The University of Texas' prestigious Center for Middle Eastern Studies recently got a blunt taste of the turbulent region it studies.
Arab authors pulled out of a planned short-story anthology honoring a late professor because it included Israeli writers, and that stance eventually led to the cancellation of the project.
Called the "Memory of a Promise: Short Stories by Middle Eastern Women," the book was dedicated to the late Elizabeth B.J. Warnock Fernea, a professor of comparative literature and Middle East Studies at the Austin campus.
It contained fiction from 29 female authors, from the Arab world, Turkey, Iran, and Israel, a fitting honor to Fernea who wrote "In Search of Islamic Feminism: One Woman's Global Journey" and "Guests of the Sheik" about Iraq.
As the book neared completion in May, Middle East politics intruded, said Kamran Scot Aghaie, an associate professor of Islamic and Iranian History and director of the center.
Some of the authors disliked the presence of two Israeli authors - Yehudit Hendel and Orly Castel-Bloom, objections motivated by some over the Israeli government's policies and actions toward Palestinians. The stance is one of the latest efforts across the world to boycott Israelis and Israel over the Palestinian question.
"If the volume included the Israeli authors, they informed us, they would withdraw their own contributions," Aghaie, an Iranian-American, said in a statement about the issue on the center's webpage.
But the university didn't cave to the demand, led by Huzama Habayeb, a Palestinian writer living in the United Arab Emirates.
Aghaie said UT couldn't "agree to exclude the Israeli authors, because, as an academic institution, we are committed to the ideals of academic freedom and non-discrimination. A university has to be a place in which ideas are uncensored and are freely exchanged, and more particularly, without regard for one's religion race, or national origin," Aghaie said in a statement on the center's webpage.
Aghaie sent a memo to the contributors saying that the school wouldn't withdraw the Israelis and 13 of the 29 authors withdrew their stories, "including almost all of the Arab authors."
After that, the project was going down because the alternatives were untenable - publishing a book without the Israelis, publishing a half-baked book with just half of the contributors and no Arab authors, or, as Commentary magazine pointed out "it could violate every known standard of professional behavior, and open itself to lawsuits, by publishing the withdrawn manuscripts without the authors' consent."
"After considering all options, we determined that the volume was no longer viable with only half the contributions remaining, not to mention that the Arab countries - in which Mrs. Fernea spent much of her life working - would be unrepresented in a volume produced in her honor," Aghaie said.
The school then told the contributors that the project is dead.
"It is an unfortunate reality that in Middle Eastern Studies sometimes politics trumps academic ideals," he said.
Huzama Habayeb declined to comment to CNN but she defended her position in a May 25 article in a Gulf News column entitled "My 'No' says more, and matters more" The Gulf News is in the United Arab Emirates.
She said the inclusion of the Israeli stories "imposed" by the center focused on "personal challenges" such as "loneliness and illness" that resonate to "experiences all women share."
"Well, certainly not to my experience! There is more to my suffering and painful experiences than 'loneliness and illness'!
She said she was born in Kuwait to a Palestinian refugee family. As a result, she has been "denied the right to return to Palestine, my homeland."
"How is it possible to overlook the fact that I am homeless and yet console my defeated self that a home can be envisaged out of clichéd 'cultural tolerance'? How can I refuse to hate a 'killer state' or not turn a deaf ear to voices that reflect its disgrace? I can't. I simply cannot.
"Since I could never compromise my pains or sugarcoat them with falsified 'reasoning," I requested that my contribution in the book be withdrawn."