Standing with Palestine requires challenging the myth of 'non-political' institutions

Standing with Palestine requires challenging the myth of 'non-political' institutions
The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) in the US will soon vote on whether it will answer the call for BDS. As the largest academic body of its kind, the outcome could set the tone for the institutions worldwide, writes Samar Saeed.
6 min read
21 Mar, 2022
The support for sanctioning of Russia shows the hypocrisy of US when it comes to Israel. [GETTY]

A boycott, divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) resolution is currently being voted on in the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) in the United States. The association, established in 1966, is the largest academic body in the world that focuses on the study of the Middle East.

On 2nd December 2021, during the MESA annual conference, 93% of the 444 voting members present at the business meeting voted to advance a resolution endorsing BDS, to a full membership vote in early 2022. The voting ends tomorrow, 22nd March 2022. If ratified, the resolution would provide a framework for MESA to uphold the BDS call released by Palestinian civil society in 2005, which includes enforcing an academic boycott of Israeli institutions.

Passing this resolution was not a forgone conclusion. According to Professor of history at Georgetown and former MESA president, Judith Tucker, over the years, scholars and students in MESA have been actively laying the groundwork for this moment. “In 2015, we passed a resolution which aimed to position BDS as a central theme of conversation in MESA’s organised conferences, panels, and debates,” says Tucker. The resolution facilitated open conversations on BDS, despite the external political context that was actively demonising BDS and vilifying its advocates. The second concrete effort was amending MESA’s bylaws. According to Tucker, “MESA’s bylaw stated that the institution was non-political and therefore when we started debating BDS, the bylaws did not allow us to adopt it. We started working on changing that.”

''Academic institutions function within the social and political contexts in which they are emplaced. They are deeply embedded in the state’s systems of power and are implicated in its politics.''

In 2016, a resolution was passed to remove the wording of “non-political” from its by-laws. For the legal scholar Noura Erakat, the whole premise of a non-political organisation needed to be challenged. Not taking a stand should itself be seen as a political stance. As such, this was an incremental process that was concerned with transforming the association.

The BDS vote is a continuation of a trend that has been transforming US academia on the question of Palestine. Since 2013, the Association for Asian American Studies, the American Student Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, and the Middle East Section of the American Anthropology Association have endorsed BDS.

Meanwhile, the swift and popularly supported sanctioning of Russia’s war in Ukraine has prompted activists to point out the hypocrisy when it comes to the US sanctioning of Israel. It demonstrates that the notion of boycotts being antithetical to our values, an argument commonly used by those who oppose BDS, is only true when it comes to Palestine. Indeed, unlike the Palestinian-led BDS movement which advances an ethical approach to targeting institutions and not civilians, we have seen discriminatory boycotts imposed on ordinary Russians, because of their identity. Some suggested expelling Russian students in the US. Russian athletes, musicians, and performers are also being punished. This is not meant to draw a parallel between Palestine and Ukraine but to highlight how the BDS movement is organised and targeted.


Academic institutions function within the social and political contexts in which they are emplaced. They are deeply embedded in the state’s systems of power and are implicated in its politics. An academic boycott acknowledges the place academic institutions uphold in politics and exposes the explicit role Israeli institutions play in Palestinian subjugation.

Israeli universities are built on confiscated Palestinian land and are the pipelines for knowledge, technologies, and weaponry that are systematically used to murder and uproot Palestinians from their lands. Even after death, they are utilised in the punishment of Palestinians by serving as a site to keep their bodies hostage. An example of this is the Greenberg National Institute of Forensic Medicine, part of Tel Aviv University.

Furthermore, the Israeli occupation forces systematically target Palestinian professors, students, and educational institutions. Students are arrested because of their activities on campus and their affiliation with student councils. According to the Right to Education Campaign, a group established at Birzeit University, 58 students were arrested by Israeli forces between September 2020 and July 2021. Beyond Birzeit, MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom has stated that Israeli authorities continue to detain more than 300 Palestinian students. Israel also punishes Israeli scholars who support the BDS movement.

As scholars of the Middle East who explore the relationship between knowledge and power, legacies of colonialism, and decoloniality, we should be explicit in our stance against the ongoing colonisation of Palestine and take concrete action against it, especially when we are asked to by Palestinians. Acting otherwise, while materially benefiting from producing knowledge on Palestine and the region, is not only self-serving but raises ethical questions about the purpose of the knowledge we produce.

Marya Hannun, a Palestinian-American historian on Afghanistan and the Middle East, says that “We are all complicit because we are all working at institutions that, in absence of taking a vote, normalise apartheid and occupation. To me, being a scholar of a region and not being invested in its future and in social justice is suspect. If we as scholars, think of our work as having some social good and some potential for impact then we have to take a stance.”

For Ahmad al-Sholi, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Stony Brook, the MESA vote is critical for its potential impact on Palestinian activism in the US. “Israel’s propaganda machine that fosters exclusions and accusation of antisemitism are working tirelessly to stop the vote. I received at least four emails from different Israeli groups and institutions, including the Hebrew University, against it. This resolution is part of an infrastructure that we as Palestinians should build in the US to advance the Palestinian narrative moving forward. We want a political solution and our demand for boycotts and sanctions aims to pressure Israel to move in that direction.”

A just political solution for the Palestinian struggle remains far away. However, MESA’s vote and its passing will be an important step forward. The academic field in the US has radically shifted over the question of Palestine in the past decade. The vote will be a testament to this change.

Samar Saeed is a PhD candidate in the History Department at Georgetown University.

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