In July 2019, IAM reported on cases where professional Middle East associations have been taken over by political activists to promote BDS.
One such case pertains to the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES). The 2019 BRISMES Conference, "Joining the Dots: Interdisciplinarity in Middle East Studies," took place at the University of Leeds between 24-26 of June 2019. At the same time, the BRISMES leadership has held its annual general meeting (AGM) which voted in favor of BDS. However, the BRISMES case had a twist, when, the following day, on Jun 27, 2019, the officers of BRISMES have published a notice on the BRISMES website explaining that BRISMES "has not endorsed the academic boycott of Israeli Institutions as advocated by BDS.” While the AGM has voted in favor of a boycott, “This vote is not binding on the Society."
According to the BRISMES constitution, "The principal aims of the Society shall be to encourage and promote interest and study in the United Kingdom of the Middle Eastern cultural region from the end of classical antiquity to the present day through the dissemination of information and by the encouragement of co-operation amongst persons and organizations concerned with the scholarly study of the region."
Surely, there is no mention of calls for boycott as part of the association's aims. Also, the constitution determines that no amendments may be made to the “aims” provision “without the prior consent in writing of the Charity Commissioners."
Still, BRISMES claims to be changing. It focuses now on Middle East studies, "in ways that recognize the circumstances of, and express solidarity with, our Palestinian colleagues, whose education, research and scholarship are profoundly impacted by Israeli colonization and occupation."
In response to the officers' announcement that the BDS vote is not binding, Laleh Khalili, an Iranian American professor of International Politics at the Queen Mary University of London, declined an invitation to give the annual lecture at BRISMES. She accused BRISMES of an "attempt to circumvent organizational democracy.” Khalili also declared, "I am ashamed... to see that the officers of BRISMES are imperiling the institution. Should their unethical and politically motivated chicanery continue, I will join in with all other current and potential members to boycott the organization." Khalili took it to her social media and wrote, "Friends, if you are members of BRISMES, don't resign yet. You need to stay in to support the activists who are trying to change the organization. If people leave, this will be seen as a victory for the old guard and for their anti-BDS position."
Likewise, Palestinian Nada Elia, an emerita professor of Gender and Global Studies and a member of the Steering Collective of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI), described BRISMES move as “underhandedness.” She blamed it on "the norm at large and small universities, public and private, as well as various scholarly associations, from Europe to North America." Still, she was optimistic that "the popular discourse" would shift towards an "embrace of justice for all," and "universities will need to listen to their faculty, students and staff. Academic associations will need to respect the decisions of their membership."
Prof. Ilan Pappe, an Israeli BDS activist and a subject of numerous IAM reports, responded on June 30, 2019, on the Facebook page of BRISMES: "yes this is disappointing on the one hand, and i published the version i received from the people who initiated the motion; but Mai Taha got it right: the members are for BDS, the leadership, as in so other cases, is timid. But it is another important step in the right direction."
Shortly after this BDS attempt, the University of Durham decided to pull out from its' BRISMES membership, because of the "events of this past summer and in particular the resolution put forward by BRISMES members to endorse an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions," as well as "the events of the BRISMES Annual General Meeting and the mood of proponents of the resolution."
In response, the BRISMES leadership wrote a fuming letter, threatening the University of Durham with legal action. "We note that there may also be further legal issues arising from breach of contract... By withdrawing administrative services to BRISMES in response to the AGM resolution, the University of Durham may therefore have acted in breach of its legal obligations to uphold freedom of expression and academic freedom." The letter explicitly warned that the "possibly unlawful actions have exposed us to considerable loss and damage." The letter also disclosed how the then-officers resigned from their positions and contacted the Charity Commission for intervention.
Last month, to put more pressure on the University of Durham, the international organization Middle East Studies Association (MESA), wrote the University of Durham a letter, "to express its grave concern," and to argue that the University of Durham withdrawal from BRISMES, "constitutes a violation of their academic freedom." MESA asked the University of Durham to "publicly affirm its commitment" to BRISMES.
The University of Durham has so far not responded to any of these demands. IAM will report on the case as it develops.
MESA Board letter to Durham University concerning BRISMES
Professor Stuart Corbridge
Durham DH1 3LE UK
The Middle East Studies Association (MESA) writes to express its grave concern at your university’s decision to withdraw administrative services from the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES). According to your letter of termination, written on September 19, 2019, the decision was the upshot of the vote by the overwhelming majority of BRISMES members to support the resolution that calls for the academic boycott of Israel. We are disturbed by the threat that your decision poses to the academic freedom of our colleagues in Britain.
MESA is the preeminent international association of North America with over 2700 members, scholars and teachers in the field of Middle East Studies. MESA is committed to upholding standards in the field and ensuring academic freedom and freedom of expression, both within the Middle East region and in connection with the study of the region in North America and elsewhere.
Your decision to withdraw administrative support from BRISMES appears to be a serious violation of the right of our colleagues to express their opinions and constitutes a violation of their academic freedom. Your response to the BRISMES protest against termination, contained in your letter of January 30, 2020, provides additional cause for concern insofar as it failed to address the threats to freedom of opinion that lie at the heart of our colleagues’ protest against your actions; instead, it offered a number of vague and confusing explanations for the termination. The implications of Durham University’s decision are grave: the ability of BRISMES members to exercise their right to free expression has been called into question. Furthermore, your actions may provide worrisome precedent for other UK academic institutions that might consider curtailing the right of their faculty, staff and students to freedom of opinion on controversial issues.
We call upon Durham University to publicly affirm its commitment to the right of BRISMES members and the society as a whole, to express their views without running the risk of sanctions that punish their freedom of expression.
Thank you for your attention. We respectfully await your response.
Dina Rizk Khoury
Professor, George Washington University
cc: Jennifer Sewel, Durham University Secretary
British Society for Middle Eastern Studies
Administrative Office, Department of Politics & International Studies, University of Warwick, Coventry, CV4 7AL
Professor Stuart Corbridge
Vice-Chancellor Durham University
Palatine Centre Stockton Road
Durham, DH1 3LE
10 December 2019
In a letter dated 16 September 2019, the University of Durham informed BRISMES that it was ending its provision of administrative services to the Society with immediate effect.
The letter cites the reason for this sudden move to be ‘[t]he events of this past summer and in particular the resolution put forward by BRISMES members to endorse an academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions’. Durham’s letter also cites ‘the events of the BRISMES Annual General Meeting and the mood of proponents of the resolution’.
We regret that Durham University did not put forward a formal request for clarification on any concerns it had at that point. In fact, BRISMES had received conflicting legal advice on the issue. In addition to advice of 21 June 2019, stating that the motion should not go to the AGM, BRISMES had also received formal legal advice on 6 June 2019 that was not circulated by then-Officers but which advised ‘putting the motion to members at AGM for discussion and decision’.
It is also important to note that BRISMES Council discussed the issue at its meeting of 23 June 2019 and agreed to put the motion to the AGM (held 24 June 2019) on the basis that our Constitution allows members to bring business to the AGM without restriction by any ‘supplemental rules or byelaws’, as the legal advice makes clear, and affords Council no constitutional instrument to block properly submitted motions. Indeed, the Constitution makes no reference to such motions being submitted to Council at all.
The AGM was conducted in accordance with procedure and the motion passed with overwhelming support. Following resignations by then-Officers and an unsuccessful attempt by these former Officers to bring about Charity Commission intervention, BRISMES is currently studying how to respect the views of the BRISMES membership and engage further with this important but indicative resolution. In so doing, we will adhere to the BRISMES Constitution, abide by UK Charity Law, take appropriate professional and legal advice, and consult with the Charity Commission.
BRISMES has proceeded on the basis of appropriate legal advice, appropriate procedure and in line with our Constitution. In brief, there appears to be no legitimate basis for the unilateral termination of the BRISMES administrative provision contract with Durham. We must note that BRISMES incurred significant loss and damages as a direct result of Durham’s termination.
Given the huge disruption caused by the abrupt withdrawal of administrative services to the operation of BRISMES, the University of Durham’s actions have had the effect of punishing BRISMES members for expressing a legitimate opinion on a matter of grave concern to them.
Hence, we note that the University’s actions raise questions concerning both academic freedom and freedom of expression. Article 10 of the Human Rights Act 1998 confers a right to freedom of expression on individuals and organisations. Further, the University of Durham, like other universities, has a legal duty under the Education Act 1988 (Sec 43, Subsection 2) to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured. Note especially that the duty imposed here includes (in particular) the duty to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that the use of any premises of the establishment is not denied to any individual or body of persons on any ground connected with - (a) the beliefs or views of that individual or of any member of that body; or (b) the policy or objectives of that body.
Further, the Higher Education and Research Act of 2017, in line with the Educational Reform Act of 1988, states that academic staff ‘have freedom within the law (a) to question and test received wisdom, and (b) to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions, without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at the provider.’
By withdrawing administrative services to BRISMES in response to the AGM resolution, the University of Durham may therefore have acted in breach of its legal obligations to uphold freedom of expression and academic freedom. We note that there may also be further legal issues arising from breach of contract.
We have two concerns as Trustees and Officers of BRISMES. First, we have a legal duty to expend our funds on charitable objects, and whereas the University of Durham’s possibly unlawful actions have exposed us to considerable loss and damage, we wish to minimize the expense of the termination.
Second, in line with our mission as a Society, we are concerned about stifling freedom of speech in Middle East Studies. We therefore call upon the University of Durham to affirm publicly its respect for the rights of BRISMES members and others to express their support for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions without the threat of punitive measures.
Baroness Haleh Afshar
President of BRISMES
Registered Charity number 289804 VAT registration number 828 5681 90
President Vice-President Secretary Honorary Treasurer Administrator
Baroness Afshar Dr Nicola Pratt Prof John Chalcraft Prof Mehmet Asutay Ms Amy Brickhill
Despite summer break, academic battles for Palestinian justice rage on
17 August 2019 18:20 UTC
(Second part of the article)
In England, in another openly undemocratic move, the management of the British Society for Middle Eastern Studies (BRISMES) unilaterally reversed the vote of its membership to support BDS. In a recent statement, the society explained that it had not actually endorsed the academic boycott of Israeli institutions advocated by BDS, noting: "There was an indicative vote of the membership held at the Annual General Meeting. The majority of those attending voted in favour of the boycott. This vote is not binding on the Society."
Nicola Pratt, a BRISMES council member, responded on Facebook that the council had not been consulted on the phrasing of the society's statement, adding: "BRISMES must take into consideration the views of its members, as expressed in the AGM vote, and consider how to respect and implement these views whilst also respecting the laws governing the Society."
'Politically motivated chicanery'
Another council member, Andrea Teti, wrote: "I have never seen such extensive willingness to bend and break rules merely in order to prevent members' voices from even being heard ... This kind of underhandedness cannot be the basis on which a charity and a professional association is run - not one I'd wish to be a member of or represented by, certainly."
In addition, prominent academic Laleh Khalili recently declined an invitation to give the BRISMES annual lecture, citing the society's "attempt to circumvent organisational democracy" with regards to the BDS issue. In an email to the society, she noted: "I am ashamed - as a member of Middle East Studies community in Britain - to see that the officers of BRISMES are imperilling the institution. Should their unethical and politically motivated chicanery continue, I will join in with all other current and potential members to boycott the organisation."
Such underhandedness is the norm at large and small universities, public and private, as well as various scholarly associations, from Europe to North America.
Nevertheless, as the popular discourse gradually shifts towards an embrace of justice for all, universities will need to listen to their faculty, students and staff. Academic associations will need to respect the decisions of their membership, or the very concepts of "free speech" and "academic freedom" - already tenuous - will simply have to be abandoned.
Fortunately, this is not likely to happen. Khalili used her large social media platform to add: "Friends, if you are members of BRISMES, don't resign yet. You need to stay in to support the activists who are trying to change the organisation. If people leave, this will be seen as a victory for the old guard and for their anti-BDS position."
I was invited to give the BRISMES annual lecture in Autumn. But given the officers' legal chicanery and their attempt to circumvent organisational democracy (vis a vis a vote of support for BDS), I have just withdrawn. Here is my email:
I write to regretfully withdraw as the BRISMES annual lecturer. I was so very eagerly looking forward to having the chance to give the lecture, especially as so few other women have given it in the past.
But the recent shenanigans of your officers, a small and unauthorised group of self-appointed guardians of a politics of apathy, and especially their approach to the Charity Commission, have truly shocked me. I have for years been hoping that BRISMES could become a more democratic association that not only represented the interest of all its members (including students), but would also stand in solidarity with people in the parts of the world whose members study.
I am ashamed -as a member of Middle East Studies community in Britain- to see that the officers of BRISMES are imperilling the institution. Should their unethical and politically motivated chicanery continue, I will join in with all other current and potential members to boycott the organisation.
UPDATE: Friends, if you are members of BRISMES, don't resign yet. You need to stay in to support the activists who are trying to change the organisation. If people leave, this will be seen as a victory for the old guard and for their anti-BDS position.
yes this is disappointing on the one hand, and i published the version i received from the people who initiated the motion; but Mai Taha got it right: the members are for BDS, the leadership, as in so other cases, is timid. But it is another important step in the right direction.