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.
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.”
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.