On January 5, Modern Language Association Members for Justice in Palestine hosted a meeting at New York University entitled “Palestine and the Future of Academia.” COMMENTARY readers may remember that supporters of a resolution to boycott Israel so soiled themselves last year that the MLA not only voted down that resolution but also voted up an alternative resolution to “refrain from endorsing the boycott.” Some pro-boycott professors very publicly resigned over what one called the “racist,” “ethnocentric” decision not to support a boycott of Israel. Another called the democratic vote to refrain from committing the organization to boycott “anti-democratic” because, you know, his side didn’t win.
But not everyone in the pro-boycott contingent has abandoned ship. As MLA president in 2020-21, Judith Butler, the Maxine Elliot Professor in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley, is in line to steer it. She is a prominent supporter of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel. Butler once said that “understanding Hamas, Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global Left, is extremely important.”
Butler headlined the meeting. It was billed as “free and open to the public,” so Cary Nelson, the former president of the American Association of University Professors who has led the charge against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel within the MLA, attended. He wrote about the experience here.
Upon explaining that, although he does not support BDS, he was interested in what others had to say, he received the warm welcome one might expect from academics holding a public meeting. “You should leave,” said one of the attendees. Butler, presiding over the meeting, defended Nelson’s presence there.
Sorry, I mean she suggested a vote on whether or not to expel Nelson from the meeting. But when Nelson was asked if he would honor such a vote, he pointed out that “open to the public” means just that. He was permitted to stick around. Butler declared, Nelson reports, “that she had several ideas she had wanted to share about how to move the BDS agenda forward in the MLA, but felt it was not safe to do so with [Nelson] in the room.” She “urged people to contact her after the meeting and told them there would likely be funds to bring some of them out to Berkeley to consult with her.” Evidently, much of the remainder of the meeting was spent complaining, presumably with straight faces, about the resources opponents of BDS have at their disposal
Does this mean that, as Nelson argues, Butler is running a stealth campaign to undo what happened last year and get BDS back on the MLA agenda? It’s complicated. This is not a stealthy crowd. Nelson’s own account suggests that it was no secret that Butler would be speaking at a session openly devoted, in part, to discussing “recent events inside and outside of the MLA that are redrawing the landscape for [the struggle for “justice in Palestine”], as well as . . . the need for new tactics and solidarities by which to intervene there.”
If Butler was trying very hard to adopt a “neutral” posture, she probably would not have spoken before a large crowd at the #MLA conference itself of Israeli apartheid. At the same time, Nelson is right, as is indicated by Butler’s denial of any intent to get BDS back on the MLA agenda. Indeed, quietly getting elected to positions in an academic association, then moving to get the association behind BDS seems to be part of a playbook. So there is some attempt at stealth here. It is just singularly inept.
Thanks to the efforts of people like Nelson, there is good hope that these bumbling Machiavellians will fail again.