Israel Battle Roils Modern Language Association as Academic Meeting Kicks Off

Controversial Panel Features Supporters of Boycott

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By Hody Nemes

Published January 09, 2014.
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The debate over Israel in academia has turned to the Modern Language Association, which hosts a controversial panel on academic boycotts of Israel at its annual convention in Chicago starting today.

Jewish groups and some MLA members are mounting a response to the session, which will feature panelists largely sympathetic to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel.

The 30,000-strong organization for literature and language scholars will also consider a resolution condemning Israel for restricting foreign scholars from visiting the Palestinian territories — a decision that will be closely watched since the American Studies Association (ASA) voted to back a boycott of Israeli universities.

The “MLA urges the U.S. Department of State to contest Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U. S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities,” states the proposed resolution.

No resolution in favor of boycott is under consideration, though Israel advocates fear this narrower resolution could be a stepping-stone to a measure supporting a full-fledged boycott similar to the ASA’s.

The panel, “Academic Boycotts: A Discussion of Israel and Palestine,” will allow discussion of “the political movement Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel, seen by its defenders as a viable means to end the Palestinian occupation,” according to its description in the convention schedule. Panelists include Omar Barghouti, a founder of the international boycott movement against Israel, and David Lloyd, a leader of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

“We’re concerned that there is a panel that is one-sided where there’s not either a full discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, nor of the diverse views on the issue of academic boycott,” said Geri Palast, executive director of the Israel Action Network, a pro-Israel advocacy group, which has worked with MLA members to counter the panel and the resolution.

Other Jewish organizations have also jumped into the fray. Hillel and the Israel on Campus Coalition have organized an alternative panel featuring MLA members who oppose academic boycotts, which will be held independently of the conference.

The groups asked the MLA to add the panel at the eleventh hour, but their proposal was rejected. MLA Executive Director Rosemary Feal explained that the deadline for submitting resolutions passed eight months ago, and that outside organizations are barred from running sessions at the convention, according to JNS.org.


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