On Dec. 2, 2021, as Jews celebrated the fifth night of Hanukkah, the Middle East Studies Association passed a resolution at its annual business meeting that “endorses” the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) call against Israel. The resolution now goes to a full membership vote in mid- to late January.
BDS represents a full-frontal assault on academic freedom at American universities and colleges, not just against Israeli institutions. BDS academic boycott guidelines bar almost all interactions with Israeli academic institutions and “representatives” of such institutions.
Prohibited activities include academic projects or activities, research and development projects, speeches (including debates), study-abroad programs in Israel, publishing in or refereeing articles for Israeli university journals and “normalization projects.” As the BDS guidelines make clear, the boycott covers individual Israelis who represent such institutions. MESA vows in the resolution “to give effect to the spirit and intent of this resolution” endorsing BDS.
MESA is the largest and most influential US academic organization devoted to Middle Eastern Studies, with nearly 2,700 individual members and 54 institutional members, including major public universities, such as Florida State University and the University of Arkansas.
The impact on Jewish and Israeli Studies in the United States will be profound. The Association for Israel Studies condemned the vote as “an effort to curtail and to suppress” academic “freedom for any scholar associated with Israel or with Israeli academic institutions.”
MESA’s resolution was several years in the making. Anti-Israel academic activists systematically took over MESA, leading many moderate and pro-Israel members to drop membership or participation.
In 2015, MESA approved a resolution condemning opposition to BDS as a violation of academic freedom. BDS supporters demand the academic freedom to deprive others of academic freedom.
In 2017, the group amended its bylaws to remove the word “non-political” from its Nature and Objectives, removing an impediment to a BDS endorsement.
The American Association of University Professors opposes such systematic academic boycotts that threaten “the principles of free expression and communication on which we collectively depend.” Similarly, over 250 university presidents condemned the 2013 BDS endorsement of the American Studies Association, the only major American academic group to join BDS.
Permitting MESA to operate a systematic discriminatory boycott at or through universities will violate non-discrimination and academic freedom protections.
There are other good reasons to condemn in the MESA resolution: It’s typical of the one-sided, ahistorical demonization of Israel that has become common in far-left and Islamist academia. The boycott also is religiously discriminatory, since it will affect Jewish students and scholars disproportionately.
BDS has a long anti-Jewish history. It’s an outgrowth of the anti-Jewish boycotts in the British Mandate for Palestine that continued through the Arab League Boycott of Israel. Those anti-Jewish boycotts were repackaged at the openly anti-Semitic 2001 Durban conference into a call for an international boycott, which was the source for the BDS formula. The 2005 “Palestinian Civil Society” call for BDS, referenced in the MESA resolution, was social-justice window dressing for the almost century-old anti-Jewish boycott.
To fight such discrimination, numerous states have passed anti-BDS laws that could bar state universities from paying individual and institutional membership and conference dues to MESA, or allowing MESA to use university facilities. MESA’s campus actions also may violate the non-discrimination requirements of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, imperiling universities’ federal funding.
As increasing numbers of Middle Eastern countries normalize relations with Israel, MESA seeks to expunge Israel from Middle Eastern Studies. MESA’s general membership should reject this discriminatory hijacking of the organization for political purposes.
William A. Jacobson is a clinical professor of law at Cornell University and president of Legal Insurrection Foundation, a non-profit supporting free speech and academic freedom, where Johanna E. Markind is research editor and counsel.