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University of Arizona, Florida State End MESA Ties Amid Israel Boycott

Florida State University and an academic center at the University of Arizona have declined to renew membership in the Middle Eastern Studies Association (MESA), amid questions over whether the group’s movement toward an academic boycott of Israel could violate state or university policies.

At MESA’s annual meeting in December, 93 percent of voting members present resolved to direct leadership “to give effect to the spirit and intent” of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. A vote to ratify it will be held for MESA’s 2,800 members as early as this month.

A group of critics, including several MESA members, warned at the time that such a move would threaten academic freedom, by preventing “free exchanges between faculty members and students worldwide.” Later, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis cautioned that as a public institution, Florida State University would likely not be permitted to participate in an Israel boycott via its partnership with MESA, due to state law prohibiting the use of public funds to support BDS.

FSU confirmed to the blog Legal Insurrection on Sunday that it had not renewed its annual membership in MESA for the year 2022. The spokesperson did not give a reason for the decision.

On Tuesday, asked about FSU’s decision, Anne Betteridge, Director of the University of Arizona’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, told The Algemeiner that the institution had also not renewed its membership at the end of 2021.  She later added that the center had not received its dues notice from the association.

Like Florida, Arizona has passed a so-called anti-BDS law, as have a number of other states home to MESA partners, including the University of Arkansas, the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and the University of Michigan. Some of those state laws have been challenged in court over alleged First Amendment violations.

Many universities, including private institutions, also have their own internal policies opposing efforts to boycott Israel and Israeli academics and universities.

In December, MESA member and Smith College professor Donna Robinson Divine told The Algemeiner that the proposed MESA resolution would be counterproductive.

“They do nothing to help the Palestinians or advance peace in the region,” she said. “And they weaken the academy, a place where the flow of ideas between people holding very different views should not be obstructed.”

She was among the signatories to a December letter of protest jointly penned by the Alliance for Academic Freedom (AAF), Association for Israel Studies (AIS), and several MESA members.

Florida State University did not respond to request for comment.