On January 7, the Delegate Assembly of the Modern Language Association voted against a non-binding resolution to endorse the call from Palestinian civil society for the academic boycott of Israeli institutions (Yes 79; No 113). At that same session, the Assembly voted for a resolution to “refrain from endorsing” the boycott (Yes 101; No 93). This latter resolution now must be ratified by the membership at large.
The Modern Language Association is an organization of almost 25,000 members, founded in 1883. The results of the vote were not entirely unexpected. The MLA is a traditional organization that has historically been averse to engaging forthrightly in political debates. As Rebecca Comay, professor of philosophy and comparative literature at the University of Toronto and one of the pro-boycott resolution’s sponsors notes, “Let’s not forget that the MLA decided not to join the boycott of South African universities in the 1980s — a movement that is almost universally recognized as having been a major contributing force in bringing apartheid to an end. To its everlasting shame, it chose to do nothing in the face of South African apartheid. And now, again, it has chosen to do nothing in the face of the terrible injustices in Palestine today. It decided it was in its interest to protect Israeli apartheid. But let’s not forget that 40% of the Delegate Assembly actually did vote in support of the boycott. This wouldn’t have happened even two years ago. This in itself points to the enormous success of the BDS movement in raising public awareness globally. And this movement will continue to gain traction.”
Part of the reason the vote was so lopsided might be that the anti-boycott group was aided by the Brandeis Center’s threat of a lawsuit against the MLA if it let the vote go forward, and the collaboration of a group of university heads in Israel, anxious about the pro-boycott’s connecting their universities to the maintenance of the occupation and other repressive measures.
As reported in Ynet:
“Following the vote, Prof. Tzvi Zigler, head of the Committee of University Heads in Israel, a forum to combat academic boycotts, said, ‘Boycott attempts (against Israeli universities) have failed by and large due to the immense efforts of the Committee of University Heads in Israel vis-à-vis our counterparts abroad. In regards to the MLA decision, the fight was conducted within the association itself, led by Prof. Nelson from the University of Illinois, and Prof. Berman from Stanford University. They were assisted by various Jewish organizations, along with the Committee of University Heads in Israel.'”
But what is more notable than either of the pro- or anti-boycott resolutions are two other resolutions that came forward that suggest, in more nuanced and powerful ways, the sentiment of the majority of delegates.
One resolution condemned denials of academic freedom to Palestinians, but stated that the origins of such repression were the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. The resolution was put before the Assembly after the results of the votes on the first two resolutions were announced.
In what was expressed as a gesture of “reconciliation,” a spokesperson for that resolution moved to table that resolution indefinitely. While some members voiced support for that idea, most did not. They argued that the motion for tabling would take away any chance to actually debate a resolution that would exculpate through omission the state of Israel for any blame in the repression of Palestinians. They termed the resolution racist, and a classic case of blaming Arabs and Muslims for their own subjugation. It was pointed out that in the experience of the majority of Palestinians, the occupation and blockade, and a system of racial apartheid, are the primary obstacles to Palestinian freedom, and that the Palestinian Authority is often regarded on the West Bank as an agent of the occupation. Nevertheless, the motion to table the resolution passed and debate thereby squelched.
Another resolution came forward, which read:
“Whereas, the Modern Language Association upholds the ideal of free and unfettered scholarly exchange, including the right of scholars to travel across international borders; Whereas the MLA opposes discrimination — among faculty, staff, and students — on the basis of race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, religion or national origin; and Whereas the MLA is aware that the Trump administration threatens to violate these core principles of democracy and academic freedom, be it resolved that the MLA strongly endorses the statement of the American Association of University Professors, ‘Higher Education After the 2016 Election,’ and urges members to disseminate it widely.
Some members, noting the international reach of the organization and that its members are drawn from many other countries, proposed to add a reference supporting the United Nations’ statement on academic freedom. This amendment was voted down on the belief that the MLA’s definition of academic freedom should be based solely on the American definition of academic freedom.
Whereupon David Lloyd, professor of English at the University of California, Riverside and the other sponsor of the non-binding resolution to endorse the academic boycott, addressed the assembly with these words:
“I am not opposed to this resolution, but I cannot help observing here the irony that we are voting to secure ourselves freedoms that we have just voted to deny to Palestinians. Our vote against a non-violent strategy of boycott refused to support them in securing the means, the only means that remain to them, to defend or achieve freedoms that have been systematically denied to them by Israeli occupation, blockade, dispossession and discrimination.
“This resolution affirms the fundamental right of freedom to travel, a right denied to Palestinians on a daily basis, whether within the West Bank or in and out of the occupied territories, including Gaza, and in particular to Israel. It affirms our opposition to discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, religion, color, national origin and political beliefs. All these forms of discrimination our Palestinian colleagues suffer as an intrinsic part of Israel’s apartheid regime.
“The resolution expresses concern that the incoming Trump administration will threaten these freedoms that we cherish. But we should recall that during his campaign, it was Israel that Trump invoked as his model for successful racial profiling. It was Israel that he praised for knowing how to build a wall that would deny freedom of movement on the basis of national origin, race and ethnic identity. He praised Israel’s discriminatory immigration policies that arbitrarily deny entry to Muslims and people of Arab origin.
“It is hard not to feel the hypocrisy of passing a resolution like this while denying our support to Palestinians do not who face a potential threat, but actually suffer the denials of academic and every other freedom that we are privileged to enjoy.”
One final irony: the anti-boycott resolution now to be voted on by the general membership, demanding that the MLA not condone any boycott of Israeli state institutions, amounts to a prohibition of a mode of protest the U.S. Supreme Court has declared constitutionally protected form of free speech. In passing that resolution, the MLA will be doing Trump’s work for him.