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Nearly 90 Orgs to U.S. Dept of Ed: Prevent Schools Receiving Federal Funding to Educate Students About the Middle East from Implementing MESA’s Israel Boycott


Contact: Nicole Rosen

Santa Cruz, CA, April 20, 2022 – Eighty-seven education, civil rights and religious organizations today urged U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to prevent universities who specifically apply for federal funding to teach about and research Middle Eastern countries, including Israel, from implementing the academic boycott of Israel recently endorsed by the Middle East Studies Association.

“We are deeply concerned that in the wake of the recent Middle East Studies Association (MESA) vote endorsing an academic boycott of Israel, some directors and affiliated faculty in federally-funded Middle East Studies National Resource Centers (NRCs), most of which are institutional MESA members, may feel emboldened to implement the boycott in ways that will substantively hurt U.S. students and faculty and directly violate the legislative intent of Title VI of the Higher Education Act,” wrote the organizations in the letter sent today. “We therefore urge you to establish safeguards to ensure that an academic boycott of Israel, or of any country within the academic purview of a federally funded area studies program, may never be implemented by the program’s affiliated personnel.”

NRCs were established by Title VI of the Higher Education Act to equip university students and faculty with a full and unbiased understanding of regions and countries vital to U.S. national security, including countries in the Middle East. The federal legislation providing these NRCs with millions of taxpayer dollars stipulates that the funding is specifically intended “to promote access to research and training overseas, including through linkages with overseas institutions.” The organizations point out that an academic boycott, however, calls for the exact opposite: it seeks to deny access to research, training and education in and about the targeted country, and to break linkages with the targeted country’s educational institutions.

The Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI) boycott, endorsed by MESA last month, urges faculty to (1) work toward shutting down study abroad programs in Israel and refuse to write recommendations for students who want to attend them; (2) scuttle their colleagues’ research collaborations with Israeli universities and scholars; and (3) cancel or shut down educational events organized by students or faculty featuring Israeli leaders or scholars, or that seek to “normalize” Israel by presenting it in anything but a negative light. These PACBI-compliant activities directly subvert the purpose for which these centers receive federal funds.

In fact, point out the groups, every one of the 15 recipients of 2018 – 2022 NRC/FLAS funding in the area of Middle East Studies submitted an application touting its school’s numerous educational and research opportunities to study in and about Israel and the Hebrew language, as well as the linkages with Israeli educational institutions. For example, in its application for NRC and FLAS funding, New York University’s Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near East Studies touted its commitment to the study of Israel (mentioned 272 times) and Hebrew (mentioned 445 times), highlighting its robust course offerings and outreach events involving Israel-related topics and Hebrew language instruction, the university’s study abroad programs to areas in the Middle East, including Israel, and the Israel and Hebrew-related scholarship of many Kevorkian Center-affiliated faculty members.

Even more alarming, note the groups, is that research demonstrates Middle East Studies faculty who support an academic boycott of Israel are likely to bring their support for the boycott into academic spaces. A 2016 study of the 15 Middle East Studies NRCs found that those directors who had endorsed BDS were more than twice as likely to host federally-funded outreach events with pro-boycott speakers. A 2017 study found  that Middle East Studies departments with one or more faculty members who had endorsed an academic boycott of Israel were five times more likely to sponsor public outreach events with pro-boycott speakers, and many of those events included the promotion of BDS. A 2020 study of 50 syllabi of courses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that were taught at 40 schools across the country found that courses whose instructors had been signatories to one or more petitions calling for an academic boycott of Israel assigned, on average, four times more readings authored by BDS-supporters than instructors who do not support any form of BDS.

“While acknowledging that a faculty member’s right to express support for an academic boycott of Israel is protected by academic freedom, it is unacceptable that federal funds could be used to implement an academic boycott that directly contravenes the purposes for which these funds have been granted,” noted the groups to Cardona. “Area studies programs whose directors or affiliated faculty engage in such behavior should be ineligible to receive or renew Title VI funding.”

Specifically the organizations urged the Department of Education to: (1) issue a statement warning NRC directors that implementing an academic boycott of any country within their program’s purview would be a direct subversion of Title VI funding and (2) include language in NRC/FLAS grant applications that requires applicants to establish safeguards to prohibit their program’s employees from using their positions to implement an academic boycott of any of the countries within the program’s purview.

Earlier this month, AMCHA, the Academic Engagement Network, the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and Scholars for Peace in the Middle East urged a dozen NRC-recipient-universities to withdraw their institutional membership with MESA

AMCHA monitors more than 450 college campuses across the U.S. for anti-Semitic activity. The organization has recorded more than 4,500 anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses since 2015. Its daily Anti-Semitism Tracker, organized by state and university, can be viewed here.

AMCHA Initiative is a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to combating anti-Semitism at colleges and universities in the United States.

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