What Middle East scholars really think about boycotting Israel

Analysis by Shibley Telhami and Marc Lynch
November 22, 2022
Read the original post on the The Washington Post website.

Earlier this year, the Middle East Studies Association passed a controversial resolution endorsing a nonbinding boycott of Israeli academic institutions. MESA, the leading multidisciplinary global organization for academics studying the Middle East, polled its membership in a referendum on a resolution that responded to the call by Palestinian civil service organizations for solidarity in the face of Israeli occupation and human rights violations.

Did the vote in favor of the boycott, backed by 82 percent of participating MESA members, reflect broader attitudes among Middle East scholars?

Yes and no. In the fourth round of the Middle East Scholars Barometer, fielded from Oct. 25 to Nov. 8, with a response rate of 32 percent, we found that only a slight majority (54 percent) of the more than 500 respondents said they support the Middle East Studies Association boycott. And there’s a significant disciplinary divide. Only 43 percent of political scientists supported the MESA resolution, compared with 62 percent of scholars from other disciplines.

To be clear, this latest survey found little evidence of blanket objections to boycotts targeting Israel. A resounding 91 percent of Middle East scholars, including 91 percent of political scientists, support at least some boycotts of Israel. But more than a third of survey respondents — and nearly half of political scientists — say that it’s the boycott of academic institutions they oppose. That’s an important finding about the conflicting interpretations of academic freedom on a deeply contentious issue.

That’s only one of the intriguing findings from the fourth wave of the Middle East Scholars Barometer, a biannual survey of self-identified Middle East-focused members of the American Political Science Association, the Middle East Studies Association and the American Historical Association. The survey also revealed unique findings about the effects of the covid-19 pandemic on academic research and other issues.

Where should academic workshops be held?

Critics of the MESA vote, and of the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign more broadly, often claim that these types of protests unfairly single out Israel. Why boycott Israeli academic institutions, they argue, when other Middle Eastern countries have equally bad or worse records on human rights? To assess that critique, as well as broader concerns across the discipline about the ethics and practical safety concerns of doing research in an increasingly repressive region, we asked respondents whether they believed it was appropriate to hold academic workshops in various Middle Eastern countries — and, if not, then why.

Respondents split almost evenly on holding workshops in Israel, just as they did on the MESA resolution. Of the 53 percent who objected to holding workshops in Israel, 94 percent cited ethical concerns, with far fewer mentioning issues of access or personal safety. There is a clear generational divide: 73 percent of graduate students opposed holding workshops in Israel, compared with 52 percent of full professors.

But Saudi Arabia, not Israel, held the dubious distinction of being the country in which the most scholars — 69 percent — would oppose holding an academic workshop. There was less opposition to holding workshops in other Middle Eastern countries: 38 percent objected to holding workshops in Egypt, 35 percent in the United Arab Emirates and only 20 percent in Qatar or Turkey.

About 80 percent of those opposing workshops in most countries cited ethical concerns. But objections to holding workshops in Egypt stood out for a different reason. More of those opposing workshops in Egypt cited concerns about personal safety (46 percent) or about access and/or safety of workshop participants (75 percent). Again, there was a disciplinary divide: political scientists were 19 percentage points more likely than non-political scientists to have such reservations. That’s probably a reflection of Egypt’s grim record of imprisoning academics on trumped-up charges over the past decade. Few members of the academic community, for instance, will have forgotten the killing of Italian graduate student Giuilo Regeni in 2016, allegedly by Egyptian security services.