MESA's Israel boycott encapsulates everything wrong with academia - opinion

The point of the academic boycott of Israel is to twist official opinion in the manner that has already been done in academia.

 STUDENTS CONGREGATE on the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The resolution calls for Israeli academia to be boycotted (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
STUDENTS CONGREGATE on the Mount Scopus campus of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The resolution calls for Israeli academia to be boycotted
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Members of the Middle East Studies Association have passed a resolution endorsing a comprehensive boycott of Israel.

The resolution accuses Israel of a long list of abuses, including restricting freedom of movement for Palestinians; isolating, undermining, or otherwise attacking Palestinian educational institutions; harassing Palestinian professors, teachers, and students; harassing Israeli professors and students criticizing Israeli policies; destroying, confiscating, or otherwise rendering Palestinian archival material inaccessible; and maintaining inequality in educational resources between Palestinians and Israelis.

Moreover, Israeli educational institutions are to blame, since “Israeli universities are imbricated in these systematic violations through their provision of direct assistance to the Israeli military and intelligence establishments.”

Consequently, the resolution calls for Israeli academia to be boycotted and “directs the MESA Board of Directors to work in consultation with the Committee on Academic Freedom to give effect to the spirit and intent of this resolution, in a manner consistent with MESA’s bylaws, as well as relevant US federal, state and local laws.”

Disingenuously, the resolution states that the “BDS campaign against Israel is one that targets institutions and not individuals” that “MESA recognizes the right of scholars to academic freedom as well as the right of scholars to choose whether or not to participate in an academic boycott.”

 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)

However, in reality, a boycott campaign cannot target institutions without restricting the rights of individuals, Israeli or American, except those who explicitly accede to the litmus test of hating Israel. This has already been seen in the continued harassment of Israeli professors on American campuses and calls for their boycott.

The MESA resolution thus calls for American academics to punish the most liberal sector of Israeli society, indeed, the one that has done the most for Palestinian integration and education. It states a predetermined and one-sided political framework on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for its members to follow in which Israel is vilified, and implies that members should create a system of exclusion on American campuses, ostracizing Israelis and supporters of Israel, not a few of whom are Jews.

Boycotting Israel encapsulates everything wrong with academia, namely its close-minded censoriousness, aloof cruelty and eagerness to play politics. It also goes without saying that MESA and is members boycotting Israel will do nothing for the Palestinians, except empower their leaders’ rejectionism further into the 21st century. Destructive gestures are also a feature of academia today. Americans should reject the campaign purely on this basis.

The irony is that MESA’s move comes as Israel’s relations with Arab states are expanding still further. The Abraham Accords brought decades of informal political and economic cooperation into the light. These relationships have expanded to include Morocco, Sudan, Bahrain and the UAE, and perhaps soon, Saudi Arabia.

Not surprisingly, opponents of the Abraham Accords (academics included) have derided these countries as authoritarian, demonstrating some of the hidden disdain implicit in post-colonial approaches. Academics evidently understand the interests of the region better than the locals.

MESA is thus out of step with the region it purports to study. Its politics resemble – not coincidentally – those of Iran, but also the ‘Democratic Socialists of America’ and progressive groups that have recently vowed to oppose the Abraham Accords.

Various US states have noted this contradiction between the reality on the ground, and MESA’s political desire to ostracize and punish Israel. A number of US states, such as Florida, have expressed dismay over the MESA-proposed boycott and the manner in which it contravenes local anti-BDS legislation, founded in opposition to discrimination on the basis of religious, ethnic and national origins (and which MESA offers help local academics to circumvent).

It may be for this reason that a number of public universities have quietly declined to renew their institutional memberships in MESA. But, the problem extends far beyond schools. Institutions that receive Federal funds – meaning virtually all colleges and universities – suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of MESA’s proposed discrimination. Academic freedom for individuals does not include the right for institutions to countenance discrimination by organizations they support. Administrators, trustees, and alums should take note, along with George Washington University, which hosts MESA’s office.

Moreover, the Federal Government, which employs or consults with Middle East specialists in the intelligence community, military and diplomatic fields, finds itself in a bind. The question of discrimination is bad enough but the quality of analyses must become suspect. MESA ideologues so opposed to the existence of one and only one state in the region are hardly impartial or even informative specialists to advise the US Government. Personal aversions compromise scholarship and policy. Support for boycotting Israel should be an immediate disqualifying mark.

But that is part of the point of the academic boycott of Israel, to twist official opinion in the manner that has already been done in academia. American interests and the interests of peace are barely considerations. Neither is fairness a consideration. Academic ideologues in Middle East studies who routinely champion Hamas and Hezbollah, who savage the US as an evil empire and Israel as its lackey, in terms eerily similar to that of the Iranian regime, and who busily export 21st century American obsessions regarding race and whiteness to the rest of the world (including Israel) defy basic notions of fairness.

It is probably too late to dissuade MESA members from this self-destructive boycott. But, in a period when American academia is discrediting itself on a daily basis by embracing various racist formulae, which Israel boycotts certainly are, consumers of information and supporters academia should ask what comes next.

Asaf Romirowsky is executive director of the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa and Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME). Alex Joffe is a senior non-resident fellow at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.