America’s Middle East scholars finally discuss “boycott Israel” call

A protest in support of Steven Salaita, who was fired from a University of Illinois post after speaking out against Israel’s crimes. (Jeffrey Putney)

Over the past two years, a number of academic associations have taken strong stances in favor of the boycott of Israeli universities.

The American Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, the Critical Ethnic Studies Association and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association have all voted to support the boycott, with its call to cease direct links with Israeli academic institutions until the Palestinian people receive a just settlement to occupation and exile.

Notable by its absence, though, has been the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the main organization in the US and to some extent other countries for academics working on the broad Middle East region. There is, of course, a certain irony to this, since MESA represents both academics working on the subject of Palestine and many scholars of Palestinian origin.

At its latest annual meeting, in November 2014, MESA took a small step towards addressing the Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. While it did not endorse that call, it sought to defend the rights of professors to urge a boycott of Israel.

“Protected free speech”

The organization’s membership voted 256 to 79 for a resolution which seems to have been partly inspired by instances of harassment against pro-Palestinian academics, the best-known of whom is probably Steven Salaita. Here is the official MESA summary of the motion:

Affirms that 1) calls for institutional boycott, divestment and/or sanctions are protected free speech and legitimate forms of non-violent political action; 2) the right of MESA members to engage in open discussion of the BDS movement at the annual meeting and other forums and 3) the right of the membership of other organizations to discuss, debate, and endorse or not endorse the BDS campaign;

Deplores intimidation directed against organizations who have adopted BDS resolutions, such as the American Studies Association and the Association for Asian American Studies;

Urges MESA to organize discussions at its annual meeting and for the MESA board to create opportunities in 2015 to discuss the academic boycott and consider an appropriate position for MESA.

Although the motion was passed at the MESA annual meeting, it will now be opened up to the full membership for an online referendum, after discussion on a “moderate online forum” which the association is due to establish.

The discussion and referendum will take place in January and February 2015.

Diplomatic approach?

Supporters of the motion have stressed that it was not a proposal on MESA support for BDS per se, but on the freedom of MESA members and other scholars to discuss the issue, and to advocate an academic boycott, without intimidation or harassment.

As Ziad Abu-Rish of the University of Ohio, one of the motion’s proposers, wrote in an email circulated to Middle East-related academic listservs, this was “an attempt to assert the right of individuals and organizations to openly discuss the BDS call free of intimidation or retribution [and to assert] the right of academic associations to choose whether or not to put BDS up for a vote.”

As’ad AbuKhalil, however, writing on his Angry Arab blog, has attacked the motion as “too little, too late, too cowardly.”

AbuKhalil described MESA — of which he is not listed as a member — as “the most conservative and the most establishment” of area studies academic associations.

Condemning MESA’s decision not to allow press access to the debate and November vote, AbuKhalil rightly went on to point out: “There were 79 odd members yesterday who voted against the right to debate BDS. Think about that. Some in this organization don’t believe that MESA members should have freedom of speech (granted by the constitution) if such freedom may harm Israeli interests.”

One solution, AbuKhalil put forward, would be “serious talk among MESA members to split off from the mother organization to form a more progressive academic association for Middle East studies.”

Game changer?

AbuKhalil predicted that “MESA will eventually adopt BDS” but that it would do so late in the day, when such a stance had become commonplace among academic associations, thus highlighting MESA’s conservative nature.

Israeli commentators seemed to take the MESA vote more seriously.

An article in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz claimed that “Israeli academics present at Middle East Studies Association’s AGM [annual general meeting] in Washington call the move unprecedented and a game changer.”

The piece by Uri Blau, which seemed determined to emphasize MESA’s size and seniority, stated that: “Hundreds of people attended a preliminary session on the issue … some participants said supporters of the boycott controlled the meeting’s tone. Israeli academics were also present in the hall and answered aggressive questions from the audience, including those concerning academic freedom for Palestinians in Israel and the [occupied] territories, as well as the percentage of Palestinian students in Israel.”

Quoting an “Israeli participant” at the MESA meeting who claimed that the meeting’s “atmosphere was unpleasant,” Blau went on to acknowledge the growing strength of the BDS movement. “Even if for now the significance of the resolution is mostly symbolic, the debate over a boycott of Israel is gradually moving into the center of the academic sphere and is no longer on the margins,” he wrote.

The article closed with a quotation which affirmed this, citing Professor Uzi Rabi of Tel Aviv University as saying that the resolution would “mark a precedent” and that ”this is a game changer, and from my perspective it does not look good.”

The MESA resolution in full:

Whereas, members of various academic associations in North America have sought to organize forums for discussion and debate of the 2005 Palestinian civil society call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel; and

Whereas, a number of academic associations have held membership votes on whether to endorse the BDS call; and

Whereas, we acknowledge that members of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) have differing views on the necessity or productivity of such actions; and

Whereas, individual scholars and academic associations organizing, participating in, or commenting on such discussions, debates, and votes have been subjected to efforts to silence and/or punish them; now, therefore be it

Resolved, that the MESA membership

Affirms that calls for institutional boycott, divestment, and/or sanctions are protected free speech and legitimate forms of non-violent political action; and

Affirms the right of MESA members to engage in open and transparent discussion of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions in the context of the annual meeting and other forums; and

Affirms the right of the memberships of all organizations to discuss, debate, and endorse or not endorse the BDS campaign; and

Deplores the measures of intimidation directed against the American Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, among other associations, and some of their individual members, as we MESA members uphold the principles of free speech that protect the expression of such views and actions; and

Strongly urges MESA program committees to organize discussions at MESA annual meetings, and the MESA board of directors to create opportunities over the course of the year that provide platforms for a sustained discussion of the academic boycott and foster careful consideration of an appropriate position for MESA to assume.

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Comments

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EI has rightfully claimed journalistic fame in the past with its investigative pieces. But this is a far cry from anything investigative. All the author did was quote the resolution, a sentence from an email and a blog entry by someone who isn't even a member (good thing she didn't quote Martin Kramer, who is just as relevant as AbuKhalil in this context). She didn't bother speaking to the resolution's authors, to other members, including those involved in the push for BDS, or get the context in which this resolution came to be. Shame.

Ali Abunimah's picture

Noa, I do not agree that this is a “shoddy piece of journalism.” It is a post that provides the basic facts about the resolution – including the full text of the resolution. It provides some flavor of the debate around the resolution, including the reasoning of its sponsors. The fact that As’ad AbuKhalil is not a member of MESA is neither here nor there; he’s a prominent voice whose blog is widely read and who criticized the resolution in scathing terms. It is right and proper to report on that.

I actually do think that Kramer’s reaction should probably have been mentioned — his views are very revealing, not least about the “restraining” effect of government funding on academic free speech, and the generational/ideological changes he sees within MESA that make support for Israel less tenable. It’s also very instructive that Kramer praised the “heroic” efforts of MESA president Nathan Brown to prevent the resolution from being “worse.”

I agree that some additional in-depth reporting would be great. I’d hoped to do something of that nature myself, but was constrained by other commitments.

As this is certain to be an ongoing debate, this post will certainly not be the last word. We would also welcome it if supporters of the resolution approach us about writing a piece on their reasoning.

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re Noa: "... Martin Kramer, who is just as relevant as AbuKhalil in this context". I don't think so. AbuKhalil pointed out (or ridiculed) that MESA was to vote on whether BDS could be discussed at all, as if Freedom of Speech was to be doubted. Kramer only blogged an opinion without getting the big picture. Didn't you notice that Kramer went off-topic? How or where was Kramer ever concerned about Academic Freedom *in this case*? (Hey, he might even have been forbidden to discuss this in MESA!). Also AbuKhalil noted that press was not welcome in the meeting. Strange then that you call that "shoddy" on the journalists side.

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Your article is conflating two events at MESA. I was at both. The vote was not the same venue as the one that Uri Blau wrote about. That was a roundtable on BDS that was part of the program. In any case, I voted in favor of the ref and will vote for BDS when the open member vote comes. However, I must say that I can understand some MESA members' hesitation re: the fact that the organization is a "non-political" one. They are worried that MESA will be forced to close its offices, lose its affiliates, etc. That is part of the machine of Israeli intimidation at work, I realize. Still, I think it bears stating.

Sarah Irving

Sarah Irving's picture

Sarah is a freelance writer and editor, author of a biography of Leila Khaled and of the Bradt Guide to Palestine, co-editor of A Bird is Not a Stone (a volume of Palestinian poetry translated into the languages of Scotland), and a PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh. She has worked and traveled in Palestine since 2001.