MESA Chooses BDS Over Academic Freedom


The Alliance for Academic Freedom (AAF) condemns the March 24, 2022 vote by the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) to join the campaign of Boycotts, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) targeting the state of Israel. Academic freedom cannot exist where entire peoples or nations are effectively excommunicated from the global community of scholars and barred from the inherently collaborative work of research and teaching. By calling for an academic as well as cultural and economic boycotts of Israel, BDS restricts legitimate intellectual exchange with Israeli scholars, students, and institutions, and violates the most basic tenets of academic freedom; now, by endorsing BDS, MESA has embraced this violation. In doing so, it tramples on the rights of those who study or teach about the Middle East and North Africa, of all Israeli scholars and students, and of scholars around the world who collaborate with Israelis.

As we stated in our December 2021 statement on MESA, the organization itself had previously in 2005, through its own Committee on Academic Freedom, pointed to “the principles of academic freedom and the free exchange of information and ideas” as grounds for condemning academic boycotts such as BDS. At the time, MESA’s committee said, “We especially oppose penalizing entire segments of an academic community for any reason whatsoever.” That 2005 position was correct, we noted, because “free exchanges between faculty members and students worldwide are essential to the unfettered advancement of knowledge and to the viability of higher education.”

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. To ostracize an entire nation, its people, and its educational institutions because of political disagreements is to discriminate on the basis of nationality, which in this case also has the effect of discriminating on the basis of ethnicity and religion.  

MESA’s abandonment of a principled position in favor of a politicized approach does not bode well for the organization, which in recent years has lost both institutional members and credibility in the eyes of many scholars. A professional society must be a home for scholars of all political persuasions.

As an organization, the AAF supports the national aspirations of Israelis and Palestinians alike. The full realization of those aspirations will come only with increased communication, interaction, and scholarly collaboration—not from the restriction of opportunities for such exchange.

On Behalf of the AAF Executive Committee: Susana Cavallo, David Greenberg, Rebecca Lesses, Jeffry Mallow, Sharon Musher, Cary Nelson (Chair), Kenneth Stern