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Boycott Calls Against Israel
MESA Annual Gathering to Host a Special Session on BDS

02.11.16

Editorial Note
If anyone had doubts, the BDS initiative is still around and the Israeli public should prepare for many years of battle on this front.  Next on the calendar is the upcoming Middle East Studies Association (MESA) annual conference which will be held in November 17-20 in Boston. MESA, with nearly 3000 members, is considered the most important association of Middle East studies. It describes itself as “a private, nonprofit, nonpolitical, learned society that brings together scholars, educators and those interested in the study of the region from all over the world.” 

Among the many panels this year, BDS merits a special session. Titled "BDS, MESA, and the Politics of Academic Associations", the program states that "as several hundred MESA members have signed calls for academic boycott, this panel explores BDS as a political and intellectual strategy as it relates to academic associations in general, and to MESA in particular... The panelists, representing different areas of expertise in Middle East studies, offer insights on the practice of BDS, its significance and interventions in the contemporary higher education system, the relationship between politics and scholarship, and question of responsibility. They also reflect on the role of and the pressures on MESA in particular and academic associations more broadly." 

Organizers of the BDS session are Samera Esmeir, Joshua Stacher, Kent State, Sherene Seikaly, UC Santa Barbara. the Chair is Samera Esmeir, UC Berkeley and the discussants are Michelle Hartman, McGill; Charles Hirschkind, UC Berkeley; Huri Islamoglu, Bogazici; Mary N. Layoun, Wisconsin Madison; Judith E. Tucker, Georgetown. None of which presenting opposing views to BDS.  As IAM stated previously, MESA has been the home of the late Edward Said and his many followers with a long history of anti-Israel opinions. Because of its prominence, the MESA paradigm – a mixture of neo-Marxist, anti-colonial, and anti-Israeli themes – has dominated scholarship and classroom instruction on the Middle East and Islam. 

MESA has a long history of calling for BDS.  For example, during the 2007 MESA gathering, Omar Barghouti, the co-founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) discussed the academic boycott of Israel and argued that "the privileging of academic freedom 'circumscribes the moral obligations of academics.' He told the panelists that international law 'explicitly couples academic freedom with obligations'" and compared the situation to South Africa.

As IAM reported, in November 2014 (MESA) approved a proposal adopting the rights of its members to support an academic boycott and end cooperation with Israeli academic institutions. The proposal was passed by a majority of 265 against 79; it "affirms 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"; and it "affirms the right of the memberships of all organizations to discuss, debate, and endorse or not endorse the BDS campaign."

In the November 2015 gathering, two panels focused on BDS.  With regarding to MESA’s bylaws which describe the organization as being “nonpolitical," an article at the Inside Higher Ed  mentioned Zachary Lockman, former MESA president, who discussed how MESA’s definition of being "nonpolitical" has evolved over time to permit it to protest academic freedom violations around the globe. Yet, Lockman stated that, with one exception during the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait “the association insistently refused to speak out on conflicts in the Middle East itself.”

Not willing to discuss the conflicts in the Middle East while calling for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions is hypocrisy at its best. All fair minded members of MESA should raise this point. Double standards hurts the academic legitimacy of the organization.




MESA 2016
Come celebrate in Boston!
November 17-20
Boston, Massachusetts

MESA 2016
Boston Marriott Copley Place
Headquarters Hotel


SPECIAL SESSION
4711 BDS, MESA, and the Politics of Academic Associations
Organizers: Samera EsmeirJoshua Stacher, Kent State, Sherene Seikaly, UC Santa Barbara
Chair: Samera Esmeir, UC Berkeley
Michelle Hartman, McGill
Charles Hirschkind, UC Berkeley
Huri Islamoglu, Bogazici
Mary N. Layoun, Wisconsin Madison
Judith E. Tucker, Georgetown
The Boycott Divestment Sanctions (BDS) movement began over a decade ago as a
Palestinian initiative that made three demands: ending the Israeli occupation of the
West Bank and Gaza, the full and equal rights of Palestinian citizens in Israel, and the
implementation of the Palestinian right of return. Since then, BDS has been widely
discussed in academic circles in North America and Western Europe. Across universities
throughout North America and Europe, undergraduate and graduate students, alongside
faculty, have critically engaged this strategy. Numerous student unions, scholars, and
academic associations adopted BDS. In turn, there was significant political pressure on
academic institutions to disavow the strategy. The engagement with BDS has given rise
to various questions of who has “academic freedom”; what is “free speech”; and what
is “objectivity.” These questions unfolded just as the erosion of higher education, the
corporatization of the university, the adjunctification of academic labor, and the general
precarity of academic work took hold in new ways. At this critical juncture and as several
hundred MESA members have signed calls for academic boycott, this panel explores BDS
as a political and intellectual strategy as it relates to academic associations in general,
and to MESA in particular. The panel reflects on the relationship between producing
knowledge and practicing politics in Middle East studies. The panelists, representing
different areas of expertise in Middle East studies, offer insights on the practice of BDS,
its significance and interventions in the contemporary higher education system, the
relationship between politics and scholarship, and question of responsibility. They also
reflect on the role of and the pressures on MESA in particular and academic associations
more broadly. This panel contributes to an important and unfinished conversation that
has been taking place among MESA members, affording them access to a wide range of
opinions within their organization.


======================================================


Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2007, page 58

Waging Peace

MESA Discusses Academic Boycott Of Israel
THE MIDDLE EAST STUDIES ASSOCIATION (MESA) hosted a special session at its annual conference in Boston on Nov. 16 entitled “Academic Freedom and Academic Boycotts: A Symposium.” The panel was organized by New York University Professor (and MESA president-elect) Zachary Lockman and Georgetown University Professor Ahmed Dallal.

A strategic boycott of certain Israeli academic institutions who build on occupied Palestinian territory and provide research and justification for occupation is “regrettably necessary,” said Westchester University Professor Lawrence Davidson, because “the vast majority of Israeli academics are silent or active participants.”

“Academic freedom is not a luxury,” argued Institute for Advanced Study Professor Joan Scott, “but part of advocating for human rights.” Proponents of an academic boycott of Israel are putting “political tact ahead of principle,” she said.

In the opinion of Joe Stork, chair of the MESA Committee on Academic Freedom Chair and deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East & North Africa division, MESA should “oppose subordination of academic freedom” to the pursuit of other human rights.

Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), argued that the privileging of academic freedom “circumscribes the moral obligations of academics.” He reminded the panelists that international law “explicitly couples academic freedom with obligations.” Regarding a recent American Association of University Professors (AAUP) rejection of the PACBI boycott call, Barghouti cited the precedent of such measures in the “extraordinary situation” of South Africa and questioned the double standard. If such hypocrisy and inaction continues, he argued, academics run the risk of becoming “hopelessly irrelevant and irredeemably biased.”

Given that all the panelists expressed support for the use of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel generally, many audience members expressed frustration at the abstractness of the debate in the face of worsening realities. They saw opposition to the tactic of academic boycott as inaction. “I am willing to risk losing a certain amount of academic freedom,” Davidson stated, to “raise the cost” of Israel’s aggression.

—Matt Horton



 



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