Dear Minister Erdan:
We write on behalf of the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) to express our dismay that the Israeli government has been involved in facilitating and directing abusive actions, including cyberbullying, against students at universities in the United States who have been active in campaigns for divestment from companies that profit from Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. This constitutes unwarranted interference by a foreign power in these students’ free speech rights and threatens academic freedom at institutions of higher education in the United States.
MESA was founded in 1966 to promote scholarship and teaching on the Middle East and North Africa. The preeminent organization in the field, MESA publishes the International Journal of Middle East Studies and has nearly 2,500 members worldwide. MESA is committed to ensuring academic freedom of expression, both within the region and in connection with the study of the region in North America and elsewhere.
The most recent incident of which we are aware took place at George Washington University (GWU) in Washington, D.C. during April 2018. On 16 April 2018, a Student Senate vote on a resolution urging the university to divest from a number of companies (including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Elbit Systems, Caterpillar, CEMEX, General Electric, Northrop Grumman, Raytheon and Motorola Solutions) was cancelled after students witnessed two unidentified individuals placing threatening posters around the university. The vote was rescheduled for 24 April 2018 and on that date the divestment resolution was approved by a vote of 18-6, with 6 abstentions.
Two men wearing bird costumes and masks, apparently evoking the Canary Mission website which features some two thousand derogatory and generally inaccurate and misleading profiles of students and faculty who have advocated for Palestinian rights, along with someone who appeared to be coordinating their activities, stood outside the room in which the Senate Senators were meeting to vote on the resolution. The clear intent was to intimidate the Senators as well as student supporters of the resolution. These individuals were later seen putting up posters around campus that read, “SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine], you saw two of us, we saw all of you.”
After the vote, administrators of the Act.il app, which media reports indicate your ministry was integrally involved in developing and promoting in order to combat the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, began directing its users to “like” and share a Facebook page set up to threaten and bully the GWU Student Senators who voted in support of the resolution. The Facebook page was taken down soon after the Senate vote, but Act.il did not remove its listing of the cyberbullying campaign as a “mission” to be conducted by anti-BDS activists until it expired.
We note in this connection that you personally promoted the launch of Act.il at the February 2017 Celebrate Israel Parade and that your ministry placed paid articles advertising the app in the Jerusalem Post and The Times of Israel (see The Forward).
Your status as an official of the Israeli government makes your involvement, and that of the ministry you head, in campaigns to try to intimidate American college and university students and to inhibit or suppress their freedom of expression especially egregious. These students have a right to be free of harassment, intimidation and cyberbullying by people who are in effect agents of the Israeli government. We therefore call on you and your ministry to cease promoting or supporting such campaigns of harassment, whether online or in person, and to refrain from interference of any kind when students and faculty in the United States exercise their constitutionally protected right of free speech and their academic freedom rights.
We look forward to your response.
Judith E. Tucker
Professor, Georgetown University
Amy W. Newhall
MESA Executive Director
Top Photo | Students march in support of Students for Justice in Palestine at Northeastern University, March 18, 2014. Stephan Savoia | AP
Judith E. Tucker is the President of the Middle East Studies Association of North America and writes on behalf of the MESA Committee on Academic Freedom. She is Professor of History at Georgetown University, former Director of the Master of Arts in Arab Studies Program, former Editor of the International Journal of Middle East Studies.