Washington — Members of the Middle East Studies Association voted overwhelmingly at their annual conference here on Monday to defend the right of scholarly associations to boycott Israel and to set their own organization on a course to consider a boycott of its own.
Conference participants voted, 256 to 79, in favor of a resolution that urges the organization’s leadership to provide a means to discuss what stand MESA should take in connection with the boycott, divestment, and sanction (or BDS) movement directed at Israel. The measure acknowledges that the group’s members disagree “on the necessity or productivity” of endorsing the BDS movement, but describes calls for involvement in it “protected free speech and legitimate forms of nonviolent political action.”
Monday’s vote is not the final word on the matter but instead puts the measure up for a broader vote, by mail, for MESA’s more than 2,700 members in the coming months.
The resolution says MESA “deplores the measures of intimidation” directed against various scholarly associations that have taken up BDS measures, specifically naming four groups that have endorsed them: the American Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association.
At a Saturday panel discussion on academic freedom and criticism of Israel, Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, said her group had to resist pressure not to allow a discussion, at its annual conference this year, on whether to join the BDS movement.
The MESA panel discussion’s audience gave a standing ovation to Steven G. Salaita, who became a cause célèbre for many MESA members last summer after the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign responded to his inflammatory denunciations of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians by withdrawing an offer to hire him as a tenured professor. He alleged in remarks delivered on Saturday that he had been the victim of pressure on Illinois by wealthy donors and of “organized suppression of those who speak on behalf of Palestine and Palestinians.”
Many supporters of Israel have accused Mr. Salaita of using rhetoric that betrays anti-Semitism, and more broadly denounce the BDS movement of being motivated by anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic bias.