The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) hosted a special session at its annual conference in Boston on Nov. 16 entitled "Academic Freedom and Academic Boycotts: A Symposium." The panel was organized by New York University Professor (and MESA president-elect) Zachary Lockman and Georgetown University Professor Ahmed Dallal.
A strategic boycott of certain Israeli academic institutions who build on occupied Palestinian territory and provide research and justification for occupation is "regrettably necessary," said Westchester University Professor Lawrence Davidson, because "the vast majority of Israeli academics are silent or active participants."
"Academic freedom is not a luxury," argued Institute for Advanced Study Professor Joan Scott, "but part of advocating for human rights." Proponents of an academic boycott of Israel are putting "political tact ahead of principle," she said.
In the opinion of Joe Stork, chair of the MESA Committee on Academic Freedom Chair and deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Middle East & North Africa division, MESA should "oppose subordination of academic freedom" to the pursuit of other human rights.
Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), argued that the privileging of academic freedom "circumscribes the moral obligations of academics." He reminded the panelists that international law "explicitly couples academic freedom with obligations." Regarding a recent American Association of University Professors (AAUP) rejection of the PACBI boycott call, Barghouti cited the precedent of such measures in the "extraordinary situation" of South Africa and questioned the double standard. If such hypocrisy and inaction continues, he argued, academics run the risk of becoming "hopelessly irrelevant and irredeemably biased."
Given that all the panelists expressed support for the use of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel generally, many audience members expressed frustration at the abstractness of the debate in the face of worsening realities. They saw opposition to the tactic of academic boycott as inaction. "I am willing to risk losing a certain amount of academic freedom," Davidson stated, to "raise the cost" of Israel's aggression.