The Middle East Studies Association has long been anti-Israel. It has passed resolutions supporting the rights of its members to boycott Israeli academic institutions and to consider boycotting Israel itself.
There are very few pro-Israel members, because Israel studies are not part of it. There is a separate association for Israel studies, so (for example) there are very few Israeli members.
But so far, there is a major problem with MESA calling to directly boycott Israel. This is because it describes itself as "non-political." And even some critics of Israel warned what could happen to MESA if it becomes explicitly political, as a direct call to BDS would make it hard to argue that it is non-political.
Martin Kramer quoted the arguments made by prominent members - and critics of Israel - against the 2015 resolution calling to study boycotting Israel:
Zachary Lockman, who himself supports divestment, argued against MESA supporting it as an institution:
MESA has its own history, culture and vulnerabilities. What might be right for other associations will not necessarily serve MESA well. So we need to weigh the concrete difference MESA’s endorsement of a boycott resolution might make against such action’s potential downsides for the association, including the likely loss of some of its membership as well as of some affiliated organizations and institutions, but also possibly legal action, stepped-up attacks on MESA and Title VI by hostile organizations, legislative bodies and media, and conceivably even the loss of MESA’s home base at the University of Arizona.Fred Donner, a past president who also personally boycotts Israel, was more explicit:
For MESA to take a political stand will lead to a loss of membership, as those who do not support what becomes MESA’s official position will no longer feel welcome within it.
A stand on BDS will open the door to MESA being asked take a stand on the dozens of other political issues related to the Middle East, further fracturing its membership.
For MESA to take a stand on BDS will endanger its tax-exempt status and therefore its long-term viability as an organization, since MESA’s 501(c)3 tax exemption depends on it remaining non-political.
MESA’s endorsement of BDS will hand MESA’s enemies, who have persistently (but, until now, wrongly) claimed that MESA has been politicized, exactly the evidence they need to make their case against us—which they will not hesitate to do, to our representatives in Congress, to the I.R.S., and to the University of Arizona, whose support of the MESA Secretariat is vital to the organization’s well-being.
So what is the resolution being sought this year?
To eliminate MESA's defining itself as non-political!
It wants to change its existing bylaws in Article 1, Section 2 from:
Nature and Objectives. THE MIDDLE EAST STUDIES ASSOCIATION is a non-profit, non-political association that fosters the study of the Middle East, promotes high standards of scholarship and teaching, and encourages public understanding of the region and its peoples through programs, publications and services that enhance education, further intellectual exchange, recognize professional distinction, and defend academic freedom.
to this (from an email received by MESA members):
MESA is a non-profit association that fosters the study of the Middle East, promotes high standards of scholarship and teaching, and encourages public understanding of the region and its peoples through programs, publications, and services that enhance education, further intellectual exchange, recognize professional distinction, and defend academic freedom, in accordance with its status as a 501(c)(3) scientific, educational, literary, and charitable organization.”In other words, members of MESA hate Israel so much that they want to change their very bylaws in order to be able to more freely express that hate on an institutional level. This despite the potential problems that could come up, such as losing their tax-exempt status, losing their free office space at the University of Arizona, losing the portion of their funding that comes from Congress, or losing what prestige remains for their own academic journals whose articles can no longer even pretend to be objective. Moreover, there is a competing Middle East studies association that is quite willing to welcome those who become disgusted with MESA.
The best part is that the further MESA goes in its hate, the less it will affect Israel - and the more it will discredit itself. It is the inverse of the joke where a genie asks a lucky man what he wishes for as long as his worst enemy gets twice as much, and he answers "beat me half to death." In this case, MESA is asking to be beaten fully to death, while its enemy will barely feel a mosquito bite. (Come to think of it, this is pretty much the logic of the recent wave of stabbers in Israel, many of whom were killed without successfully hurting anyone.) It will make no difference to Israel which doesn't benefit at all from MESA members already.
It will be very interesting to see how far MESA's hate will go.