Top academic group endorsing Israel boycott sparks growing outrage, calls for schools to cut ties

The Middle East Studies Association is teaching future policymakers to be hostile to the Jewish state, critics warn.

Updated: April 3, 2022 - 10:37pm

The foremost professional organization for U.S. academics in the field of Middle East studies is facing a severe backlash over its recent endorsement of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel.

The Middle East Studies Association, which represents hundreds of professors who teach Middle Eastern studies on college campuses across the country, passed a resolution last week to endorse BDS in a 768-167 vote by its members. As a result, MESA will boycott Israeli academic institutions.

MESA's decision prompted immediate outrage from several universities and Jewish organizations, as well as advocacy groups promoting academic freedom.

The outcry continued into this week and shows no signs of abating.

"We denounce in the strongest terms MESA's outrageous and morally reprehensible endorsement of the antisemitic, anti-Israel, and anti-peace BDS movement," said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean and director of global social action at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "We call on all American universities to sever ties with MESA and ensure that their faculty do not use their positions to justify and promote anti-Israel activities."

MESA didn't respond to a request for comment for this story.

Many colleges, both public and private, have adopted internal policies opposing boycotts of Israel generally and Israeli academics and universities specifically.

Several schools have already cut ties with MESA, including Brandeis University.

"The resolution attacks the fundamental principles of academic freedom and association to which MESA specifically refers in its mission statement, and to which Brandeis is committed," the Boston-area school said in a statement. "As a matter of principle, Brandeis University opposes academic boycotts of universities in any country. In light of this vote and the boycott, Brandeis dissociates from MESA and reaffirms our support for academic freedom."

Florida State University and the University of Arizona are among a list of other schools that have ended partnerships with MESA over its decision to support BDS.

One school that hasn't appeared to sever ties with MESA is George Washington University, in Washington, D.C.

In 2019, MESA signed a memo of understanding with GWU to establish its headquarters at school's Elliott School of International Affairs.

That same year, Dr. Mark Wrighton received an honorary doctorate degree from a private Israeli university for being a "strong voice for academic freedom, discussion, and debate, vigorously opposing the boycott of academia in Israel."

In January, Wrighton was elected president of GWU. Neither his office nor the Elliott School responded to requests for comment on whether they're reconsidering their relationship with MESA after its vote to boycott Israel last week.

MESA defended its endorsement of BDS as an effort to hold Israel "accountable for ongoing human rights violations" against the Palestinians, arguing the decision is compatible with its stated commitment to academic freedom.

"Our members have cast a clear vote to answer the call for solidarity from Palestinian scholars and students experiencing violations of their right to education and other human rights," MESA President Eve Troutt Powell said.

"MESA's Board will work to honor the will of its members and ensure that the call for an academic boycott is upheld without undermining our commitment to the free exchange of ideas and scholarship."

Israel is the only country in the Middle East to face such a boycott by MESA, according to The Algemeiner, a New York City-based newspaper focusing on international Jewish and Israel-related news.

Part of MESA's stated mission is to encourage "public understanding of the region and its peoples."

Some observers noted that as MESA voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions, Arab leaders from Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates traveled to Israel to strengthen ties, describing the juxtaposition as ironic.

Not everyone agrees that boycotting the world's only Jewish state fits with a commitment to promote a free exchange of ideas.

"In voting to support boycotting and blacklisting Israeli universities and scholars, MESA makes it clear to the world it can no longer be considered a credible academic association," said Rabbi Eric Greenberg, director of United Nations relations and strategic partnership at the Simon Wiesenthal Center. "They are violating their own principles of academic freedom."

The Academic Engagement Network, which seeks to promote free expression and academic freedom on college campuses, made a similar point in an open letter to the president of the University of California urging him to sever institutional affiliations with MESA.

"The American Association of University Professors, along with hundreds of university leaders, have long rejected academic boycotts as inherently discriminatory and detrimental to the core values and bedrock principles that define the academy, namely the open and unfettered communication of ideas and the academic freedom to conduct intellectual exchange without fear of retaliation," the letter read.

"MESA's endorsement of the academic boycott of Israel will clearly infringe on the academic freedom of its members who wish to engage with their Israeli counterparts on research and other matters."

Several other organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee, have similarly castigated MESA's new resolution. The AMCHA Initiative, which monitors antisemitism on college campuses, is launching a campaign to push schools to revoke their MESA memberships.

MESA endorsing BDS "reveals to the world its crudely political approach to scholarship, its obsession with Israel, and its antisemitism," Dr. Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, told Just the News. "Long apparent, they are now official."

The stated goal of BDS is to abolish Israel as a Jewish state.

"Definitely, most definitely, we oppose a Jewish state in any part of Palestine," Omar Barghouti, a prominent spokesman for BDS, said in 2014.

Barghouti has also said the return of all Palestinian refugees to Israel, a stated goal of BDS, "would end Israel's existence as a Jewish state." He previously explained, "If the refugees were to return, you would not have a two-state solution; you'd have a Palestine next to a Palestine."

The United Nations uniquely classifies Palestinians, and no other people, as refugees at birth — even if they never fled persecution. The so-called right of Palestinian refugees to return, therefore, would mean that not only all the Arabs who were displaced following Israel's founding could settle in Israel but also all their descendants. 

Norman Finkelstein, one of the West's fiercest critics of Israel, has called BDS a "cult," while also agreeing that the movement's goal is to abolish the Jewish state.

In response, As'ad AbuKhalil, a professor of political science and prominent supporter of BDS, said: "Finkelstein rightly asks whether the real aim of BDS is to bring down the state of Israel. Here, I agree with him that it is. That should be stated as an unambiguous goal."

Such beliefs have been entrenched in U.S. academia long before last week's MESA vote, some experts say.

"Middle East studies specialists have been imposing their views on students for decades, making clear that grades and recommendations depend on hewing to the party line," Pipes said. 

"Generations of biased teaching at American universities have indeed had consequences, including the formulation of policy toward the Middle East. They have also had other consequences, for example in U.S. courts and immigration policy."

Pipes also argues such ideology inside academia has created policymakers, journalists and other prominent voices who have an animus toward Israel.

"Top schools, bottom schools — the teaching nearly everywhere is biased against Israel, as the overwhelming 80 percent pro-BDS [MESA] vote suggests," he said. "Unquestionably, this has an impact on policymakers in Washington, as it does on journalists, business leaders, philanthropists and many others."

In 2007, Bernard Lewis and Fouad Ajami, two late and prominent scholars of the Middle East, started the Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa as a rival to MESA, which they viewed as "dominated by academics who have been critical of Israel and of America's role in the Middle East."