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Amid the clamor over the American Studies Association’s resolution endorsing the boycott of Israeli universities, the Middle East Studies Association has been more or less silent. The association’s Committee on Academic Freedom last weighed in on the subject of academics boycotts in 2005, issuing a letter opposing them after Britain’s Association of University Teachers approved a resolution to cut off academic cooperation with Haifa and Bar-Ilan Universities. “We find thoroughly objectionable the call of the AUT to refrain from any and all scholarly interaction with the entire professional staff of two universities because of the policies of the state in which they are situated,” the committee wrote then

Asked today about MESA’s stance on the boycott, the association’s leaders still point to that 2005 letter of opposition. But its Committee on Academic Freedom has written more than 160 “intervention letters” since – including letters to Israeli government officials condemning military assaults on Al-Quds University, a Palestinian institution in the West Bank, and protesting travel restrictions that limit the opportunities of Palestinian students and scholars. In this way, MESA offers a different model for how scholarly associations might address academic freedom violations.

To back up, the ASA’s boycott of Israeli universities is framed as a response to the denial of academic freedom to Palestinians living in the occupied territories – as a response to precisely the kinds of problems mentioned above – but the question of whether academic boycott is an appropriate tactic to address it, even if only symbolically, is a deeply disputed one. In the aftermath of the ASA’s December boycott resolution, more than 100 American university presidents and several major higher education associations, including the American Association of University Professors, have condemned the measure as a violation of principles of academic freedom and open exchange.  

MESA has also taken a notably different approach than the Modern Language Association's Delegate Assembly, which on Saturday effectively condemned Israel for allegedly blocking reasonable access by American and other scholars to West Bank campuses. At the MLA meeting, critics of the measure asked why the association should speak out about Israel and ignore concerns elsewhere, and others questioned whether MLA members had the necessary expertise to understand the Middle East. MESA is of course made up of scholars of the Middle East, and it regularly weighs in on academic freedom issues not only in Israel, but in many nations throughout the region.

MESA's Committee on Academic Freedom issued 22 letters in 2013. Two of those letters were sent to Israeli government officials in protest of their policies toward Palestinian university students, including the Israel Defense Force's “indiscriminate firing of tear gas canisters and rubber-coated bullets” onto the Al-Quds campus. Another five were directed to Turkish government officials, drawing attention to such concerns as mass trials that swept up seven Turkish academics and reported reprisals against students and professors who supported the Gezi Park demonstrations. The committee sent a letter to Egypt’s prime minister regarding the arrest and detention of two Canadian professors in Cairo last summer and another, in December, expressing “very grave concern” about the “pattern of escalating state violence” against protestors on Egypt’s university campuses, which resulted in the killing of Cairo University student Mohamed Reda on Nov. 28. The committee has gone on record condemning last January’s bombing of Aleppo University, in Syria, which reportedly killed more than 80 people, and has also spoken out about Iran’s wrongful imprisonment of Omid Kokabee, a doctoral student in physics at the University of Texas at Austin. (Amnesty International has classified Kokabee as a “prisoner of conscience, held solely for his refusal to work on military projects in Iran and as a result of spurious charges related to his legitimate scholarly ties with academic institutions outside of Iran.”)

MESA's Committee on Academic Freedom also sends letters to institutions in the U.S. and Canada, including, in 2013, several expressing concern about the ways in which various universities treated students involved with pro-Palestinian activism and a rare positive letter applauding Brooklyn College President Karen L. Gould for resisting outside pressure to cancel a controversial forum on the Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement last February. 

“Our hope is through these letters to highlight these cases and certainly to try to bring some pressure to bear on individuals, institutions, and governments that are violating human and academic freedoms and rights,” said Laurie A. Brand, the committee chair and the Robert Grandford Wright Professor and professor of international relations at the University of Southern California.

Bearing Witness

MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom is divided into two wings that largely work autonomously: the North America wing, which focuses on academic freedom issues affecting the study and discussion of Middle Eastern topics on campuses in the U.S. and Canada, and the Middle East and North Africa wing, which focuses on violations of academic freedom within the region. A decision to write a given letter is made by a more than two-thirds super-majority of the appropriate wing, Brand said, and is typically researched and written by a two-person team before it is circulated to the committee for feedback and, ultimately, sent to the government or university officials deemed most appropriate. In addition to the letters, the committee also nominates a recipient for MESA’s annual academic freedom award: recent awardees include the New York-based organizations, the Institute of International Education’s Scholar Rescue Fund and the Scholars at Risk Network, and Turkey’s Initiative for Solidarity with Detained Students. 

The committee relies entirely on the volunteer service of its members, who rotate on and off for terms of three years, with the possibility of a three-year renewal. The work they do isn’t the kind that typically “counts” much toward tenure or promotion. “This is work which takes away from time that people could be spending on their publications, basically,” said Brand. “Some of the letters really require a tremendous amount of detailed research, including looking into country’s constitutions and various conventions that they’ve signed onto and various laws. It can be painstaking work, but people care.”

The effect of the letters can be difficult to quantify. “What I can say is I have seen these letters play into public debate in the country they are directed to,” said Nathan J. Brown, the MESA president and a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. Brown said that the letter on the escalating state violence on Egypt’s campuses received considerable attention in the Egyptian press, including the translation of the letter in a government-owned daily (The New York Times also made a mention of this MESA letter on its editorial page). He added that the committee wants to do a better job of making contacts with local media outlets and human rights organizations to increase a single letter’s impact; some of this will require translation work, for which MESA’s members may have the expertise but not always the time.

In some cases, MESA’s letters garner a response from their recipients, which as a rule are posted on the committee’s website alongside the original letters. Israeli and North American universities tend to be more likely to respond, whereas the committee has never received a response from Iran. One can only speculate what Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, might make of a MESA letter addressed to him if it ever reached his desk. Regardless, Brand said, “We need to bear witness: sometimes it’ll make a difference, many times perhaps it won’t, but at least there’s some record there.”

“It would be horrendous to let some of these violations go uncriticized."

On the Home Front

Both Brand and Brown said that MESA members have not requested that the association issue a new statement either rejecting or endorsing academic boycotts. "It's hard to say what will happen in the future," Brand said: the association has hosted panels on the subject at its annual conference and many individual members are on record in favor of the Israel boycott (see, for example, this pro-boycott speech given at the 2006 MESA meeting). But at this point there is no movement to revisit the anti-boycott stance of the association.

It’s a touchy subject for MESA. Middle East Studies as a field is sensitive to accusations of anti-Israel bias, and any action on its part is apt to be scrutinized. Take the distribution of letters it’s sent to various countries over the years, which has been interpreted in two very different ways. Writing on the ASA boycott in Foreign Policy, Martin Kramer, the president of Jerusalem’s Shalem College, cited the committee’s letters to the likes of Ayatollah Khamenei and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan “protesting dismissals and show trials of scholars and police violence on campuses” as being “a pretty good indicator of where academic freedom in the Middle East is truly imperiled” (not Israel, in other words). Whereas Alan Luxenberg, the president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a Philadelphia-based think tank, has written critically in the History News Network of the committee’s disproportional focus on Israel and Iran: “Except for Israel and Iran, the Middle East appears to be a bastion of academic freedom -- in the view of the Middle East Studies Association,” Luxenberg wrote.

If you add up the 185 letters written since 2001, among them the committee has directed 36 to officials in the U.S., 32 to Iran, and 28 to Israel, compared to 21 for Turkey, 14 for Egypt, and still fewer for the remainder of the Middle East and North African countries; there is just one letter each to authorities in Algeria, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Sudan and Yemen and not one to Libya. Brand argued, however, that “counting by country is not particularly helpful or enlightening.” Many of the letters sent to Israel are in protest of its policies toward Palestinians, but others are in defense of Israeli academics. And speaking more generally Brand said that the disparity in the number of letters is attributable largely to the expertise of the committee’s members and the availability of information about particular cases. For example, she said the dearth of letters on North Africa is a gap that stems from a lack of information about academic freedom violations in the local press.

Samuel M. Edelman, the executive director of the Center for Academic Engagement and faculty affairs adviser for the Israel on Campus Coalition, gives MESA's Committee on Academic Freedom high marks for its efforts to call attention to the plight of jailed and otherwise oppressed academics abroad and low marks for its intervention in U.S. and Canadian campus affairs. The committee is quick to defend pro-Palestinian faculty and students, he said, but not so Jewish faculty or students when they’re harassed or intimidated. Edelman said there is a real problem of professors with a certain political point of view toward Israel refusing to allow alternative opinions to be voiced in their class.  And he said he disagreed with a 2012 letter the MESA committee sent to University of California’s then-chancellor Mark G. Yudof about a report on the campus climate for Jewish students: that letter argued that the report and the accompanying recommendations prescribed “a vague and expansive definition of hate speech” that, if implemented as policy, would threaten both First Amendment rights and academic freedom. The UC report in question found that the campus anti-Zionist and pro-boycott, divestment and sanctions movements employed language and themes that portrayed Israel and Jews “in ways which project hostility, engender a feeling of isolation, and undermine Jewish students’ sense of belonging and engagement with outside communities.”

It’s no surprise that the Committee’s North America wing focuses largely on issues that touch on the third rail that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Over the years it’s written critically on such topics as DePaul University’s 2007 decision to deny tenure to Norman Finkelstein and Bard College’s 2009 termination of Joel Kovel, both prominent critics of Israel. More recently, in the last year, it took up the case of San Jose State University Professor Persis Karim, whose workshop for high school teachers on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict came under fire from Israel advocacy groups. It criticized Ontario’s York University for seeming to “selectively and disproportionally” punish the Students Against Israeli Apartheid group after a campus rally was deemed disruptive and likewise questioned Florida Atlantic University for proscribing as a punishment that pro-Palestinian protesters attend anti-bias training provided by the Anti-Defamation League, a group that the committee noted “is hardly neutral with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; indeed, it has frequently been criticized for routinely conflating virtually any form of criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.” 

Zachary Lockman, the chair of the North American wing and a professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies and history at New York University, said the Committee on Academic Freedom regularly comes across cases where universities or legislative bodies have “conflated criticism of Israel and Israeli policies with anti-Semitism. We feel it important to make sure that distinction is kept as clear as possible because conflating the two is dangerous and potentially threatens academic freedom, especially for faculty at public institutions.” In the letter praising Brooklyn College President Gould for not backing down to external pressure to cancel the forum on Israel boycott and divestment, the committee wrote “as a matter of principle we reject the assertion that, for example, criticism of the policies and practices of the State of Israel or advocacy of a Palestinian ‘right of return’ in and of themselves constitute hate speech or manifest anti-Semitism.”

“It is often assumed that academic freedom in the United States is secure, and while it may be in the abstract law, it’s not in society,” said Juan Cole, the Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan and author of the Informed Comment blog; he is also a member of the Committee on Academic Freedom’s North American wing. (His own case of being denied an appointment by Yale University was a subject of a committee letter back in 2007.) “We have a big problem of groups outside campus putting pressure on university administrations over faculty speech, sometimes over faculty teaching. Sometimes the issue is the characterization of Islam. Sometimes the issue is the characterization of Israel.”

Speaking personally, Cole said that while he does not support an academic boycott of universities in Israel, “it’s extremely important that scholars and associations that take the kind of stance that ASA did not suffer reprisals. I think that’s a violation of their freedom of speech.”

“Just by virtue of our discipline we were in the crosshairs,” Cole said of MESA, “but they [the ASA] stepped into the breach voluntarily.”

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