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Yesterday I attended the Middle East Studies Association meeting in which panelists and members discussed the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement, in front of a meeting tomorrow to consider the Association joining the movement somehow. Professor Noura Erekat of George Mason University spoke in favor and Professor Ilan Troen of Brandeis University spoke against BDS. Then various professors and graduate students in the audience advocated for or against the idea of boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning Israel.

A few interesting points. Professor Erekat thinks a. Israel is treating Palestinians terribly (war on Gaza, settlements, ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem, the wall on West Bank land, etc.) b. all other options have failed and therefore c. MESA should support the BDS movement, even though it is only “a pathetic counterforce.” Professor Troen argues that a. Israeli Palestinians are well integrated into the Israeli educational system (1/3 Haifa U students are Palestinian, 22% of pre-med students are Palestinians, the most successful school is in the Arab triangle, there are many outreach programs for Palestinians) and Jews are native to the land, so this is not apartheid, b. academic organizations should not take stances on difficult political issues that are not apartheid and therefore c. MESA should not support the BDS movement.

Other speakers joined the debate. Several anti-BDS speakers argued hypocrisy, or in the words of one (Prof. Josh Teitelbaum) the “soft bigotry of low expectations” that we don’t discuss boycotting Libya, Iran, the corrupt PA, etc. Another argued that “BDS is an extension of warfare,” not a peaceful move. A conflicted Israeli professor argued that he does not want to be cut out of his “home” in MESA, but that “we need pressure from the outside. It is legitimate – I don’t see any internal force in my country that will change the situation.” Pro-BDS speakers, especially Professor Judith Tucker, noted that MESA can tailor its type of BDS and not isolate Israeli colleagues.

The room, I believe, held Israeli actions primarily responsible for the situation of the Palestinians, as indicated by applause when speakers pointed out Israeli injustice. Most of the discussion was polite. Several comments caused significant muttering disapproval. One was when Prof. Teitelbaum called BDS anti-Semitic, another when Prof. Troen’s responses to questions were heard as unrealistically portraying Palestinian Israelis as happy and successful. By far the most censure (perhaps disappointment?), however, was expressed against the pro-BDS Professor Lisa Hajjar when she described Prof. Troen as having limited intellectual ability. (Those words may not be exactly right, but they are close.) People were quite upset by that ad hominem attack, which she said that she “withdrew.”

When does it become incumbent on an organization of academics to take a political (ethical? moral?) stance? When is consensus a form of working together in unity, and when is it enforcing conformity?