(December 6, 2021) Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) condemns a recent vote by the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) to institute an academic boycott against Israeli universities as part of the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.
The membership at MESA’s annual meeting “voted to advance a resolution endorsing the Palestinian call for solidarity in the form of boycotts, divestment and sanctions, or BDS, to a full membership vote in early 2022.” “If ratified next year,” a MESA press release revealed, “the resolution would direct MESA to find ways of upholding the call for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions in alignment with the association’s mission to defend academic freedom, and in a manner consistent with MESA’s bylaws as well as relevant U.S. federal, state, and local laws.”
While the MESA resolution disingenuously claims that its members “have organized various forums for discussion and debate of that call through MESA’s commitment to academic freedom,” academic boycotts are, by their very nature, antithetical to academic freedom and the free flow of scholarly debate, inquiry, and dialogue.
Moreover, SPME questions why MESA feels compelled to answer the call to boycott Israeli academic institutions, specifically, and not universities in countries where actual suppression of dissent, academic freedom, and scholarly inquiry are prevalent—China, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, and others, for example. The targeted boycott of only one country—Israel—indicates that MESA has made the determination that, at least in the Israeli/Palestinian debate, there is only one side worthy of defense, that any voices from Israeli scholars are irrelevant, unworthy, and deemed unacceptable to even be part of academic community and the marketplace of ideas that academia seeks to create,
MESA attempts to justify the call for an academic boycott against Israel by alleging a number of “systematic violations” that it accuses Israel of committing, which “include restricting freedom of movement for Palestinians; isolating, undermining, or otherwise attacking Palestinian educational institutions; harassing Palestinian professors, teachers, and students; harassing Israeli professors and students criticizing Israeli policies; destroying, confiscating, or otherwise rendering Palestinian archival material inaccessible; and maintaining inequality in educational resources between Palestinians and Israelis.“
MESA’s allegation in the list of predations by Israel on Palestinian higher education is deliberately one-sided, characteristic of the organization’s long-standing and blatant animus against Israel. Moreover, it ignores the fundamental, and critical, role that the Palestinians themselves have in creating some of the endemic problems within institutions of higher education in the West Bank and Gaza. despite the jaundiced view of MESA and other of Israel’s critics,
Specifically, Palestinian higher education is defined by radical politics, rival political factions who use harassment, violence, and intimidation to promote their views, alignment with terror groups such as Hamas, repression of opposing views, the use of terror cells within university facilities for weapon production, and violence against and even the murder of dissenting faculty who do not conform to the prevailing hatred of the Jewish state or the tenets of Islam. University buildings and research facilities are regularly used for the production of weaponry and arms used by terrorists to murder Israeli citizens. Student activists in competing militant factions, some even linked with Hamas, boast with each other concerning the number of civilians they have murdered.
MESA’s inclination to blame the IDF and Israel’s government for suppressing Palestinians academic freedom by arrests and incursions into the schools themselves ignores the situation on the ground, because these actions are based on the reality that Palestinian universities operate in a way in which politics, Islamism, and terrorism animate and inform the teaching and political activity of students and faculty alike.
MESA also makes the oft-repeated, though mistaken, claim that the boycott will only target institutions, not individuals, asserting, weakly, “that the BDS campaign against Israel is one that targets institutions and not individuals;” but that excuse is a lie and another way of obscuring the harm that boycotts inflict on actual scholars—the same people that MESA claims to care so much about, assuming they are not Israeli and Jewish.
“SPME is concerned by this disingenuous language which tries to suggest that only institutions, not individuals, will be boycotted, based on their so-called ‘complicity’ with the policies of the Israeli government and the occupation,” said Philip Carl Salzman, SPME’s president. “Institutions do not engage in ‘research, conferences, events, exchange programs, publications or other activities,’ people do—in this case, Israeli academics, most of whom, not coincidentally, are Jewish. The notion that the BDS campaign targets institutions and not individuals is fallacious as it is morally-repugnant, not to mention contrary to what academic institutions represent.”
The MESA resolution also makes Israeli academics complicit in the political actions of their country, collectively punishing all Israeli academics for the perceived actions of only a few. “Israeli universities are imbricated in these systematic violations,” the resolution reads, “through their provision of direct assistance to the Israeli military and intelligence establishments.” But since when are academics responsible for the political, military, or diplomatic actions of their respective countries, and why would all academics of one country be held responsible for the perceived misbehavior of their government?
The notion of Israeli universities as being “imbricated in these systematic violations” is flawed in at least two respects. “It, first, exonerates academics in any country other than Israel for any misdeeds committed by their own governments, for which, by the same standard that the boycotters apply to Israel, they as concerned citizens and scholars should have to answer. So, MESA’s view that Israeli academics should, or could, be held responsible for the actions of their own government is at best hypocritical, and at worst yet another example of how, where Israel is concerned, the standards applied in measuring its actions are impossibly high. Secondly, making Israeli academic complicit in the actions of their government ignores the reality that, as is the case on European, Canadian, and America campuses, many Israeli professors veer to the Left politically and many, incredibly, share the same virulent anti-Israel, anti-Zionism sentiments so proudly touted by MESA’s boycott supporters.”
Richard Landes, chair of SPME’s Council of Scholars, noted that “The world academic community frowns upon academic boycotts, such as the current example of MESA, which it regards as antithetical to the fundamental principles of academic freedom. Whatever their feelings, academics cannot say they support academic freedom and exchange if they boycott, censor, or otherwise interrupt the exchange of ideas, research and information. Credible academic associations must be clear in supporting basic principles of academic freedom with statements and policies rejecting such campaigns and actions.”
Therefore, SPME condemns MESA’s efforts to use academia to promote boycotts, divestiture, and sanctions against Israel, including the calls for academic boycotts directed towards Israeli institutions, as they represent an abandonment of scholarly principles, a degradation of campus civility, and a violation of the precepts of unbiased, rational academic inquiry.
As academics, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East strongly supports the principle of unencumbered scholarly travel. Unfortunately, MESA’s pro-BDS resolution engages this topic in a lopsided way, focusing exclusively on Israel. Critiquing only Israel among all the nations on earth—many countries where academics are denied even the ability to study, attend classes, or travel—is both counter-productive and disingenuous, since Israel guarantees individual and human rights of its own citizens and visitors, including its Arab citizens.
Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) is nonpartisan 501(c)(3), grass-roots community of scholars who have united to promote honest, fact-based, and civil discourse, especially with regard to Middle East issues. We believe that ethnic, national, and religious hatreds, including antisemitism and anti-Israelism, have no place in our institutions, disciplines, and communities. We employ academic means to address these issues.
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