“I was an unformed lefty before my MERIP days,” wrote Lisa Hajjar. “I credit MERIP with teaching and steeping me in real leftist politics.” I hope Lisa won’t be embarrassed if I call her the quintessential “MERIP baby,” a person who, having cut her teeth as an intern in the office, went on to become a formative influence on the organization herself through her writings and other contributions. While few can boast quite the length and variety of her tenure, she is far from alone. Lisa mentioned two others—Steve Niva and Mouin Rabbani, her fellow interns with whom she “plotted world domination” on cigarette breaks in the late 1980s.

Lisa was responding to a survey we circulated online, asking our editors, staff, readers and supporters to share their memories of MERIP on the occasion of its fiftieth birthday. A number of common themes emerged.

Joan Mandell in Jerusalem. Courtesy Lynne Barbee.

First, from the very beginning, MERIP has been a site of genuine political and intellectual community in an inhospitable world. The founders were embedded in the vibrant social movements of the long 1960s, and their writings often evinced the exuberance of the time. Before attending her first meeting, which in the early days often took place at a cabin in the New England or West Virginia woods, Joan Mandell was told that it was called an “advance” and not a “retreat.” But they also knew they were fighting an uphill battle, both within the Western left and in the larger polity, for peace and justice, to be sure, but first simply for clear-eyed analysis free of misinformation and ideological cant. The stakes were daunting. One of the founders, Sharon Rose, recalls “a meeting of several days in New Hampshire in the mid-1970s where we grappled with how best to argue the position that the US left must oppose Zionism”—a debate that, as she notes, is “still unsettled.” As the organization aged, the challenges seemed, if anything, to get bigger. Shiva Balaghi remembers flying home after the October 2001 editorial committee meeting: “Crowds gathered around TVs in the airport bars cheering loudly as news came of the start of the US war on Afghanistan. Watching the scene made painfully clear the value of MERIP in such times.” At junctures like that, MERIP was a sort of beacon, a place one could turn for political clarity when even mainstream liberals seemed to have lost their minds.

Maggy Zanger, Esther Merves, Martha Wenger and Peggy Hutchison (L to R) worked closely together in the Washington, DC office in the early 1990s. Courtesy Esther Merves.

Closely related has been MERIP’s enduring value as a venue for exchange of ideas and development of skills. Several respondents told us that writing for Middle East Report had helped them learn how to write clearly, especially for the “educated non-specialist” audience that the magazine aims to reach. Lori Allen’s reflection on this experience is indicative: “It was in writing these short pieces that I think my research, my understanding of Palestine, was deepest and put to best use.” Several said speaking at MERIP-sponsored events had been similarly beneficial. Many singled out a person who had become a mentor or close collaborator through working together on a MERIP project. For those who were editors, the meetings were critical as a locus of informed discussion that, to borrow a term from one of my own mentors, Joe Stork, could be “alchemic.” I can think of several editorials—such as the February 14, 2011 valentine to Egyptian revolutionaries—that were distillations of these conversations.

Shiva Balaghi (L) and Lisa Hajjar, editorial committee members, in the early 2000s.

A third and corollary theme in the responses is that many people wanted to be involved with Middle East Report because they admired what they had read in Middle East Report. When he was a student in The Netherlands in the 1970s, Paul Aarts wrote, “it was a ‘must’ to be a subscriber to MERIP.” He went on to write for the magazine. Hilton Obenzinger, another long-time reader who became a contributor, said he waited eagerly for each new issue, “clutching it like a rare gem” when it arrived in the mail. In the 1970s and 1980s, Julie Peteet recounted, “reading MERIP was like an awakening—the political economy approach was not only relevant, but it was also a whole new approach to the region.” Kaveh Ehsani said much the same about Middle East Report’s coverage of the Iranian revolution. We were gratified to see that, for many younger respondents as well, the magazine kept its critical edge. In 2002, Darryl Li said, he was “trying to make sense of my experiences living in Gaza during some of the darkest days of the al-Aqsa intifada—all while marching against the upcoming Anglo-American aggression in Iraq. MERIP was like a light in the darkness. … In those days, I got into a lot of impassioned email arguments and looking back, I notice almost all of my messages were laced with links to MERIP material!” Shana Marshall similarly told us: “When I was in graduate school in the early 2000s, critiques of neoliberalism were beginning to gain real traction in mainstream academic thought. … MERIP was really the only Middle East periodical where materialism and class analysis were central to scholarship.” Like many others, she said reading Middle East Report had helped direct her own intellectual labors.

Sheila Carapico (L), Ted Swedenburg and Jillian Schwedler, members of the editorial committee.

It wasn’t all sweat and toil, of course. There has always been an important social aspect to what Joan Mandell called the “quasi-mystical allure” of MERIP meetings. Susan Slyomovics was one of several respondents to mention the “close, enduring friendships” that date to her time with MERIP. And, despite the importance of the project and the drumbeat of bad news from the Middle East, MERIP has normally been a fun-loving collective. As an early member, René “Buzz” Theberge, said, and I shall leave his precise meaning to the imagination, “the famous/infamous ‘intergalactics’ were always a highlight.” We tried to take our work seriously but not ourselves. About that committee-written editorial on Husni Mubarak’s ouster, Darryl Li joked that we should call it Communiqué No. 1.

The responses, in short, captured the reasons why MERIP has survived—and sometimes thrived—despite the recurrent financial and logistical difficulties and the series of setbacks for freedom and social justice in the Middle East and around the world. MERIP itself has made concessions to changing times that may not have been entirely for the best. As the quotable Joan Mandell said of the early days: “MERIP was initiated as an egalitarian collective. We believed in non-hierarchical governance.” Sometime along the way, as another veteran put it, the organization “went corporate,” allocating job titles and adopting a conventional non-profit structure with a board of directors with fiduciary and organizational governance responsibility. Part of the struggle was to keep something of the New Left spirit alive within our own ranks in the days of Reagan, Thatcher and the more reactionary versions who followed.

The bottom line is that five decades is one hell of a run. I will close with some more words from Sharon Rose: “MERIP’s goal should be to become an indispensable source of the truth for diverse activist organizations and individuals. That goal was achieved and has been maintained and I send my admiration and love to all those who have contributed so much over these 50 years.”

Courtesy Lynne Barbee.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How to cite this article:

Chris Toensing "Remembering Fifty Years of Community, Challenges and Change," Middle East Report 300 ( ).
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