Martin Kramer has already written about his experience at the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), both past and present. This year’s meeting ended with members voting on a resolution which:

Affirms that 1) calls for institutional boycott, divestment and/or sanctions are protected free speech and legitimate forms of non-violent political action; 2) the right of MESA members to engage in open discussion of the BDS movement at the Annual Meeting and other forums and 3) the right of the membership of other organizations to discuss, debate, and endorse or not endorse the BDS campaign;

Deplores intimidation directed against organizations who have adopted BDS resolutions, such as the American Studies Association and the Association for Asian American Studies;

Urges MESA to organize discussions at its Annual Meeting and for the MESA Board to create opportunities in 2015 to discuss the academic boycott and consider an appropriate position for MESA.

So rare it is that such a short resolution says so much about an organization. Academics love to embrace free speech in order to defend their work. And, certainly, free speech should be sacrosanct. But MESA members, who voted overwhelmingly in favor of this resolution, misunderstand free speech in two very important ways.

First of all, free speech was never meant to be a substitute for professional competence. Steven Salaita may be provocative; racists, anti-Semites, and anyone who expresses hatred for a class of people usually are. But provocation is not synonymous with path-breaking research. If a tenured professor of astronomy declared the world flat, or if a biologist claimed oxygen had no role in life on Earth, they might claim it to be their right to say what they want, but that doesn’t mean that they can say bluster without having done the work to prove their case. Salaita, of course, wrote an entire book on Israel without speaking or reading Hebrew, and penned a book on Palestinian literature without discussing poetry, arguably the most important element of the Palestinian literary canon. The scandal isn’t so much that the University of Illinois rescinded its preliminary tenure offer after learning about Salaita’s incitement on twitter; rather, it’s that he was seriously considered in the first place.

More importantly, however, the MESA resolution reflects the mindset and thin skin of the academic community. It declares discussion of boycotting, divesting from, and sanctioning (BDS) Israel to be a right of academics. Honestly, I have no problem with academics discussing whatever the heck they want. But then it continues to suggest that criticizing academics or organizations for embracing the BDS movement is out of line. That is what the statement “Deplores intimidation directed against organizations who have adopted BDS resolutions” means.

Criticism is not intimidation, and false cries of intimidation in order to avoid defending arguments are dishonest. Perhaps MESA members don’t like the fact that some donors might withhold funds. But donations are not an entitlement. Avoiding true diversity of opinion and intellectual challenge really has become the norm rather than the exception in academe. When Salaita brought his tour to Brooklyn College, Professor Corey Robin effused about the quality of the resulting conversation, never mind that Salaita, his fellow panelists, and Robin himself were all of the same mind. In academe, “conversation” and, for that matter, “teach-ins,” have become synonymous with one-sided declarations; debate is shunned as intimidation.

The MESA resolution confirms the narrowing of the academic mind, the prioritization of politics above competence, and the shunning of real debate in favor of group affirmation of the politics of the day.

Academics often complain policymakers do not listen to them. This is not true. What academics say is heard loud and clear. They scream free speech, but have forgotten what free speech was meant to protect: a desire to improve and advance knowledge; not limit and confine it to conform to the precepts of the day.

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