Next Monday, members of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) will be voting on a resolution which asks the membership to “affirm the right of MESA members to engage in open and transparent discussion of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” What this boycott would entail and how far it would go are left unspecified in the text. The resolution comes in the wake of a letter by MESA President Nathan Brown which took a fairly neutral stance towards the issue of boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS). BDS supporters at MESA are hardly the target of persecution. In fact, MESA has announced a special Presidential Forum on BDS where participants will have a chance to speak on the issue.
Nonetheless, the resolution frames itself as affirming members’ free speech, highlighting the membership’s “right” to discuss BDS. Deploring unspecified “measures of intimidation” against similar academic associations, the resolution encourages members to discuss BDS in the name of freedom of expression.
This position is contradictory. Discussing BDS is indeed legitimate. However, by specifically targeting “Israeli academic institutions,” supporters of the resolution are prima facie restricting freedom of expression. A MESA boycott of these institutions and their academics would, by definition, restrict their access to the discourse MESA fosters. Discussing ways to end Palestinian suffering and Israel's military policies in the West Bank are valid topics of academic conversations. However, a body which calls for Israelis to be excluded from those discussions cannot logically do so in the name of free speech.
The resolution also gives no justification for dis-aggregating an Israeli academic boycott specifically from the plethora of actions that fall under the umbrella of BDS. Is it because the Israeli academy has ties with a defense establishment that commits human rights violations? If so, the resolution should also include mention of the plethora of Middle Eastern academies - and the American academy - who have such links. The resolution gives no universally applicable standard for its unique mention of Israel. It seeks to advise MESA members, but gives unsatisfactory justifications for its most noteworthy recommendation.
True academic discourse evaluates speech based on the quality of its ideas, not the identity of the speaker. If MESA members value the forum that the Association provides, they will opt to engage their colleagues through discourse, not exclude them through boycotts and restricting access. The current iteration of the resolution is inconsistent with the ideals MESA upholds, and should not be adopted by the membership.