The Modern Language Association’s Delegate Assembly passed an “emergency motion” Saturday defending college and university employees and students who are facing threats, harassment and violence for criticizing Israel’s violence against Palestinians.
The weekend-long MLA Annual Convention included multiple panels that discussed the war in Gaza. A Friday open hearing ahead of the Delegate Assembly featured heated debate on the motion that ultimately passed, along with a different one that would’ve broadly supported “academic freedom and free expression” without mentioning either Palestine or Israel.
“This motion is a matter of life and death—and academic freedom,” Huda Fakhreddine said in favor of the motion that specifically defended speech that’s critical of Israel.
Fakhreddine, an associate professor of Arabic literature at the University of Pennsylvania, said she helped organize Penn’s September Palestine Writes literature festival, which garnered controversy even before the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks. She said she’s faced doxing and death threats since that event.
But Noam Flinker, an associate professor emeritus at Israel’s University of Haifa, said the motion Fakhreddine supported “appalled” him. As he mentioned Hamas terrorists raping Israelis, some attendees of the open hearing made a hissing sound.
“I support the second motion because it supports both sides,” Flinker said.
There are 279 MLA delegates, elected by MLA members. Of the roughly 140 delegates who were at Saturday’s assembly meeting for the final vote, which followed a few amendments to the language, only a handful voted against the motion.
The delegates then rejected, by a wide margin, the more general statement. It would’ve asked the MLA Executive Council, an 18-member elected body, to defend all college and university employees and students “regardless of their position on the conflict in the Middle East.”
The victorious statement asks the council to immediately “urge all North American English and language departments and university administrations” to defend “all faculty members, students, and staff.” But it then specifies who is “particularly in need of defense.” They include those who have “condemned the Israeli government for its massive bombardment of the Gaza Strip following the Hamas incursion October 7, 2023, into southern Israel that resulted in the killing of civilians.”
Also included: those who have “rejected the proposition that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.”
Amid the continuing national controversy over alleged campus antisemitism, the American Association of University Professors has similarly rejected “the characterization of pro-Palestinian speech or critiques of the Israeli state as invariably antisemitic.”
The successful MLA motion further calls for particularly defending those who argue “that recent events in Israel-Palestine must be viewed in the context of the Palestinian Nakba of 1948, Israel’s 56-year-long illegal occupation of the West Bank, and Israel’s 16-year-long land, sea, and air blockade of the Gaza Strip.”
The MLA’s Radical Caucus, which says it was founded in 1968 to resist the Vietnam War, put forth the original version of the successful motion. Its members applauded Saturday when the slightly amended iteration passed. Cary Nelson, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign professor emeritus and a prominent public defender of Israel, co-authored the more general motion.
Appropriately for the MLA, academics publicly debated the specific wording of the two motions during the weekend conference, which had more than 4,000 registrants. Saturday’s Delegate Assembly discussion on the ultimately successful motion only ended after over an hour when one delegate made a special motion to close debate and stop the introduction of new amendments. That brought all the already-proposed amendments on the ultimately successful motion, plus the motion itself, to an immediate vote—at least, immediately after the assembly stopped trying to get its failing electronic voting system to work and resorted to asking for raised hands.
At Friday’s open hearing, Leila Walker—an assistant professor and the humanities and digital scholarship librarian at Queens College, part of the City University of New York—called the more general motion “the equivalent of ‘All Lives Matter’ in this moment.” On Saturday, Samer Ali, a delegate and an associate professor of Arabic literature at the University of Michigan, made a similar point.
“There’s a reason why we focus on Black Lives Matter,” Ali said. “We have to say the obvious, and it is yet controversial that Black lives matter.” As for pro-Palestinian speech, he said, “I want to call the Delegate Assembly’s attention to the disproportionate attack on this particular type of speech.”
Anthony Alessandrini, another delegate and an English professor at CUNY’s Kingsborough Community College, said that “over the past three months, the number of attacks on faculty, on students, on staff, for speaking out,” specifically around Palestinian solidarity, had increased. So, he said, the motion needed to address the specificity of the moment, and he opposed the more generic one.
About 50 audience members attended the Delegate Assembly Saturday. Judging by their applause and the number who spoke in favor, they overwhelmingly supported the motion that ultimately passed. Nelson, who authored the defeated motion, wasn’t in attendance.
“MLA members are furious with Israel, so they decided Jewish students here do not deserve equal rights and equal protection,” he told Inside Higher Ed after the votes. He called the votes an “organizational pivot” to anti-Zionism.
“Both groups of students are suffering trauma, from death, and those students need support from their institutions, so that’s really what we were urging,” he said, adding that he himself “lost people in the [Oct. 7] assault.”
In attendance to speak for the more general motion, and against the Radical Caucus motion, was Michael Saenger, a Southwestern University English professor. He said he would also like to protect campus members who condemn Hamas’s killing of civilians, and he stressed the importance of open debate on the war in Gaza.
“The Radical Caucus presents itself as protecting people from harassment and then it identifies a very specific view that is to be protected,” Saenger told delegates.
“Any attempt to close down that debate implies a fear of what the outcome of an honest conversation would be,” he said.
But Nouri Gana, a professor and undergraduate studies director at the University of California, Los Angeles, opposed the more general motion.
“It displaces and disperses the acute urgency of paying attention to a particular group of students and faculty who are being targeted,” he said.