The Middle East Studies Association approved a proposal on Monday adopting the rights of its members to support an academic boycott and end cooperation with Israeli academic institutions.
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The proposal was passed by a majority of 265 against 79.
The organization, which is considered the most important in the field of Middle East studies, was founded in 1966. It has 2,700 members and over 60 institutional members worldwide, as well as 39 affiliated organizations.
It calls itself “a private, nonprofit, nonpolitical, learned society that brings together scholars, educators and those interested in the study of the region from all over the world.” Among its declared goals is fostering the study of the Middle East in the United States and promoting high academic standards; it publishes a number of journals and other publications.
The wording of the decision, which Haaretz has obtained, supports the right of organizations who have already decided to boycott Israel to do so, and criticizes attacks on them.
The draft resolution calls boycotts a legitimate nonviolent political means. The proposal was expected to pass, say various members of MESA. Israeli academics called the resolution unprecedented and one that changes the rules of the game.
Hundreds of people attended a preliminary session on the issue, held Sunday during the organization’s annual meeting in Washington, D.C. The session was closed to the press, but some participants said supporters of the boycott controlled the meeting’s tone.
Israeli academics were also present in the hall and answered aggressive questions from the audience, including those concerning academic freedom for Palestinians in Israel and the territories, as well as the percentage of Palestinian students in Israel.
Statements supporting the boycott received applause and cheers, and the atmosphere was unpleasant, said one of the Israeli participants. At least one Israeli diplomat was present at the session: Israeli consul general to the Midwest, Roey Gilad.
The resolution on Monday states that the organization recognizes there are various opinions about the BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) movement against Israel, but that this debate falls under the definition of academic freedom, and so is protected by the organization.
Even if for now the significance of the resolution is mostly symbolic, the debate over a boycott of Israel is gradually moving into the center of the academic sphere and is no longer on the margins.
Israeli academics who attended the meeting expressed concern over the implications if the resolution is passed. Prof. Uzi Rabi, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Tel Aviv University and a member of MESA, said the resolution would mark a precedent.
“I hope I am proven wrong,” Rabi said, “but this is a game changer, and from my perspective it does not look good.”