Come celebrate in Boston!
Boston Marriott Copley Place
4711 BDS, MESA, and the Politics of Academic Associations
Organizers: Samera Esmeir, Joshua 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
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.