‘It Impacts People’:Professors and scholars are debating the boycott of Israel at the MLA. // Thinkstock
Vote Your Conscience!
Well, that was certainly the message at session 48 of the MLA, billed as a roundtable discussion of “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine.”
“There is no us and them, only us and us,” claimed the panel organizer and moderator Samer M. Ali, while Omar Bargouti — an independent scholar — appealed to “people of conscience to stop ‘business as usual’” citing scholars’ “profound moral obligation.” Barbara Harlow of the University of Texas at Austin called on “scholars with integrity,” while David Lloyd at the University of California claimed that there was a “moral principle” at stake, which he reiterated in the question period by claiming that scholars have “an ethical responsibility to… colleagues in Palestine.”
So it is clear, if you aren’t supporting the boycott you must be immoral, without integrity, and lacking good conscience. The arguments for and against the boycott are significantly less important to the panelists, and certainly few real facts surfaced in the course of their presentations. Instead, they have decided that an emotional appeal to the scholars of the world is enough to win their case.
When the panelists did turn to their own particular ways of legitimizing the boycott movement, they seemed oblivious to the internal contradictions of their arguments. Lloyd pushed for going as far as possible: “Ideally we could cut off all relations with academic institutions” — because as several panelists reiterated at various points, institutions are not individuals. Except that Bargouti did point out that “we can’t expect Palestinians [in Israel] to boycott their institutions, how can they” and that “nobody in the boycott movement denied that individuals would be affected,” adding “it always impacts people.”
Asked in the question period whether they were delegitimizing the study of Israel by international scholars who would be unable to participate in conferences hosted by Israeli universities, research in archives and libraries in Israel, or purchase books published by Israeli university presses, Harlow argued that now is the time to study Israel, while the other panelists suggested that it was a matter of conscience to choose what you worked on.
Richard Ohmann, a retired Wesleyan professor, stated that it had been wrong of University presidents to call on universities to refuse travel funds to scholars wishing to travel to the ASA, which recently endorsed a boycott of Israeli academia. He failed to note that he was calling for scholars in Israel to travel without funds from their home institutions, to academic conferences overseas, in response to institutional boycotts. Something Bargouti claimed was not against academic freedom in the Israeli context, since infringing “on their privileges” and creating a situation where Israeli scholars will “have lesser resources” is legitimate. It seems it is only in the U.S. context that delimiting scholars’ travel funds is a curtailing of academic freedom.
I should mention, though, that in the final moments of the event Lloyd argued that this legitimate and peaceful “civil society movement doesn’t represent the Palestinian Authority or Hamas.” So perhaps truth was spoken at this panel after all.
Rachel S. Harris is Associate Professor of Israeli Literature and Culture at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign. Her most recent book is Warriors, Witches, Whores: Women in Israeli Cinema (Wayne State Press, 2017)