News & Politics » Deanna Isaacs on Culture

A panel about an academic boycott of Israel turns controversial

The push for the boycott is part of a movement with broader goals that began in Palestine nearly a decade ago.

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At the annual convention of the Modern Language Association held here earlier this month, the MLA's delegate assembly passed a resolution critical of Israel for its visa policies. The resolution urges the U.S. State Department to challenge Israel's "denials of entry to the West Bank by U.S. academics."

The Modern Language Association is the trade group for about 30,000 professors of literature and language. They gather every year to read each other seriously dense papers at sessions like "Cognitive Historicist Approaches to Literature" and "Novelties in Seventeenth-Century French Fairy Tales."

They also conduct excruciating interviews with desperate new PhDs and assistant profs for a scarily dwindling number of tenure-track jobs, after which nobody can blame anyone involved for heading over to a cash bar sponsored by, say, the division on Old English.

They could do this in Miami or Vegas (next year they'll be in Vancouver), but here they were in Chiberia, bundled up to their spectacles and climbing aboard shuttle buses that cycled from the Sheraton to the Fairmont to the Marriott, navigating a mind-boggling 810-event schedule.

Why would the MLA, a professional association with a full plate of problems at home—including a huge, shamefully exploited class of contingent and part-time academic workers among its ranks—take this on?

None of this usually attracts much outside attention, but the session "Academic Boycotts: A Conversation About Israel and Palestine" had generated quite a bit of controversy. Coming just weeks after a smaller group, the American Studies Association, made news by passing an academic boycott of Israeli universities, this panel—as some MLA members noted—had a decidedly lopsided character. It didn't look like there was anyone on it who might make a case against a boycott.

Besides that, the MLA was slated to take up its own resolution on Israel, this one not a call for a boycott, but what might be a first step in that direction. Resolution 2014-1 would urge the U.S. State Department to "contest Israel's arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U.S. academics."

Why would the MLA, a professional association with a full plate of problems at home—including a huge, shamefully exploited class of contingent and part-time academic workers among its ranks—take this on? And why, if they were going to venture into human rights violations in foreign countries, had they focused on Israel? Why not China? Russia? Saudi Arabia? (Can women drive there yet?) In the midst of parsing Milton or Blake, were they struck, in unison, with a Holy Land epiphany?

Turns out it was no accident. The push for an academic boycott of Israel is part of a movement with broader goals that began in Palestine nearly a decade ago and has become increasingly visible on American campuses. It's called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS), and one of its founders, independent scholar Omar Barghouti, was speaking at the panel.

The MLA, already taking some heat in the media over the panel's one-sided composition, had closed the door to any journalists who hadn't obtained press credentials by the January 3 deadline (myself included). They denied credentials altogether to the Jewish News Service and to the conservative Daily Caller (which complained on its website that it had been turned down by the "fascist, Stalinist douchebags at the MLA").

So I didn't hear what the pro-boycott panelists had to say. I did, however, catch an unofficial, open-to-anyone alternative panel, "Perspectives Against Academic Boycotts," that same afternoon. Led by Stanford University professor and former MLA president Russell Berman, it included Northern Michigan University professor Gabriel Brahm, who said the ASA resolution is an "academic boycott of the only robust democracy in the Middle East." "The real harm of BDS is on U.S. campuses," he said, where it's been able to influence "uninformed undergraduates."

The panel also included former American Association of University Professors president (and U. of I. prof) Cary Nelson, who noted the oddity of protesting a lack of academic freedom by seeking to cut off academic discourse.

Resolution 2014-1 passed by a vote of 60 to 53—after it had been amended to remove Gaza and the word "arbitrary" from the complaint. A second, "emergency" resolution that would have declared MLA support for the ASA boycott was defeated.

Nelson, writing on a Chronicle of Higher Education opinion blog last week, described the delegate assembly as "a circus" and charged presiding officer Margaret W. Ferguson, "a signed supporter of an academic and cultural boycott of Israel," with what he views as "a fundamental conflict of interest [that] was not acknowledged either before or during the debate." According to Nelson, "the process and the vote were compromised. The vote should be voided."

Says Ferguson (by e-mail): "I conducted the meeting carefully, in accordance with Roberts Rules. . . . At no time did I offer any opinion on the resolution before the assembly, nor did I address its content. No previous statements I have made influenced my capacity to conduct the Delegate Assembly meeting in an open and transparent way."

Resolution 2014-1 will now go to the MLA executive council, which will decide in February whether it merits being put to the entire membership for a vote that could take place in the spring.

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