that “the army of occupation and the settlers have become legitimate and select targets of Palestinian resistance.” On the PA’s Voice of Palestine in 2001, Ashrawi explained that “the only language [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon understands is the language of violence.”
In 2004, when a PBS interviewer asked Ashrawi if she would condemn all Palestinian violence, she responded that “you cannot tell the Palestinians, you mustn’t resort to any kind of violence, whatever, including self-defense.” Her 2015 condemnation of Israel’s “invasion of the Al-Aqsa mosque” makes her an advocate for fomenting violence.
Ashrawi is also an advocate for terrorists. A Jerusalem Post headline covering her 2007 speech at Emory University said it all: “Ashrawi Defends Hezbollah and Hamas.” Of course, defending Hamas is nothing new for her. She told the United Press International on April 30, 1993, that she didn’t “think of Hamas as a terrorist group. We coordinate politically … the people we know and talk to are not terrorists.”
Her scant remarks on suicide bombing are not the decisive repudiation one would expect of an “advocate for peace.” As Palestinian Media Watch CEO Itamar Marcus points out, Ashrawi objected to suicide bombings in 2002 only “because we do not see results from these actions … We believe that these operations do not advance the fulfillment of our endeavor, for freedom and independence.”
When the United States cut aid to the P.A./PLO last August, preventing American tax dollars from winding up in the PA’s “pay for slay” program, Ashrawi accused U.S. President Donald Trump of employing “cheap blackmail as a political tool.” She added, “the Palestinian people and leadership will not be intimidated and will not succumb to coercion.”
When it comes to Jewish history, she is a fabulist. With her University of Virginia Ph.D. in English and practiced imitation of Edward Said, Ashrawi has excelled in distorting the past. Her propaganda is well known; fortunately real historians like Efraim Karsh have handily refuted her lies.
For example, Ashrawi has consistently denied any historical connection between the ancient Hebrews and Jerusalem, or between Judaism and the land first called “Palestine” by the Romans. She has also denied that Jews were ever expelled from Arab countries after Israel declared independence in 1948.
As David Harris wrote at the Huffington Post some years ago, “Hanan Ashrawi is to truth what smoking is to health.”
For blaming the failure of the peace process solely on Israel, David Lazerson points out that rather than calling her a Palestinian leader, Ashrawi should be called a “misleader.”
It is impossible and irresponsible to evaluate Ashrawi without consideration of her connection to Arafat. Their complex relationship was characterized by public agreement and private conflict. Arafat blocked many of Ashrawi’s goals for Palestinian women’s rights and, according to one of his biographers, referred to her as the sharmuta
(whore) in private.
Yet she emulates Arafat’s most important tool as a Palestinian leader: the duplicitous language game. By preaching hatred for Israel and the West to her allies, often in Arabic, and peaceful coexistence to the outside world, and most especially Americans, usually in English, Arafat and many other PLO/Fatah/P.A. leaders have thrived because much of the media and nearly all of academia were and are willfully blind to their true nature.
As Barry Rubin wrote in his biography of Arafat, “even the flimsiest concealment of his connection to terrorist operations would protect him from being treated as a terrorist.”
Ashrawi’s duplicity can be seen in her reputation as a leading force in the Oslo Accords. By some accounts the very idea of the post-Gulf War peace process came about because two Israeli academics (Ron Pundak and Yair Hirschfeld) were dining at her Ramallah home when she suggested they travel to London to meet with Fatah Central Committee leader Ahmed Qurei.
But her advocacy of the “peace process” was cynical. She knew that pretending to be peaceful was a useful ruse that gullible Westerners eagerly swallowed. Yet shortly after the signing of the Declaration of Principles in 1993, Ashrawi told a group of sympathizers that “Israel is still our enemy … The agreement does not change the situation in the territories into a rose garden.”
In 1996, a crucial year for the Oslo Accords, an Arab-language interviewer asked her what options the Palestinians had for confrontation. MESA’s vaunted advocate for peace responded, “We have various means … we prepared an integral plan for this confrontation. We still have field capabilities.”
When Shimon Peres died, Ashrawi blamed him for the failure of Oslo.
Deliberate Misrepresentation of History
Ashrawi’s deliberate misrepresentation of history should matter to MESA, but instead all it sees is an opportunity to charge the U.S. government with infringing on academic freedom.
How low would MESA go in advocating academic freedom for anti-Israel ideologues? Would it object to prohibiting Hamas leaders Khaled Mashal or Ismail Haniyeh from speaking at an American college as infringements on academic freedom? How about Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah? Would MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom go out on a limb for the PFLP’s aging star hijacker Leila Khaled?
No matter how Ashrawi spins history, however, there is no country called “Palestine,” mainly because the Arabs who became known as Palestinians have consistently turned down every opportunity for a state. She has been an integral part of that rejectionism almost since the beginning.
If, however, the Palestinians ever manage to shed their failed leaders and succeed in establishing a nation state, the Department of Justice should use the FARA Act and compel MESA to register as its lobbyist.
A.J. Caschetta is a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a fellow at Campus Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum, where he is a Ginsburg-Ingerman fellow.