A Political Stance

Members of the Middle East Studies Association discuss whether they too should take a collective position on the boycott of Israeli universities.

November 23, 2015

DENVER -- Should the Middle East Studies Association take a stand on the academic boycott of Israeli universities?

Two panels at MESA’s annual meeting on Sunday focused on the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. The discussions at MESA came on the heels of a vote by attendees at the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting to back a boycott of Israeli universities. The full membership of the anthropology association will vote this spring on whether support for the boycott should become association policy.

Discussions of the academic boycott within MESA have not progressed as far, though hundreds of individual Middle East studies scholars have signed on to the academic boycott movement as individuals. MESA members approved a resolution earlier this year affirming “the right of MESA members to engage in open and transparent discussion of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions in the context of the annual meeting and other forums.” The resolution also strongly urged “MESA program committees to organize discussions at MESA annual meetings, and the MESA Board of Directors to create opportunities over the course of the year that provide platforms for a sustained discussion of the academic boycott and foster careful consideration of an appropriate position for MESA to assume.”

Many in attendance expressed disappointment with the composition of a panel here Sunday organized by MESA's leadership in response to that resolution. Speakers on that panel did not offer arguments for or against the academic boycott of Israel but rather provided broader historical and legal perspectives. The panel featured Zachary Lockman, of New York University, who provided an historical overview of MESA’s engagement in political issues; David J. Frantz, a lawyer who serves as counsel to the American Anthropological Association; and Lorraine J. Haricombe, of the University of Texas Libraries, who presented on the effects of the apartheid-era boycott of South African universities on that country’s academics.

Lockman outlined the history of MESA, founded in 1966 by leaders who were anxious about whether political disagreements on the Israeli conflict would destroy the new organization. “The founders and early leaders of MESA were determined to avoid or suppress discussion of what they saw as divisive issues at all costs,” Lockman said -- so much so that for its first three conferences, from 1967-69, there was not a single panel about Israel. That, Lockman said, is “pretty remarkable given the period we’re talking about.” (The Six-Day War, which pitted Israel against Egypt, Jordan and Syria -- and which ended up redrawing the map of the Middle East through the present day -- was in 1967.)

MESA’s bylaws describe the organization as being “nonpolitical." Lockman discussed, however, how MESA’s definition of nonpolitical has evolved over time to permit it to protest academic freedom violations around the globe (as the association’s Committee on Academic Freedom regularly does). The association has also taken critical stances on the role of U.S. military or intelligence agencies in funding social science teaching and research.

Even so, Lockman said, “the association insistently refused to speak out on conflicts in the Middle East itself,” with the exception of a fall 1990 resolution condemning the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

“There’s no hard-and-fast definition of what’s nonpolitical,” said Frantz, the lawyer on the panel. “Your organization and your board has struggled with that over time.” Frantz focused his comments on the need for MESA to take the constraints of its own bylaws into account in adopting any boycott stance, as well as federal, state and local antidiscrimination laws.

Haricombe, meanwhile, focused her presentation on the boycott of South African universities. She stressed that her research did not seek to determine the efficacy of that boycott in helping bring about the end of apartheid. Rather, her survey of 513 South African academics explored how they were affected.

South African academics felt isolated, she said, but carried on with their work nevertheless. “They all reported some effect of the boycott but they were quick to add that the academic boycott had very limited effects on their research; they were able to progress, although at a slightly slower pace,” she said.

Some attendees felt the panel was overly cautionary and were frustrated that it did not include any explicit pro-BDS arguments. In his analysis of the three speakers, Abdel Razzaq Takriti, of the University of Houston, detected underlying anxieties about 1) whether BDS will break up the field, 2) the potential legal ramifications of a boycott for the association and 3) whether the boycott would be effective or how it would affect scholars at Israeli universities (as it did South African academics). “If we plan correctly, if we think, if we organize properly, as many other organizations have done, we can overcome these issues,” Takriti said.

“The real question is actually a moral question,” he continued. “Once we understand where we feel morally about this then we can overcome all the anxieties put forward by the panel.”

Sondra Hale, of the University of California at Los Angles, said she didn’t think the panel lived up to the spirit of the resolution approved by MESA's membership. “I thought in good faith there would be somebody speaking on behalf of the boycotts, and we didn’t hear that,” she said.

Citing the AAA’s recent action, Hale criticized MESA’s comparative slowness on adopting a stance. “My question is why has MESA not entered the 21st century,” she asked. “Why is MESA an exception to what has become a movement within academia? How can we account for that and how can we respect an organization that won’t take a moral stand on this issue?”

On the question of whether or not MESA should take a stand on the issue of boycott, Jens Hanssen, of the University of Toronto, said that perhaps up until 2005, when Palestinian civil society organizations put out the call for BDS, the association could have stayed out of it. But now, he said, “We have no choice. We are political by being nonpolitical. And we are political by being political. That is the quandary we are facing.”

Hanssen, a boycott supporter, organized the second of the two MESA panels on Sunday about BDS. That panel featured a full hour of discussion, in which audience members discussed the moral case for boycott and considerations for moving a pro-boycott resolution forward within MESA.

Proponents of the academic boycott described it as a tactic for putting international pressure on Israel -- described as a “rogue settler-colonial state” guilty of violations of international law -- and as an opportunity to stand in solidarity with Palestinians. Other questioned whether MESA might lose credibility if it were to take the political step of supporting a boycott, or whether a boycott of universities would even be productive.

Nir T. Boms, of Tel Aviv University, argued that Israeli academe “is one of the more progressive parts of society” and briefly mentioned a program he created with a Palestinian colleague to jointly teach Israeli and Palestinian students history. “I can give you many more examples of this type of activity,” he said.

Boms’s comments were countered by another scholar in the audience who criticized his rhetoric of partnerships and reconciliation. “You cannot be a partner with someone you are colonizing,” this scholar said. The scholar added that you cannot reconcile with people to whom you deny justice.

In an interview, Boms said that he worries MESA is getting pulled into a politics of rejection -- rejection of hope, of coexistence, of a two-state solution (“So what is the solution?” he asked. “No Israel? Decolonize everything?”) “The prism of justice negates the prism of compromise,” he said.

Several U.S.-based scholarly associations have already endorsed the academic boycott of Israeli universities, most notably the American Studies Association. The American Association of University Professors opposes organized academic boycotts as violations of academic freedom and free exchange of ideas.


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