William Jacobson, a professor at Cornell Law School, founder of the Legal Insurrection website, and president of the Legal Insurrection Foundation, spoke to a January 14 Middle East Forum Webinar (video) hosted by Winfield Myers, director of the Middle East Forum's Campus Watch, about the implications of the Middle East Studies Association's (MESA) impending vote to make the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel its official policy.
An overwhelming majority of members attending MESA's annual meeting in December voted to send a BDS resolution for a vote by the full membership early this year. Jacobson said the language in the resolution is "worded ... very curiously" in that it states that implementation should be "consistent with local and federal and state laws and academic freedom."
Even if the resolution passes, Jacobson anticipates that any attempt to implement a boycott on campus will encounter resistance, given that federal and state laws prohibit discrimination based on national origin or religion, and many universities have even more restrictive anti-discrimination policies. "If the boycott ... is carried out – I don't mean somebody having an opinion on it, I don't mean somebody saying "I support it," but if it's actually implemented by MESA through its members on a campus – it arguably is discrimination on the basis of national origin," he said, "and it arguably is discrimination on the basis of religion because, let's face it, this is the one majority Jewish state in the world."
Jacobson emphasized "the distinction between speech and conduct." The former is protected, but when professors carry out official duties at schools that receive federal funding ("There aren't many that don't," he said) they must abide by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other relevant statutes. Although plenty of anti-Israel conduct should warrant investigation by the Civil Rights division of the Department of Education or even the Justice Department, Jacobson believes it is "particularly unlikely to happen" under the Biden administration.
But the intent of the BDS movement is not really to implement a boycott of Israel. Rather, the actual purpose is to use BDS as "a tactic" to "propagandize the campus against Israel." Jacobson said. MESA has merely "repackaged" traditional Jew-hatred in "social justice" language to lure younger, Western audiences into embracing the delegitimization of Israel as a Jewish state.
Jacobson said that MESA, despite posing as an organization with a "scholarly endeavor," is actually a "full political movement" driven by hatred of Israel. Many of the BDS-supporting professors on campus "ignore the systemic problems in the Middle East," that include terrorism, misogyny, and regional aggression by Iran and its proxies, such as Hezbollah. "They don't want to be balanced," Jacobson said. "This is just war against Israel by other means." MESA's propaganda effectively lures in "useful idiots" on campus, particularly "far-left-wing Jews [and] anti-Zionist Jews," such as the Jewish Voice for Peace, whom MESA uses as "a shield against correct accusations of antisemitism."
The MESA resolution threatens "academic freedom for Americans, not just Israelis."
Even if the MESA resolution passes and triggers no investigations by the Department of Education, the organization could still face powerful blowback. Anti-Israel organizations like MESA "never seem to be at a loss for funds," in part because such groups are being indirectly subsidized by universities, which typically pay the membership dues for their faculty. Myers suggested that one consequence of an official BDS endorsement by MESA could be "the refusal or denial of the payment of fees or funds to join [MESA] either institutionally or individually" by universities succumbing to public pressure. (Florida State University and the University of Arizona's Center for Middle Eastern Studies did precisely that days later).
Americans should understand that the MESA resolution and other attempts to bring about an academic boycott of Israel threatens "academic freedom for Americans, not just Israelis," said Jacobson. Depriving researchers of access to Israeli institutions harms the public interest. "Think of how many medical innovations have come out of Israeli institutes."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.