Commentary Magazine


Contentions

Middle Eastern Studies Association Mocks Academic Freedom

When the American Studies Association and the professional organizations of other ethnic studies associations moved recently to boycott Israeli academic organizations for various political reasons, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the professional organization of academics studying and teaching about the Middle East from its ancient empires to the present day, was silent–never mind that such a boycott would go to the heart of a field in which academic discourse and debate about the Middle East is crucial.

But now that various politicians—Maryland State Senator Joan Carter Conway, Speaker of the New York State Assembly Sheldon Silver, and Peter Roskam and Dan Lipinski in the U.S. House of Representatives—have introduced a bill to prevent public money from funding academic participation in organizations participating in the boycott, MESA is crying foul.

Here are letters that MESA President Nathan Brown sent to the politicians mentioned above. In each case, he wrote, “It is clear to us that whatever one’s opinion of the campaign to boycott Israeli academic institutions, the principles of academic freedom protect the right of faculty and students to speak and act for, as well as against, such boycotts.”

What arrogance. Public money dedicated to education isn’t meant to be a slush fund for professors’ pet political causes. The American Studies Association is supposed to be about American studies. If it evolves from its academic purpose to focus more on academic grandstanding than on exchange of knowledge, then professors should not be able to use taxpayer funds for a trip to Los Angeles. Likewise, if the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association isn’t going to focus on Native American and indigenous studies, then why should any professor operating out of the public dole attend its annual shindig in Austin? They can pay out of pocket if it’s that important to them, just as I pay out of pocket with my own money when I make a charitable contribution or should I wish to make a political donation. The same holds true for the Association of Asian American Studies, which will hold its next conference in San Francisco.

If Nathan Brown and MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom are serious about academic freedom and scholarly discourse, then perhaps they might consider that they should not be in the business of political boycotts to begin with, regardless of target.