NEW DELHI: A leading non-political academic group specialising in the Middle East and based in the United States -- the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) -- voted on Monday in favour of allowing its members to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

Excerpts from the resolution that contains the decision read:

"Resolved, That the MESA membership:

Affirms that calls for institutional boycott, divestment, and/or sanctions are protected free speech and legitimate forms of non-violent political action; and

Affirms the right of MESA members to engage in open and transparent discussion of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions in the context of the Annual Meeting and other forums; and

Affirms the right of the memberships of all organizations to discuss, debate, and endorse or not endorse the BDS campaign; and

Deplores the measures of intimidation directed against the American Studies Association, the Association for Asian American Studies, the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, among other associations, and some of their individual members, as we MESA members uphold the principles of free speech that protect the expression of such views and actions; and

Strongly urges MESA program committees to organize discussions at MESA annual meetings, and the MESA Board of Directors to create opportunities over the course of the year that provide platforms for a sustained discussion of the academic boycott and foster careful consideration of an appropriate position for MESA to assume."

Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the BDS campaign, said that “this is a significant indicator of overwhelming support for BDS in MESA, contrary to the innuendo spread by Israel apologists that BDS cannot possibly win a majority there. BDS academic activists in MESA have done a brilliant job over the years of raising awareness and preparing the ground.”

The BDS movement has seen a string of successes in 2014, including resolutions of support from the National Union of Teachers in the United Kingdom, the University of California at Riverside student council, graduate students at the University of New Mexico, the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, and the American Studies Association (ASA), amongst several others.

The BDS movement received its biggest publicity fillip by cause of Scarlett Johansson’s resignation as global ambassador for Oxfam over her decision to become the spokesperson for SodaStream, a company that operates a factory in Ma’ale Adumim, a suburb in the occupied West Bank. In a statement, Oxfam said that businesses “such as SodaStream, that operate in settlements further the ongoing poverty and denial of rights of the Palestinian communities that we work to support." A SodaStream ad starring Johansson hawking water carbonators made by the company was aired during the superbowl, and the controversy surrounding the actress’ resignation from Oxfam was covered widely in the media.

The movement has been denounced as “anti-Semitic” by Israeli officials, with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leading the attack, condemning the movement as aimed to destroy the Jewish state. "In the past anti-Semites boycotted Jewish businesses and today they call for the boycott of the Jewish state, and by the way, only the Jewish state," Netanyahu said at a conference of US Jewish organisations in Jerusalem. "I think that it is important that the boycotters be exposed for what they are, they are classical anti-Semites in modern garb," Netanyahu added, saying it was time to “delegitimise the delegitimisers."

Netanyahu said that the “most disgraceful” aspect of the movement was the participation of European companies in it, with what he has previously termed the “one sided stance” of Europe failing to recognise Palestinian incitement to terrorism.

Supporters of the movement disagree with this charge. Barghouti published an op-ed in the New York Times explaining the goals of the movement and stating that BDS “poses a serious challenge to Israel’s system of oppression of the Palestinian people, which is the root cause of its growing worldwide isolation.”

The “anti-Semitic” tag that equates the movement with racism is deeply ironical. The movement has consistently maintained that it is against all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, and equating a boycott based on government policies that pro-boycott supporters deem oppressive as racism is problematic. This is akin to equating the Gandhi-led boycott of British goods as a measure of protest of colonial policies as racist, or the boycott of a self defined Islamic state, say Saudi Arabia for an unjustifiable human rights records as anti-Islamic.

The reference to the movement advocating the “destruction” of the Israeli state is also a stretch, as the movement upholds equality and states its aim as “recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel to full equality.” Equating this with the “destruction” of Israel is equivalent to claiming that the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa that demanded equal rights for all citizens was tantamount to calling for the “destruction” of South Africa.

Barghouti aptly concludes, “Would justice and equal rights for all really destroy Israel? Did equality destroy the American South? Or South Africa? Certainly, it destroyed the discriminatory racial order that had prevailed in both places, but it did not destroy the people or the country.”