Brandeis University has become the latest institution to sever ties with the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) over its passing a resolution to academically boycott Israel, while a leading civil liberties group has added to mounting criticisms of the vote.
Members of MESA, which promotes scholarly study of the Middle East, adopted a BDS resolution on Tuesday after a 50-day voting period that concluded with 768 votes in favor and 167 against.
"The resolution attacks the fundamental principles of academic freedom and association to which MESA specifically refers in its mission statement, and to which Brandeis is committed," the Boston-area university said in a statement. "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."
The decision adds Brandeis to the list of schools, including Florida State University and the University of Arizona, that have ended partnerships with MESA since the association first voted in December to weigh an endorsement of the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel.
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The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) — a leading advocate for the liberties of students and faculty that has previously defended proponents of an Israel boycott against legal restrictions — voiced concerns about the MESA resolution on Friday.
"Organizations like MESA are free to support and campaign for the BDS movement, and as a general matter students and faculty must remain free to join organizations that endorse BDS," FIRE's VP of Programs Peter Bonilla told The Algemeiner, arguing that states cannot legally constrain such activity.
"With that being said, however, FIRE has also repeatedly argued that the BDS movement's goals are in sharp tension with key tenets of academic freedom," Bonilla continued. "Discouraging or prohibiting faculty from engaging their Israeli counterparts, for example, restricts the free exchange of ideas, critical inquiry, and academic dialogue."
He continued, "In this we are in full agreement with the American Association of University Professors, whose statement against 'On Academic Boycotts' notes that when an individual's right of noncooperation 'takes the form of a systematic academic boycott, it threatens the principles of free expression and communication on which we collectively depend.'"
Israel is the only country in the Middle East to face such a boycott by MESA, two experts told The Algemeiner on Wednesday.
MESA president Eve Troutt Powell defended the result on Wednesday, saying its members had decided "to answer the call for solidarity from Palestinian scholars and students experiencing violations of their right to education and other human rights," and that MESA's board will "ensure that the call for an academic boycott is upheld without undermining our commitment to the free exchange of ideas and scholarship."