In the weeks since the Middle East Studies Association voted to endorse an academic boycott of Israel, reactions across the scholarly community have been varied.
A chorus of advocacy groups has condemned the decision and called for colleges to cut ties with MESA. Some group leaders say rising anti-Semitism makes it especially problematic right now for a prominent academic association to support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, or BDS. Whether the movement is inherently anti-Semitic is intensely debated.
MESA staff members and Middle East-studies centers across the country have been inundated with hundreds of emails and calls, protesting the vote and centers’ continued membership in the association, said Eve M. Troutt Powell, MESA’s president. The resolution is not binding on individual or institutional members, but anti-BDS advocates see membership as implicit support for the association’s stance.
In their efforts to convince Middle East-studies departments to quit MESA over the boycott, some anti-BDS activists have circulated letters naming universities that they say have declined to renew their memberships in support of Israel. But The Chronicle contacted Middle East-studies centers at eight universities frequently named in letters and found that often wasn’t the case.
At the same time, MESA’s move hasn’t sparked as much attention in American higher education as one notable endorsement made by a scholarly group nearly a decade ago. Boycotts of any kind are a sore subject for higher education, because many academic leaders oppose them on the principle that they violate academic freedom.
This time around, there have not been nearly as many public statements from college leaders. Advocacy groups also shared with The Chronicle messages from two higher-ed leaders sent as private replies: one from a staff member for Mary Sue Coleman, interim president of the University of Michigan, affirming the university’s opposition to an academic boycott of Israel, and one from Carol T. Christ, chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, condemning BDS and all academic boycotts but relaying that Berkeley would remain in MESA.
The difference between the two cases is significant; Israel is central to Middle East studies in a way it is not to American studies. The implications of a boycott in the field are “staggering,” said Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a founder of Amcha Initiative, which tracks anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses and opposes BDS.
Among other effects, MESA’s resolution legitimizes the stances of the faculty members who have signed BDS-supporting statements as individuals, she said: “They’re backed up by MESA. That’s huge.”
A Decade’s Worth of Change
MESA’s referendum passed with 768 votes in favor, 167 votes against, and about 45 percent of the membership voting, according to the association.
The Israeli government restricts the movement of Palestinian people, harasses Palestinian students and professors, and offers unequal resources to Palestinian versus Israeli universities, the text of the referendum says. In the past, MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom has posted numerous public letters protesting specific actions by the Israeli government and military. Israeli universities are “imbricated in these systematic violations through their provision of direct assistance to the Israeli military and intelligence establishments,” the referendum goes on. And so the association supports the official BDS movement, which lays out specific guidelines on how to undertake an academic boycott, including forming no formal relationships with Israeli colleges.
“By passing this resolution and answering the will of our members, we are bringing to public awareness the discrimination against, and often segregation-like effects on, Palestinian scholars, students, and institutions of higher education,” said Troutt Powell, of MESA.
The Anti-Defamation League, among other groups, condemned the resolution, saying that it restricts academic freedom and educational opportunities for Israeli scholars and students, as well as for international academics interested in studying in Israel. Keeping academic ties with Israeli institutions is good for American colleges, Rossman-Benjamin argued: “They need to train the cadre of students to actually be experts in the field, to help our country understand regions that are really critical for America.”
Years ago, in the wake of the American Studies Association vote, several experts told The Chronicle they didn’t think it was indicative of a sea change in academe. Indeed, in the years following the American Studies Association’s resolution, the American Anthropological Association and the Modern Language Association, both larger groups, voted down Israel boycotts. The American Association of University Professors still opposes academic boycotts, as both a restriction on academic freedom and less effective than economic boycotts.
Yet it’s also clear that over the last decade, the landscape for BDS in academe has shifted. It appears more widely accepted. Rossman-Benjamin pointed to the departmentwide, rather than individual, signatories to statements supporting Palestinians after armed Palestinian groups and the Israeli military exchanged deadly fire in May 2021. The American Anthropological Association issued a statement “in solidarity with the Palestinian people” at that time. “A line had been crossed which had never been crossed before in the academy, to my knowledge,” Rossman-Benjamin said.
She called the statements “one-sided.” The violence killed people on both sides, although 10 times as many Palestinian civilians died as Israelis, according to counts from Human Rights Watch.
Within the Middle East Studies Association, members were much more divided over supporting an academic boycott of Israel in 2013 than they are now, Troutt Powell said. “Let’s be frank. Our membership is changing and getting younger, which is always a good thing, that younger scholars are so deeply engaged,” she said. “I think that changed the discussion quite a bit.”
MESA leaders also spent the last decade observing how other groups implemented their boycotts, and in particular how to ensure a boycott affects Israeli institutions but not individual researchers, which was “very important to us,” Troutt Powell said. The board of directors is considering starting a fund for Israeli graduate students whose institutions will no longer pay for them to go to MESA conferences, she said.
The association was also careful to release guidance saying the resolution isn’t binding to members, including institutional members. They are free to continue working with Israeli colleges. The resolution is supposed to bind only the association itself, which would seem to have little practical effect. MESA doesn’t have formal relationships with any university, Israeli or not, Troutt Powell said. Institutional members are Middle East-studies departments, not their umbrella universities.
Rossman-Benjamin was skeptical of the idea that a boycott could hurt institutions but not individuals. “Baloney,” she said. In 2014, a professor at Tel Aviv University outlined in an essay for The Chronicle the effects of the American Studies Association’s boycott, including an adviser being unable to recruit reviewers for a doctoral student’s thesis, and a conference, organized by Tel Aviv faculty members, that failed to attract any comers.
Opponents also consider centers’ paying of membership fees, which costs $1,100 annually, to be implicit support of MESA’s stance.
Opposition to MESA’s vote has inspired some misinformation, some of it repeated by advocacy groups and the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, a scholarly organization founded in 2007 by professors who thought MESA was getting too political.
A press-relations professional working with the Amcha Initiative and the Academic Engagement Network named eight colleges that have “thus far disassociated themselves from MESA following its decision to endorse an academic boycott of Israel.” As of April 19, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa listed almost all of those same colleges as having “revoked their institutional memberships with the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) due to the resolution calling for an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions.”
When contacted by The Chronicle, the directors of Middle East-studies departments at five of the listed institutions said either that they had not renewed for budgetary reasons unrelated to BDS, or that they had actually renewed or intended to renew. Directors at two institutions did not answer The Chronicle’s queries. The last named college was Brandeis, which had posted a public statement saying: “As a matter of principle, Brandeis University opposes academic boycotts of universities in any country. In light of this vote and the boycott, Brandeis dissociates from MESA and reaffirms our support for academic freedom.”
One non-renewer, Feisal Amin Rasoul Istrabadi, director of the Center for the Study of the Middle East at Indiana University at Bloomington, did offer that he thought the MESA resolution was a mistake. “MESA is a scholarly organization, which, in my view, should not play politics,” he said. But he made the decision not to renew months before the vote, he said, because he thought membership was not worth the cost. “It had nothing to do with BDS,” he said.
Asked about the discrepancies, leaders at the Amcha Initiative and Academic Engagement Network said they had not fact-checked such lists themselves, instead relying on other reports or before-and-after listings of institutions on MESA’s website. Without clear public statements like Brandeis’s, “we cannot be sure that the decision not to renew institutional membership was due to MESA’s BDS moves rather than for some other reason,” Miriam F. Elman, executive director of the Academic Engagement Network, wrote in an email. Reached by email, Asaf Romirowsky, executive director of Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa, did not dispute The Chronicle’s reporting.
The vote is tough for center directors, Istrabadi said. For departments with diverse faculty views, some members may complain. For departments at public universities, it draws negative attention from pro-Israel legislators. Istrabadi said he is always having to “demonstrate to some congressman somewhere that we’re not a bunch of anti-Semitic, anti-American rabble-rousers.” Why make that job harder?
Troutt Powell was sympathetic to Istrabadi’s points: “Your institutions did not vote on this” — individual members did — “so this pressure on you is not fair.” The association is trying to take the pressure off of center directors by offering to handle media requests and protests.
At the same time, Troutt Powell said: “It’s hard, but you have to move forward.” She noted that academics in at least one other field have had to deal with similar meddling from politicians and public protests: critical race theory.