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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“We believe the members of the MLA deserve to hear a far more diverse set of perspectives on the issue of academic freedom in Israel and nearby countries,” ICC Executive Director Jacob Baime said in a statement protesting the MLA’s decision. “The MLA members, as academics, certainly can appreciate the value of multiple perspectives on what is a very controversial issue.”

B’nai B’rith International and Stand With Us joined Baime in condemning the panel. “The speakers invited to the MLA panel will undoubtedly present their usual distorted information about Israel,” Stand With Us CEO Roz Rothstein said. “It is extremely disturbing that an academic association like the MLA has not asked other scholars to present different points of view or a more serious analysis.”

But the backlash against the MLA has not only emerged from Jewish groups. A group of MLA members billing itself as “MLA Members for Scholars Rights” helped organize the alternative panel with Hillel and ICC and is working to defeat the resolution on academics’ freedom of movement.

“I don’t think the [MLA] session has any academic use basically,” said Cary Nelson, a 44-year veteran of the MLA who will speak on the anti-boycott panel. Nelson also served as past president of the powerful American University Association of University Professors, which has condemned the ASA boycott.

Nelson says MLA leadership assured him that dissenting voices would have an opportunity to speak at the MLA roundtable, but he is skeptical. “Are they going to leave one chair for Elijah and give him a seat if he shows up?” he asked.

But supporters of the panel MLA dismiss charges of false balance. They claim that pro-Israel voices have been virtually unchallenged for years.

“For so long the balance has all been on the other side,” said David Lloyd, professor of English at University of California at Riverside who will speak in favor of boycotting Israel on the MLA panel. “Anyone who wanted to organize a panel opposing academic boycotts, they had absolute liberty to do so,” he said.

The organizer of the MLA panel, Samer Ali, said he intentionally avoided creating a balanced panel.

“I don’t think the make up of the roundtable is a flaw,” he said in an email. “It’s actually a healthy norm at the convention in many ways,” since many of the convention’s sessions present only one approach to a subject. Ali also pointed out that the roundtable will allow for anti-BDS voices: audience members will be given 30 minutes to present their views – and said he himself is doubtful about the wisdom of boycotts.

In fact, Ali supports efforts to organize an alternative panel. “The wisest thing for critics of BDS to do is organize their own session as we did,” he said. “I think that’s not only their right, I would support them and attend.”


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