A debate over academic freedom and moral responsibility is raging among American scholars of the Middle East. And like it or not, that's a good thing.
- By Nathan J. BrownNathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and a nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Academic conferences with panels on Egyptian legal thought and Arabic language pedagogy don’t usually make for big headlines. But on Nov. 24, the annual meeting of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) made more news than any previous session in the organization’s 48-year history.
Members present at the meeting voted that the organization will vote in the coming months to discuss the calls by the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement for an academic boycott of Israeli institutions, charging them with complicity in the occupation of Palestinian lands. That boycott could take many forms; its advocates now insist they target only Israeli institutions and not individuals (a distinction that is, like everything else, contested).
This vote means that the 335 members voting at the meeting have summoned MESA’s full membership of nearly 3,000 to vote. If we vote in favor of the proposed resolution, then MESA members will discuss the academic boycott. And if we vote against it, MESA members will … still likely discuss the academic boycott. (Sorry, but it’s a bit hard to shut us up.)
Why did the vote to vote to have discussions that would occur anyway — and indeed, were occurring already — generate such debate within our own ranks, and such attention from the outside world?
Part of the reason is that any time anyone mentions the words "Israel" and "Palestine" in the same room, sparks can fly. But there is something else at work, too: a feeling that academic freedom itself is at risk — either by the Israeli occupation or by the boycott calls, depending on your camp. So driving all the passion is a deeply principled disagreement within our ranks about what academic freedom means in this case.
MESA’s bylaws describe the organization as "non-political." And MESA has avoided speaking in a collective voice on the great political controversies that have occurred in the Middle East over the past half-century. Yes, academics that we are, some of us have been arguing in the hallways whether we should remain non-political; I have heard others have question what the word "political" even means. (Those who shy from definitional debates might want to find a different organization to follow or join.)
But the real heart of the current debate springs from the rest of MESA’s self-description: Our organization "fosters the study of the Middle East, promotes high standards of scholarship and teaching, and encourages public understanding of the region and its peoples through programs, publications and services that enhance education, further intellectual exchange, recognize professional distinction, and defend academic freedom."
A list like that might seem almost as anodyne as the motto of Faber College, of Animal House fame: "Knowledge is good."
Given the amount of heartache and heartburn the Middle East seems to occasion, scholarly knowledge about the region would seem to be a good thing. And scholarship — as it has come to be practiced today in the world’s leading academic institutions — relies on free inquiry, independent judgment, unfettered debate, and peer review. When scholarship is monitored, policed, and controlled by governments, it tends to wither fairly quickly. And when governments or publics make fateful decisions without basic knowledge, they tend to make mistakes. Most scholars do not see making policy recommendations as their goal; their task is to foster greater knowledge and understanding — the benefits of which are so obvious in most circumstances as to escape controversy.
So the kicker in MESA’s statement of its mission lies in its last phrase: MESA’s members have charged the organization with defending academic freedom. And that task unfortunately seems to grow more difficult with each passing year. MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom (CAF), which monitors violations of the principle, has been very active in calling out governments in Egypt, Bahrain, Iran, Turkey, Israel, Palestine, and … well, the list is depressingly long. Some wish to put a little more muscle in the violations of Palestinian academic freedom by boycotting Israeli institutions that, they say, are deeply enmeshed in the occupation. And of course their opponents say this places fetters on the exchange of ideas that is central to scholarly enterprise.
Of course, violations of academic freedom are not an exotic Middle Eastern disease. When the debate over a boycott occurs in the United States, CAF has found the ground fraught with regular threats from donors and legislators to withdraw funding from those organizations taking positions in support of BDS. As a result, MESA has had to insist time and again that whatever one’s opinion of the campaign to boycott Israeli academic institutions, the principles of academic freedom protect the right of faculty to advocate for, as well as against, such boycotts.
That much is clear. The resolution we voted on affirms the principle of academic freedom — but it goes on to ask not simply to protect discussion of BDS, but for MESA to provide a platform for that kind of discussion. Of course, such a debate is already occurring in the hallways, in the panel discussions, and in private communications among MESA members. What the membership is asked to decide, at least to my reading, is whether that discussion should be more formalized.
What does the principle we believe in, academic freedom, require? Some view an academic boycott of any kind as an infringement on academic freedom. Others view it as a necessary step to answer the call of some Palestinian scholars for support in their efforts to exercise academic freedom under occupation. Some view some boycotts as legitimate and others as illegitimate. Some view the issue as a matter for our individual judgments rather than one for the organization as a whole to decide. The list of questions such a discussion will entail is long. And (sorry again, we are academics, after all) some of us will prefer to argue about these questions rather than answer them.
Whatever happens to the resolution, as MESA president I view it as the task of the organization’s leadership to ensure that the debate is protected and that it is held in an atmosphere free of intimidation. There have been complaints from those involved in all sides of the BDS debate of attempts to scare them into silence. MESA needs to take those concerns seriously. We all need to work against intimidation from those who are hostile to what we do — and we also need to be conscious of how we might intimidate each other in quashing dissident voices. The alternative is to allow people to speak only what others wish to hear.
Argue, discuss, debate — that’s what we do. We do so in turgid tomes and in witty tweets. We bother each other with the things we say, and some of us might bother you as well. And in fact, if we annoy you in the process (and we likely will), you have three choices: join in the debate, ignore it, or vote for politicians who pledge to shut us up. Even if you are not a Faber College alum, I hope you pick one of the first two options.