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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Any MLA member can submit a panel proposal for the conference, provided they do so by the April deadline. The MLA panel is one of over 800 sessions held at the four-day conference, but has received far more media attention than any other session. “I’m sure it wouldn’t have been getting this much preconference attention if the ASA hadn’t passed” its resolution, said Michael Kotzin, MLA member and a leader of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, who is organizing against the panel and resolution.

Lloyd welcomes the extra attention being paid to the panel. “I think it’s good that the panel is getting attention, because that’s really the whole point,” he said. “We want the issue to be discussed.”

The resolution is getting its own share of publicity, especially from those who see it is an attempt to build support for a future boycott resolution. The resolution is teetering between approval and rejection in the Delegate Assembly, the MLA committee which votes on resolutions. MLA members introduced three boycott resolutions against Israel in recent years, which were rejected by the MLA’s delegate assembly, according to Nelson.

“My guess is that they made a political calculation that they had failed three times with a broad academic boycott, that they had to come up with something more modest,” Nelson said of the resolution’s backers.

He expects a boycott resolution will not be far behind. “Do I expect to see them return next year with that? If I had to put any money on it, I would say yes,” he said. “I think the ASA success will embolden them to try it again.”

Pro-boycott members may not have to wait until next year. Resolution proposals were due in October, but MLA members may still submit an “emergency resolution” during the convention – if they can show that a recent incident requires an urgent response from the MLA. Lloyd said he has heard that some members will try to submit an emergency resolution endorsing an Israel boycott, but those familiar with the MLA said it is unlikely to receive approval.

The current resolution’s sponsors, Bruce Robbins and Richard Ohmann, say their resolution has no connection to the boycott movement and is not a stepping-stone to boycott. “I for one did not know that at the time we submitted the resolution there even existed a boycott movement in the ASA,” said Robbins, a Columbia humanities professor. “So no, the resolution was not an attempt to provide ‘a more winnable goal.’”

The MLA has so far received only a small amount of the attention paid to the ASA after its boycott vote last month. Over 150 universities have condemned the boycott, and six American studies departments have withdrawn their membership in the organization.

Not all of the backlash has been civil. “I’ve gotten so much hate mail calling me a Nazi,” said Lisa Duggan, president-elect of the ASA. “I’ve gotten a lot of homophobic hate mail too, because I’m a queer studies scholar.” Threatening phone calls to the ASA office in Washington led ASA Executive Director to work from home. Some junior faculty members who support the boycott are being intimidated by senior faculty, according to Duggan. The ASA’s Academic and Community Activism Caucus is collecting examples of hate mail and intimidation received by ASA members around the country.

The Native American and Indigenous Studies Association joined the ASA in endorsing a boycott last month. The Association for Asian American Studies had previously voted to boycott Israel in April.

Contact Hody Nemes on Twitter @hodifly


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