Academic association passes BDS proposal

Jewish Voice for Peace Boston members protest in July in favor of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Photo by Marilyn Humphries
Jewish Voice for Peace Boston members protest in July in favor of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. Photo by Marilyn Humphries

Academics in Israel and America reacted with dismay at the recent passage of a Middle East Studies Association (MESA) proposal that allows its members to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

The draft resolution passed by a vote of 256-79 at the scholarly organization’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 24.

While the proposal stops short of endorsing BDS and there is an opportunity for opposition voices to be heard before the final resolution is expected to pass, Jewish and non-Jewish leaders and academics interviewed by Washington Jewish Week expressed concern that the resolution could endanger its mission statement as a “nonpolitical association” that defends “academic freedom” and could create a hostile atmosphere for Israeli academics of all political persuasions and religious and ethnic backgrounds.

“I think the reckless radical current behind this movement is driven more by ideology than academic engagement or commitment to diversity of perspective, and risks sapping the academic relevance of a venerable association for the sake of advancing a political agenda,” said Franck Salameh, assistant professor of Near Eastern and Slavic Studies at Boston College. “And should a BDS resolution targeting Israel be adopted by MESA, where does one draw the line? Should MESA stop at Israel? Shouldn’t, say, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey, or Syria come next? Or first?”

MESA President Nathan Brown, who is also a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, said he does not see the vote as a slippery slope to endorsement of BDS and that the timing of the proposal had to do with the Gaza war.

Brown said that he would personally make sure that the resolution doesn’t have the unintended consequence of creating a hostile environment for Israeli academics who are members of MESA since the BDS movement targets not just the territories, but the entire state of Israel.

“I think one of the most important responsibilities of the MESA leadership right now is to provide an environment that is free and unfettered so that all views can be expressed. We have spent a lot of time trying to figure out how best to do that. Providing such an atmosphere is a large task and a continuing one,” said Brown.

However, some are unconvinced that MESA can remain neutral if the final resolution passes, particularly when there is language in the proposal that strongly urges MESA 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.”

Geri Palast, managing director of the Israel Action Network, said that “there is no question that it’s an effort to put the organization on the path of passing an institutional academic boycott of Israel, which we believe strongly violates the principle of academic freedom as well as singles out one group of academics — be they Jews or Arabs or any nationality who works in the state of Israel – to ultimately face some kind of either boycott in terms of institutions or in their daily experience.”

StandWithUs CEO Roz Rothstein went even further in her condemnation of MESA’s BDS vote, saying that it “shows that some academics are so obsessed with slandering Israel that they trample on rationality, facts, intellectual integrity and morality. It is deeply disturbing that some of these MESA people teach our college students. They support BDS, a bigoted movement that promotes injustice and racism, and is anti-peace.

“MESA’s attempt to marginalize a progressive state like Israel while ignoring the egregious violations of ISIS, Syria, and Palestinian terror groups like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad qualifies as anti-Semitism. It slanders Israel and applies hypocritical double standards to single out and condemn the world’s only Jewish state.

“We hope that when this resolution goes to the general membership for a vote, the members will not be intimidated by the BDS crowd’s manipulative tactics or swayed by their misinformation, and that cooler, more reasonable views prevail, and that this resolution is defeated.”

Brown said the debate at the members meeting was “passionate but remarkably free of vitriol.” That stands in contrast to the forum the day before that was marked by hostility and at least one personal attack.

Salameh was at the forum and said that pro-BDS members often resorted to “jeering and heckling those providing a counterpoint to their own, and drowning in applause those upholding their deeply held assumptions.”

He said at one point Lisa Hajjar, a professor of sociology at UC Santa Barbara and a newly elected MESA board member, called Ilan Troen, a professor of Israel and Jewish Studies in the Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies at Brandeis University, who was making the case against BDS, an ignoramus. “Looking him in the face, she told Professor Troen, ‘Sorry to say this, but there are some of the best experts on Israel in the world sitting in this room, I don’t know why someone with your somewhat limited intellectual abilities was chosen for this role.’ ”

Cary Nelson, professor of English and Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and author of the book The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel, backed up Salameh’s version of events at the forum, which was closed to the media.

“At MESA they were more vigorously and uncritically politicized than one would want faculty members to be,” said Nelson. “It looks like, at least in some disciplines, the new generation of faculty will be even more hostile toward Israel than some of the current generation in the humanities and social sciences already are. That was the lesson that I take away from the MESA vote that is most troubling.”

Nelson said in his 45 years in higher education, he has never seen the level of hostility he is witnessing now toward Israel. He is even going as far as to travel to Israel to try to persuade Knesset members and university presidents to take the BDS movement more seriously.

UPDATE: A correction was made to this story on Dec. 3 to reflect that Brown’s comments about the lack of vitriol were specifically about the members meeting on Nov. 24 where the resolution was debated. Salameh is referring to the forum the day before.

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