Save for some college students refusing to buy Israeli hummus, the “boycott, divestment and sanctions” movement against the Jewish state has had very few successes over the past decade. That changed last month when the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israeli academic institutions. Now the Modern Language Association (MLA), a far more prominent group, is poised to condemn Israel at its annual meeting in Chicago. Anyone interested in academic freedom should pay attention.
Scholars at academic conferences are expected to offer original research and analysis in their presentations. That certainly can’t be said of one MLA session this Thursday, called “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine.”
All the scheduled panelists are outspoken supporters of the boycott Israel movement: University of California, Riverside Prof. David Lloyd, Wesleyan Prof. Richard Ohmann, University of Texas Prof. Barbara Harlow, and Omar Barghouti, who has compared Israeli policies to those of Nazi Germany. Even the moderator, University of Texas Prof. Samer Ali, is a boycott supporter. In essays and public statements I have read, their message was clear: Israel, the worst human-rights violator on the planet, deserves to be made a pariah among nations.
On Saturday MLA members will also get to vote on a resolution by Wesleyan’s Mr. Ohmann and Columbia University Prof. Bruce Robbins that “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.”
One scholar, Rima Merriman, who is quoted in the supporting document for the resolution, declared in 2009 that it was a violation of her “rights as an American citizen” to be denied access to the West Bank. Whether anyone explained to her that the U.S. does not control another nation’s visa rules I cannot say. Apparently some MLA members consider themselves qualified to judge whether a visitor presents a security risk.
There’s a lot at stake for the MLA here. The humanities—increasingly politicized and unserious—are in danger, as seen by plummeting enrollments in majors like English and history. To remain relevant, the MLA needs to be a big tent in which scholars can pursue research without being subjected to political litmus tests. Instead, by only featuring anti-Israel professors, the group seems to be taking a stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Meanwhile, the MLA denied press credentials to two reporters from conservative-leaning outlets, the Daily Caller and the Jewish News Service, who wanted to cover the conference. This shows that the organization, which claims a principled devotion to academic freedom, needs a lesson in press freedom.
Academic freedom certainly isn’t the priority for supporters of the boycott Israel movement. If it were, they would not be so keen on breaking relations with the very Israeli institutions—its universities—that provide a home to many of the sharpest internal critics of Israeli government policy. Despite the claims of boycott advocates that they are all about promoting freedom, an academic boycott will inevitably inhibit interaction between American and Israeli professors. As more than 100 university presidents have argued in rejecting the American Studies Association boycott resolution, academic freedom can only survive if international exchanges are promoted, not curtailed.
Struggling to justify an agenda with no imaginable benefit to the Palestinian people, boycott advocates claim they can move Israeli universities to protest their government’s practices. A less likely outcome could hardly be imagined. If Israel and the Palestinians ever negotiate an agreement, it will not be because American faculty members have indulged their hatred of the Israeli state. By castigating Israel, the boycott movement instead will produce bitterly polarized constituencies here and abroad.
A truer indication of the real goal is the boycott movement’s success at increasing intolerance on American campuses. Junior faculty members sympathetic to Israel fear for their jobs if they make their views known. Established faculty who grasp the complexity of Middle East politics hold their tongues for fear of harassment by those who are more interested in offering lessons in contemporary demonology than in sound history. The politically correct stance in many academic departments is that Palestinians are victims and Israelis are oppressors. Period.
The fundamental goal of the boycott movement is not the peaceful coexistence of two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian, but rather the elimination of Israel. One nation called Palestine would rule from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Those Jews not exiled or killed in the transition to an Arab-dominated nation would live as second-class citizens without fundamental rights.
There is no political route toward a one-state solution. But some American professors are too blinded by hatred of Israel—or too naive—to see that they are inadvertently advocating for armed conflict.
Mr. Nelson is an English professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He was president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006-12.