A group of progressive academics on Monday denounced a vote by the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) to hold a full membership referendum on a resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel next year.
Of the 444 voting members who attended MESA's annual meeting on Dec. 2, 93 percent agreed to bring forward the BDS resolution, which would direct the association's leadership "to give effect to the spirit and intent" of the measure. A vote to ratify it will be held for MESA's 2,800 members in early 2022.
In a Monday statement, Alliance for Academic Freedom (AAF), Association for Israel Studies (AIS), and several dissident MESA members warned that the resolution poses a threat to academic freedom.
"Boycotts of universities anywhere imperil the core principle of academic freedom, which mandates that free exchanges between faculty members and students worldwide are essential to the unfettered advancement of knowledge and to the viability of higher education," the statement said. "Ideas do not respect international borders; their merit is not determined by national identity."
The group also said that the resolution voids a previous 2005 statement by the MESA Committee on Academic Freedom, which condemned academic boycotts by citing a "deep commitment" to "the principles of academic freedom and the free exchange of information and ideas." A BDS-style boycott will likely hurt individual faculty, staff, and students, they added.
"International research collaborations, international conferences, study abroad programs, and peer review of publications and appointments are just a few among the many activities that inevitably entail international cooperation among individuals and institutions," the group continued.
"Some faculty refuse to write letters of recommendation for students wishing to study in Israel. The idea that people can be cleanly separated from their colleges and universities and harm restricted to the institutions alone is a damaging and deceptive fiction."
Professor Donna Robinson Divine of Smith College, one of the statement's signatories, told The Algemeiner on Tuesday that "These kinds of boycotts are based on a distorted history of the Israel-Palestine Conflict."
"They do nothing to help the Palestinians or advance peace in the region," she said. "And they weaken the academy, a place where the flow of ideas between people holding very different views should not be obstructed."
"I have been a long-standing member of MESA since I attended graduate school at Columbia," Robinson Divine added. "My PhD advisor, J.C. Hurewitz, was one of its founders. The founders had the wisdom to insert a bylaw in MESA's charter that prevented the association from taking political action. That bylaw was eliminated in 2017. The current resolution is thus an inevitable consequence of that decision."
Representatives for the MESA national office did not immediately respond to The Algemeiner's request for comment.