An academic group representing more than 800 faculty members urged the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) on Monday to foster open dialogue on a controversial resolution supporting a boycott of Israel.
Voting on the referendum, which endorses the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign, began for MESA's 2,800 members on Monday and will conclude on March 22. The initiative has prompted questions about the legality of a possible academic boycott of Israel, should it be conducted at public universities in states that passed laws against using taxpayer funds to support BDS.
The Academic Engagement Network (AEN), which warned MESA in December that endorsing BDS will "discriminate against, exclude, and isolate Israeli scholars," reiterated in a letter to the association's leadership this week that the resolution's passage would "significantly damage MESA's reputation and credibility as an academic association ostensibly committed to open intellectual inquiry."
AEN also called on MESA to create an online forum where members can view arguments supporting and opposing the resolution — including its "possible legal liabilities and financial costs."
"Such a discussion forum is all the more necessary as it will enable the thirty-six MESA members who proposed the resolution to elaborate on its key claims and to provide evidentiary material for them," wrote AEN Executive Director Miriam Elman. It will further "help to ensure that the vote is fair since members would have received information, both pro and con, about it and will have had the opportunity to share their views and perspectives."
In December, a group of progressive academics, including several MESA members, warned that boycotting Israel would undermine academic freedom, preventing "free exchanges between faculty members and students worldwide."
Later, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis said Florida State University (FSU), an institutional partner of MESA, is expected not to allow the association to operate such an academic boycott on its campuses, in accordance with a state law prohibiting the use of public funds to support BDS.
FSU subsequently confirmed that it did not renew its MESA membership for 2022, as did the University of Arizona's Center for Middle Eastern Studies.
MESA may be prevented from implementing a boycott on the campuses of other partners — including the University of Arkansas, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, and the University of Michigan — which are in states that, like Arizona and Florida, have passed measures to prevent taxpayer funds from supporting the BDS campaign. Some of these laws have been challenged in suits alleging First Amendment violations.
Professor Donna Robinson Divine of Smith College, a MESA member, told The Algemeiner in December that resolutions to endorse BDS "do nothing to help the Palestinians or advance peace in the region."
"They weaken the academy, a place where the flow of ideas between people holding different views should not be obstructed," she said.
Following the passage of December's resolution, then MESA President Dina Rizk Khoury said the group's members "have been engaged in thoughtful discussions about what it means to participate in academic boycotts and other ways of showing solidarity with fellow scholars whose livelihoods are under attack."
"Today's vote clears a path for our full membership to collectively determine how we can do our part to support the academic freedom and education rights of Palestinian scholars and students," she continued, "not to mention Israeli scholars facing attacks from their own government for criticizing its policy."
MESA did not immediately respond to The Algemeiner's request for comment.