Chicago — The Modern Language Association’s annual conference here this past weekend was chock full with panels of Jewish interest, including discussions of Philip Roth, Yiddish, Sholem Aleichem, Jonathan Safran Foer, Sephardic film, Jewish monsters, Zionism and Holocaust literature.
But the only events of Jewish interest that most people seemed to care about were four sessions that related not to any issue of Jewish scholarship but to the question of how — or if — scholars should take a stand on the policies and practices of modern day Israel affecting fellow scholars.
After exhaustive debate, MLA delegates made it clear that while they were not prepared to boycott Israel, as some smaller academic groups have recently advocated, Israel’s conduct towards American scholars seeking to work in the occupied West Bank merited censure in their view.
Israel, said the resolution the delegates passed on January 11, has “denied academics of Palestinian ethnicity entry into the West Bank” in violation of international law and thereby “restricted the academic freedom of scholars and teachers who are U.S. citizens.” This has also disrupted “instruction, research, and planning at Palestinian universities,” the resolution said.
The MLA urged the U.S. State Department “to contest” Israel’s blocking of American academics to the West Bank “who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.”
The vote by the delegates — a small subgroup of the 7,500 MLA members who attended the conference — was close: 60-53, with those supporting the resolution getting 53%. But this appeared to reflect a deep divide within the broader membership of one of the country’s major academic associations.
It is a division that will not close soon. Under the MLA’s procedures, the vote at the conference by the so-called Delegate Assembly is just the beginning. The resolution now goes to the MLA’s executive council, which can decide to kill it, send it back to the Delegate Assembly with edits or put it before the MLA’s 28,000 members for a full vote.
According Rosemary Feal, the MLA’s executive director, the resolution is likely to go to the group’s full membership for a vote in late spring, assuming the council completes its fiduciary review in February. This promises to draw in partisans from both sides for the battle to come.
Cary Nelson, a former president of the American Association of University Professors, who opposed the resolution, sensed trouble ahead for his side in this scenario. There was, he said, “some sympathy” for the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel on the MLA’s executive council. Among other things, he noted, the 18-member council included among its ranks one of the Israel resolution’s cosponsors — Richard Ohmann, an emeritus professor of English at Wesleyan University. His tenure on the council, however, ended with the conference.
Another executive council member is Samer Ali, a University of Texas professor of Middle East studies who moderated a panel discussion at the conference supportive of BDS, as the boycott, divest and sanction movement is known.
Nelson, a professor of English at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, described the MLA as being “clueless” about politics. “They are babes in the woods,” he said. “It’s very risky for them to take on these issues…. Anytime you have an organization whose decision-making body has a clear political interest that might be against the best interest of the organization, you have a big risk.”