MESA Banner
MESA’s BDS Vote and the Question of Palestine

RoundTable X-3, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 5:30 pm

RoundTable Description
In March of 2022, the Middle East Studies Association of North America voted overwhelmingly to endorse the academic boycott of Israel. Israeli higher education is imbricated in Israeli settler-colonialism and apartheid, and therefore in the violation of the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, Palestinians under military occupation, and Palestinian refugees. The movement for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) seeks to address all three dimensions of Israeli colonialism. Called for by Palestinian civil society, the boycott of Israeli universities is grounded in the institutional complicity of those universities in the ongoing infringements on Palestinian rights. This roundtable considers the question of academic freedom in the context of Palestine. It begins with an engagement with new research on Israeli university complicity in Israeli colonialism and violations of international law, from campus infrastructures serving Israel’s territorial and demographic program to academic disciplines conducting research for the Israeli security state and military industries. It will then consider the limits of academic freedom in Israeli higher education, and the ways in which administrations restrict Palestinian pedagogy, knowledge production, and critical expression, and particularly repress displays of solidarity with Palestinian universities under occupation. Finally, the roundtable will address the ways in which attempts to discuss and advocate for Palestinian freedom are silenced in North American and European universities. In defense of Palestinian rights, including the right to education, MESA recently voted to hold the Israeli state and its universities accountable. In the face of threats and repression, MESA members nevertheless insisted on holding these debates and demanded that academic freedom extend to Palestinians. This roundtable will discuss the struggle for academic freedom in the wake of the MESA vote, and situate the question of Palestine within larger debates about justice, complicity, and settler-colonialism in North American and European universities. The speakers will reflect on the state and future of the campaign for the academic boycott and investigate how critical research, scholarship, and pedagogy can push against the imposed boundaries on the question of Palestine. Together, they will ask how faculty and students might redefine academic freedom and the struggle for decolonizing the university?
  • For decades, Israeli universities were widely celebrated by Western academia as exceptionally free. Perceived as such, they have been shielded from many of the criticisms directed at peer institutions in other states in the region. In 2004, Palestinian academics and intellectuals challenged this apparent consensus. They formed the Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI), and called on international scholars to enact a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. PACBI explained the call to target Israeli universities on the grounds of institutional complicity in the ongoing infringement on Palestinians rights. The debate over the academic boycott has since roiled universities across Europe and North America, with proponents of boycott resolutions facing intimidation campaigns, lawsuits, and even the threat of criminalization. Too often, the debate on the academic boycott has centered on divergent interpretations of academic freedom, without also addressing a no less foundational question raised by Palestinian scholars and civil society organizations: should Israeli academic institutions be held accountable for Israel’s violation of Palestinian rights? This presentation draws on 16 months of ethnographic and archival research investigating the imbrication of Israeli higher education in Israeli settler-colonialism. It begins by showing the role of Israeli universities in materially advancing Israel’s territorial and demographic program of Jewish settlement and Palestinian dispossession, and in providing expertise and training for the Israeli security state that maintains the military occupation of Palestinian territory. It then explores the limits imposed on the academic freedoms of Palestinians in Israeli universities, specifically with regards to research, teaching, and discussion of the question of Palestine. Finally, the presentation will consider how this research might call into question prevailing understandings of Israeli universities, and what this case might illuminate about academic freedom and the decolonization of higher education more broadly.
  • Boycotts have long been a tool of resistance, from the Civil Rights Movement in the US to the global anti-apartheid movement a few decades later. Following in that tradition, BDS has gained traction in the international arena over the past many years, as testified to, among other achievements, by scholarly associations that have voted in favor of BDS. Nevertheless, the struggle against BDS remains fierce and powerful in the US, through harassment, censorship, and legal suits, which receive financial support from the Israeli State. In an era in which much of the US progressive movement is calling on private companies (tech companies, more specifically), to regulate racist and "harmful" speech, what perspectives might those of us who work on the question of Palestine have to offer in the face of such demands? In this paper, I will consider the problems of and struggles over censorship—official or unofficial—of speech on Palestine within this larger context of a progressive politics that calls into question an absolutist interpretation of the right to free speech.
  • This paper examines the history and dynamics of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement led by Palestinian civil society since 2005, with a focus on its impact on European Academic Associations, including the British Society for Middle East Studies. The paper argues that discussions of academic freedom in relation to the BDS movement have been framed in an ahistorical and abstract manner, ignoring the lack of academic freedom and other freedoms afforded to Palestinians. This framing reinforces the erasure of settler colonial relations and normalizes violence against Palestinians. The paper also explores how attempts to repress and monitor campus-based student organizations, academic events, and advocacy related to Palestinian human rights have taken various forms, including the introduction of procedural hurdles and censorship. The paper concludes by arguing that BDS motions have opened up a critical space for academic freedom and reenergised academic associations, leading to more engaged research.