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Members of the Middle East Studies Association voted in favor of advancing a resolution to remove the word “nonpolitical” from the group’s bylaws in what opponents see as a prelude to a future vote on the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. The resolution to amend the bylaws, approved by a 247-57 majority of those present at the annual members’ meeting, will next go to the full membership for a vote. An amendment to the bylaws requires the support of two-thirds of voting members.

Joshua Stacher, an associate professor of political science at Kent State University who introduced the resolution at the members’ meeting in Boston, said the proposed bylaw change would bring the association’s governance documents into line with the day-to-day practices of MESA and its Committee on Academic Freedom, which regularly sends letters to foreign government officials protesting violations of students’ and scholars’ rights in countries across the Middle East. MESA's board also periodically issues letters and statements, including, on Saturday, a statement reiterating its alarm at the "rise in the stereotyping and vilification of people of Middle East or Muslim background" in the United States.

“The ‘nonpolitical’ clause didn’t seem to reflect all the sorts of daily practices that members experience in MESA,” Stacher said on Friday. “When members would raise, ‘Well, aren’t we doing politics here?’ we would be told that, ‘Well, we’re a nonpolitical organization.’ It’s a conversation stopper, or a debate stopper, so we thought if we lifted this word ‘nonpolitical’ that it would actually help facilitate debates and help resolve some of these contradictions of MESA’s daily practices and what MESA espouses to be in its bylaws.”

Stacher added, “If the membership decides that it wants to pursue a BDS vote, then it’s going to do a BDS vote. I think that what was done today adds a lot more clarity to how members identify with the organization. And I think that for a lot of us, it’s not about BDS, it’s about the ability to take a collective stand as an organization on any issue that we feel is germane to how we educate, research and teach about the Middle East.”

Robert O. Freedman, a visiting professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, spoke at the meeting against the proposed resolution to change the bylaws, saying in an interview that the action “transforms the Middle East Studies Association from an academic organization to an advocacy organization. It’s going to be advocating BDS and all sorts of other things instead of being a neutral academic organization.”

Freedman, who opposes BDS, also said that the proposed bylaw change “reduces or perhaps eliminates the credibility of the most important committee of MESA, which is the Committee on Academic Freedom. Once government leaders receive letters from an organization which is no longer a neutral organization but an advocacy organization, the credibility and legitimacy of those letters disappears.”

Ilan Troen, the Stoll Family Professor of Israel Studies at Brandeis University, said there's a big difference between the protest letters regularly written by the Committee on Academic Freedom and a potential boycott vote that could lead to the exclusion of individuals and institutions. He criticized what he described as the vote "to change the bylaws of an organization for one issue only -- that's supporting a Palestinian interpretation of a very complicated problem."

MESA is planning a full membership vote on the matter for early 2017.