Middle East Studies Association Votes to Boycott Israel

by Dion J. Pierre
March 23, 2022
Read the original post in The Algemeiner.

The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) announced on Wednesday its endorsement of the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.

Members of the association, which is dedicated to academic study of the Middle East, moved to adopt a BDS resolution after a 50-day voting period that concluded on Tuesday, with 768 votes in favor and 167 against.

Israel is the only country in the Middle East to face such a boycott by MESA, two experts told The Algemeiner.

The association’s president, Eve Troutt Powell, said on Wednesday that members clearly decided “to answer the call for solidarity from Palestinian scholars and students experiencing violations of their right to education and other human rights.” MESA’s board would seek to “ensure that the call for an academic boycott is upheld without undermining our commitment to the free exchange of ideas and scholarship,” she added.

Launched in 2005, the BDS campaign opposes Zionism — a movement supporting the Jewish people’s right to self-determination — and rejects Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish nation-state. It seeks to isolate the country comprehensively, including via economic, political, and cultural boycotts. Official guidelines issued for the campaign’s academic boycott state that “projects with all Israeli academic institutions should come to an end,” and delineate specific restrictions that adherents should abide by — for instance, denying letters of recommendation to students who seek to study in Israel.

The campaign has been widely condemned by Jewish leaders worldwide, including major American Jewish organizations, for rejecting Jewish rights and trafficking in antisemitic tropes, while it has been advanced by anti-Zionist activists and supporters as a vehicle to advance Palestinian human rights.

On Wednesday, MESA said what the resolution’s passage “means in terms of potentially new policies or practice is yet to be determined” by leadership. It also denied that an academic boycott would alienate individual Israeli scholars.

Norman Stillman, professor emeritus of Judaic History at the University of Oklahoma and chair of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, a competing academic society, said on Wednesday that MESA “has abandoned any pretext of being an academic association in favor of an organization with a singular political cause: to delegitimize Israel.”

He pointed out that while Israel is the highest ranked Middle Eastern country in the annual Freedom House ratings, no other country in the region was targeted by MESA’s initiative, which he said is “deeply rooted in old biases and prejudice.”

Speaking to The Algemeiner on Wednesday, Smith College Professor Donna Robinson Divine likewise called the vote “shameful.”

“It compromises the academic integrity of the association,” Divine said. “It may serve the interests of a discourse and those who control its vocabulary, but that discourse is increasingly distant from providing an accurate explanation of actual developments. Needless to say, it does nothing to provide actual help for most Palestinians wherever they reside.”

AMCHA Initiative, an antisemitism watchdog that recently published research documenting a correlation between the presence of anti-Zionist faculty on campus and the occurrence of antisemitic incidents, called MESA’s endorsement of BDS “morally reprehensible and incredibly dangerous.”

“The biggest victims of academic BDS are students and faculty on US campuses,” it said. “Academic BDS’s rejection of normalization of Israel in the academy not only calls on its faculty endorsers to work towards boycotting educational programs and research opportunities in or about Israel and canceling or shutting down pro-Israel events and activities on campus, it also urges the censuring, denigration, protest, and exclusion of pro-Israel individuals.”

Miriam Elman, head of the Academic Engagement Network (AEN), which opposes BDS, predicted that MESA’s move to isolate Israel would “severely damage its reputation.”

“At a transformational time in the Middle East and North Africa, where there is a growing opportunity for new academic partnerships, it is disheartening to see MESA endorsing BDS and undercutting the potential opportunities for dialogue and mutual understanding across national, religious and cultural divides,” Elman said. “Sadly, MESA members who care about academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas will have to look elsewhere.”

Representatives for MESA did not respond to The Algemeiner’s request for comment in time for publication.

After MESA members voted to advance the BDS resolution in December, several universities confirmed that they have not renewed their membership in the association.

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