An open letter to MESA on endorsing anti-Israel BDS

I’m sure somewhere Professor Marc Lamont Hill must be smiling (though not at CNN, which fired him because of a history of offensive comments).

 Prof. Marc Lamont Hill  (photo credit: WAYNE RILEY/WIKIPEDIA)
Prof. Marc Lamont Hill
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

As I’m sure you are aware by now, the resolution adopted in March by the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) endorsing the anti-Israel BDS movement has sparked an outcry from several Jewish organizations.

The Anti-Defamation League said it was “appalled” by the association’s call for an academic boycott of Israel; the pro-Israel campus advocacy group AMCHA Initiative called the resolution “morally reprehensible.”

Quite frankly, I don’t understand why all the sudden outrage. After all, for anyone who’s familiar with MESA’s record, the BDS endorsement is hardly surprising. Your association has consistently demonstrated contempt for Israel. At your annual meeting in 2019, for example, Temple University’s Professor Marc Lamont Hill – who was chosen to be your keynote speaker despite having absolutely no academic expertise in Middle East studies – called on the attendees to support BDS even at the cost of losing their academic careers.

I’m sure somewhere Professor Hill must be smiling (though not at CNN, which fired him because of a history of offensive comments).

I noted that in your statement about the resolution, you said your board will work to “ensure that the call for an academic boycott [of Israel] is upheld...” Naturally, your critics ignore the other half of that sentence: “…without undermining our commitment to the free exchange of ideas and scholarship.” Apparently, they want to mislead people into thinking that boycotting Israeli scholars and universities would somehow undermine, rather than promote, academic freedom and dialogue. I know you’re too smart to fall for their deceptions.

 WE MUST stand together against BDS and all forms of antisemitism. (credit: Wikimedia Commons) WE MUST stand together against BDS and all forms of antisemitism. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Predictably, unfair accusations of antisemitism have been leveled at MESA. How anyone could claim with a straight face that singling out the world’s only Jewish state and its universities is antisemitic is perplexing. Clearly, your detractors didn’t bother visiting your website. It says it right there in your Vision Statement: MESA “opposes antisemitism.” I mean, could you be any more unequivocal?

Of course, there’s also the accusation of a double standard against Israel, by which your detractors mean MESA’s deafening silence regarding atrocities committed by Arab countries. You know, why doesn’t MESA ever raise concerns about how the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars is severely restricted by the intimidation, harassment and violence routinely perpetrated by the Palestinian Authority and Hamas at Palestinian universities, blah, blah, blah. (Oh, and don’t get them started on the utter lack of academic freedom in places like Saudi Arabia and Iran.)

You’re probably expecting the Israel supporters to dredge up that same old story about the Palestinian academic who took some of his students to visit Auschwitz in 2014. Remember? While he was in Poland, other students of his denounced him as a traitor, trashed his secretary’s office, and threatened to kill him if he returned to the university. Then his academic union canceled his membership, and yet, MESA said nothing.

Surely this admittedly shameful incident pales in comparison to Israeli human rights violations. MESA certainly isn’t going to be duped by Israeli claims that their universities are “models of diversity and peaceful coexistence.” As if Jewish, Israeli Arab and Palestinian students studying, doing research and teaching together is a reason to call off the boycott!

I was heartened to learn that Israeli scholars can still become members of your association even though they’re otherwise being blacklisted. Undoubtedly, they would be honored to belong to such an inclusive academic association. That alone should compensate for their possibly being banned from attending Middle East studies conferences, that their lectures on American campuses could be disrupted by BDS activists, or that their research papers could be rejected by virtue of their Zionist convictions.

I hope you won’t be dissuaded by those who will accurately point out that your endorsement of BDS renders MESA out of step with the very region you purport to study. Ostracizing Israeli scholars at a time when there is expanding relations, including academic collaboration, between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco takes true moral courage. Good for you for following your conscience!

Finally, I applaud you for the personal sacrifice you and your fellow BDS endorsers are making. The Israeli universities you are boycotting have made important advances – for example, in the field of pathology – that benefit the entire world, including the Palestinians. To be true to the BDS movement, you’ll have to forgo benefiting from Israeli ingenuity. No worries. I understand that Hamas, whose terrorism doesn’t warrant a single mention in your resolution, has developed a way to cure cancer permanently using C-4 plastic explosives.  ■

The writer is director of Community Relations and Public Affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland.