In Money & Partnerships

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George Washington University (GW) will ends its partnership with the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), an academic professional organization that has widely endorsed boycotting Israeli academic institutions, a university spokesperson told The Algemeiner on Tuesday.

“GW and MESA agreed to enter into a four-year partnership that has run its course, and we are now parting ways amicably,” the university said in a statement.

The agreement between the two organizations is set to expire by the end of 2023.

MESA’s relationship with George Washington University — established in 2019 under a memo of understanding — netted the organization numerous benefits, including the relocation of its headquarters to GW Elliot School of International Affairs Institute for Middle East Studies (IMES), free office space, and unfettered access to GW’s academic and logistic resources. While the university cited no specific reason for declining to renew its relationship with MESA, it joins nearly a dozen other schools that disaffiliated with the organization after its members voted endorse the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement in 2022.

MESA’s losses have been substantial, with Middle East centers at schools such as Columbia University, University of Chicago, Harvard University, New York University, and Brandeis University being removed from its list of institutional partners. Other Ivy League and elite institutions, including Yale University and Stanford University, remain on the list, however.

In May, attorneys from the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law wrote to George Washington University president Mark S. Wrighton, explaining that sustaining a relationship with MESA violated the university’s own academic freedom guidelines and anti-BDS policy and, as well, undermined the wellbeing of Jewish students on campus. The letter, authored by L. Rachel Lerman and Deena Margolies, cited a study showing that the presence of pro-BDS faculty on campus increases the likelihood that an antisemitic incident will take place on campus. Lerman and Margolies also noted that antisemitic activity at GW recently prompted a federal investigation by the US Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR).

On Tuesday, Asaf Romirowsky, who serves as executive director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME) and Association for the Study of the Middle East and Africa (ASMEA) told The Algemeiner that MESA’s entrance into politics ruined its standing as an academic organization.

“MESA has fully endorsed BDS, which is antisemitic, and the fact GW is removing an institution that does not uphold its academic standard and to my mind is also racist, is a positive,” Romirowsky said. “There are still a lot of problems within the Middle East Studies at GW, but I think this is a key move to show that MESA is no longer considered to be scholarly and that GW recognizes that.”

Sabrina Soffer, a third-year George Washington University student and incoming fellow for Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), said she hopes “the break between MESA and GW is a step toward eradicating antisemitism on campus and helping Jewish students taking Middle East studies courses feel more comfortable.”

She added, “I look forward to seeing how this will impact classroom environments and lead to creating forums in which students can learn in a balanced manner and engage in dispassionate dialogue on important issues.”

Launched in 2005, the BDS campaign opposes Zionism — a movement supporting the Jewish people’s right to self-determination — and rejects Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish nation-state. It seeks to isolate the country comprehensively with economic, political, and cultural boycotts.

The campaign has been widely condemned by Jewish leaders worldwide, including major American Jewish organizations, for rejecting Jewish rights and trafficking in antisemitic tropes, while it has been advanced by anti-Zionist activists and supporters as a vehicle to advance Palestinian human rights.

MESA’s endorsement of BDS elicited criticism from professors across the country and prompted New York University and Brandeis University to explicitly denounce the decision. Florida State University disaffiliated with MESA before the vote took place.

MESA is not the only academic organization to express support for BDS. On Monday, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) announced that its members voted overwhelmingly to approve a resolution —which cited MESA’s support for BDS — calling for a full academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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