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.

“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.”

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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