Academic watchdog groups expressed disapproval on Wednesday at the adoption of a BDS resolution against Israel by members of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), based in the United States.
In an electronic vote from Jan. 31 to March 22, scholars voted 768-167 to adopt a resolution calling for a boycott of Israel.
"Our members have cast a clear vote to answer the call for solidarity from Palestinian scholars and students experiencing violations of their right to education and other human rights," said MESA president Eve Troutt Powell in a news release. "MESA's board will work to honor the will of its members and ensure that the call for an academic boycott is upheld without undermining our commitment to the free exchange of ideas and scholarship."
The resolution accused Israel of restricting freedom of movement; isolating, undermining and attacking Palestinian scholars as well as students who criticize Israel; and called Israeli education institutions complicit in a military occupation.
The move was heavily criticized by groups that monitor efforts to boycott and delegitimize Israel, pro-Israel scholars and students, and the politicization of an issue by an organization that purports to support academic freedom.
"What MESA did is morally reprehensible and incredibly dangerous. Although the academic boycott that MESA members voted to endorse seemingly targets only Israeli institutions and scholars, the biggest victims of academic BDS are students and faculty on U.S. campuses," said Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of the AMCHA Initiative, which monitors anti-Semitism on college campuses, in a news release.
"Academic BDS's rejection of the normalization of Israel in the academy not only calls on its faculty endorsers to work towards boycotting educational programs and research opportunities in or about Israel and canceling or shutting down pro-Israel events and activities on campus, it also urges the censuring, denigration, protest and exclusion of pro-Israel individuals," she said.
AMCHA Initiative cited multiple studies indicating that the presence of openly political professors on campus vastly increases the chances of BDS action on campus and open anti-Semitism towards Jewish students and faculty. It called on universities to immediately withdraw membership from MESA and to prevent their faculty from using their positions and department affiliations to "promote politically motivated advocacy and activism."
It also called on state and federal legislators to ensure that the funding provided to educational institutions does not go towards politically motivated objectives or allow its faculty to promote "personal political hate."
MESA has no resolution condemning another country
The Academic Engagement Network (AEN), another organization that promotes academic freedom and fights the delegitimization of Israel in the academic sphere, also expressed its dismay about the results of the vote.
"As an organization committed to open intellectual exchange and inquiry, we find it deeply ironic that this resolution is being presented within the framework of MESA's 'commitment to academic freedom,' when BDS is, in fact, antithetical to this very principle and core value that defines the academy," the organization expressed in a news release. "The endorsement of BDS will inevitably—and inequitably—discriminate against, exclude and isolate Israeli scholars by singling out the Israeli academy for boycott. The resolution's assertion that the boycott 'will not target individual students or scholars' is untenable."
MESA's release stated that the resolution will not target individual scholars or students. The organization did not reply to a request from JNS to describe what actions the resolution would entail from its members.
AEN said that the resolution cannot meaningfully separate faculty and students from the Israeli institutions they study and teach at. It also lamented the resolution's singling out of the Jewish state while not recognizing violations in other nations or restrictions on academic freedom within Palestinian territories.
A rival academic association that was founded in 2007 by two Middle East scholars who foresaw the politicization of MESA against Israel, the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) pointed to the double standard in MESA's resolution and the harm it will cause to academic freedom.
"By passing this resolution to blacklist and boycott Israeli institutions of higher learning, the membership of MESA has abandoned any pretext of being an academic association in favor of an organization with a singular political cause: to delegitimize Israel," ASMEA's academic council chairman Professor Norman Stillman said in a news release. "Their abandonment of the basic principles of academic integrity and freedom—namely the free expression of ideas—is deeply rooted in old biases and prejudice."
ASMEA pointed out that Israel was the only country in the Middle East that earned the highest ranking for academic freedom by the human-rights organization Freedom House, yet MESA has no resolution condemning another country.
"For these reasons, we strongly urge scholars and institutions of higher learning to reconsider their affiliations with MESA, a blatantly political organization with an explicit agenda to delegitimize Israel," said Stillman.