In Defense of Academic Freedom and Against the MESA Resolution

We write as members of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) alongside the President of the Association for Israel Studies (AIS) and the Alliance for Academic Freedom (AAF), a group of more than 200 liberal and progressive scholars committed to upholding academic freedom and free speech in campus debates surrounding Israel and Palestine, supportive of both peoples’ national aspirations, and opposed to Israeli occupation of the West Bank. We deplore the vote by the 2021 annual MESA meeting that calls on its members to endorse a comprehensive academic boycott of Israeli universities. The resolution has been submitted to all MESA members for a vote. MESA represents faculty who teach and conduct research on the Middle East and North Africa.

With this action, MESA decisively overturns the very guiding principle of academic freedom it previous sought to uphold. In 2005 it made that commitment explicit in much the same political context. That year MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom condemned the British Association of University Teachers (AUT) call for its members to “refrain from participation in any form of academic and cultural cooperation or joint projects” with Haifa University or Bar Ilan University in Israel. It did so, it said, because of its “deep commitment” to “the principles of academic freedom and the free exchange of information and ideas,” principles no less vital today than they were in 2005. That was the year as well that the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) drafted its formal policy opposing all academic boycotts.

There has long been agreement by most academics, including many who criticize Israeli government policy, and even some who sees themselves as anti-Zionists, that boycotts of universities anywhere imperil the core principle of academic freedom, which mandates that free exchanges between faculty members and students worldwide are essential to the unfettered advancement of knowledge and to the viability of higher education. Ideas do not respect international borders; their merit is not determined by national identity.

MESA repeats the false claim by the BDS movement that it is possible to boycott academic institutions without also boycotting the students, staff, and faculty who constitute those institutions. Yet international research collaborations, international conferences, study abroad programs, and peer review of publications and appointments are just a few among the many activities that inevitably entail international cooperation among individuals and institutions. Some faculty refuse to write letters of recommendation for students wishing to study in Israel. The idea that people can be cleanly separated from their colleges and universities and harm restricted to the institutions alone is a damaging and deceptive fiction. All the activities listed here, moreover, are themselves protected by academic freedom. Either that principle stands and is universally honored or it ceases to be the governing principle of higher education worldwide. We must continue to condemn failures to uphold that most basic value. And thus we condemn the MESA resolution that abridges it. In 2005 MESA regarded the AUT boycott as an effort at once “to boycott these universities and blacklist their faculty.”

The current resolution asserts that Israeli universities are “imbricated” in the country’s military policies and practices and considers that justification for boycotting them. But academic freedom gives both individual faculty members and groups of faculty the right to engage in military research or research with military applications if they choose to do so. People in military service in many countries take college courses during and after their military service That is true for both Israel and the United States.

In 2005 MESA said “we especially oppose penalizing entire segments of an academic community for any reason whatsoever. We find thoroughly objectionable the call of the AUT to refrain from any and all scholarly interaction with the entire professional staff of two universities because of the policies of the state in which they are situated.” MESA has thus already provided excellent arguments in opposition to its present proposal. Moreover, at that time MESA was honest about the impact of academic boycotts. That honesty is now in danger as well.

Signed by the Executive Committee of the AAF alongside a group of MESA members and the President of AIS: Susana Cavallo (AAF), Donna Robinson Divine (MESA), Robert Freedman (MESA), David Greenberg (AAF), Bat-Zion Klorman-Eraqi (MESA), Rebecca Lesses (AAF), Jeffry Mallow (AAF), Sharon Musher (AAF), Cary Nelson (AAF, chair), Itamar Radai (MESA), Arieh Saposnik (AIS), Kenneth Stern (AAF), Moshe Maoz (MESA), Dale F. Eickelman (MESA), Harvey Goldberg (MESA), Miriam Shefer Mossensohn (MESA), D. Gershon Lewental (MESA), Daniella Talmon (MESA)