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12 Universities Urged to Drop Middle East Studies Association Over BDS Endorsement

avatar by Dion J. Pierre

Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. Photo: Ad Meskens/Wikimedia Commons.

A coalition of organizations that support academic freedom and oppose boycotts of Israel urged a dozen universities on Wednesday to disaffiliate from the Middle East Studies Association after it singled out the Jewish state for sanction.

In letters to top campus officials, the groups — including the Academic Engagement Network (AEN), AMCHA Initiative, Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, and Scholars for Peace in the Middle East — argued that an academic boycott would “directly and substantively harm” students and faculty, as well as jeopardize the universities’ federal funding.

The letters came after MESA, which aims to promote academic study of the Middle East, voted to endorse the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel in late March. It boycotts no other country in the region.

Official guidelines issued by the BDS campaign for academic boycotts “urge faculty to work toward shutting down study abroad programs in Israel and to refuse to write recommendations for students who want to attend them,” the coalition wrote.

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They also direct adherents “to scuttle their colleagues’ research collaborations with Israeli universities and scholars; and to cancel or shut down educational events organized by students or faculty featuring Israeli leaders or scholars, including those that promote coexistence and mutual understanding or that seek to ‘normalize’ Israel by presenting it in anything but a negative light.”

The groups juxtaposed these demands with the requirements attached to federal funds received by these schools under Title VI of the Higher Education Act.

“The purpose of this federal funding is to support international and foreign language studies, the exact opposite of what MESA’s resolution calls for its members to do with respect to Israel, a country in the region that they are being funded to study,” they wrote.

Each of the universities addressed had “touted its commitment to the study of Israel and Hebrew, including its numerous research partnerships with Israeli institutions of higher education and its popular study abroad programs in Israel” when applying for Title VI funds, they noted.

Recipients of the coalition’s letters include Columbia University, George Washington University, Georgetown University, Indiana University, New York University, UC Berkeley, UCLA, University of Chicago, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, University of Washington, and Yale University.

Upon announcing the boycott, MESA president Eve Trout Powell said it would be “upheld without undermining our commitment to free exchange of ideas and scholarship.” However, groups like the Foundation for Individual Rights in Higher Education (FIRE), which has previously defended proponents of academic boycotts, have warned that the aims of BDS “are in sharp tension with key tenets of academic freedom.”

Last week, New York University denounced MESA’s endorsement of an academic boycott of Israel, and urged the society to “reconsider” the move “for the sake of academic freedom.” Days earlier, Brandeis University said the association’s support for BDS led it to dissociate from it “as a matter of principle.”

Ocean County College in New Jersey also recently severed ties with MESA over the boycott, according to AEN. Florida State University and the University of Arizona did not renew their memberships in MESA prior to its official endorsement of BDS.

The Algemeiner requested comment from all 12 schools contacted by the coalition.

An Indiana University spokesperson said that the school “has no active institutional membership with MESA and has no plans to renew the membership.”

In a statement to The Algemeiner Wednesday night, UC Berkeley Chancellor Carol Christ said that the university opposes the MESA decision and condemns BDS generally. But, she said, the school would not disassociate from the organization, arguing that “to do so would entail adopting the very tactics of boycott and disengagement that we so abhor.”

This story has been updated

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