The Modern Language Association and the 2017 Vote on the Academic Boycott of Israel

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Ten years ago no academic association in the United States, with the possible exception of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), would have been motivated to make public statements critical of Israel. Over the last decade, many members of associations across the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences have taken a stand in support of Palestinians. One way in which this stand has taken form is through resolutions in support of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The heated debate and the vote on academic boycott at the 2017 convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA) is only the most recent indication that solidarity with Palestinians has emerged as a crucial political movement among professors and students in the US. Regardless of the results of the Delegate Assembly vote on academic boycott, the simple fact that a resolution to endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions was debated before the elected body of the largest association of humanities scholars indicates the legitimacy of Palestine solidarity as a political concern for academics.

The academic boycott movement began to achieve noteworthy successes among professional organizations in 2013 when the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) voted in favor of a boycott resolution, which was then followed later in the same year with the American Studies Association (ASA) and the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) endorsements of academic boycott. In the ensuing years, from 2014 to 2016, the African Literature Association, the Association for Humanist Sociology, the Critical Ethnic Studies Association, the National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies, the National Women’s Studies Association, and the Peace and Justice Studies Association all passed resolutions in favor of the academic boycott of Israel. In late November 2015, the American Anthropological Association voted at its business meeting overwhelmingly in favor of academic boycott, but the resolution was voted down by the smallest of margins when it went before the full membership.

The ASA vote to boycott Israeli academic institutions was an unmitigated victory and can be viewed as a watershed moment; the ASA received the most media attention and that victory spurred significant blowback from pro-Israel organizations outside of the academy who are suing the association and some of its individual members. Support for academic boycott and expressions of solidarity with Palestinians are overwhelming among scholars in the fields of race and ethnic studies, gender and sexuality studies, and global and postcolonial studies. The academic boycott movement is an international response to the Palestinian call to de-normalize relations with Israeli universities, but it also can be understood as a challenge to the persistence of white, masculinist, and elitist hegemony in the US academy. From this perspective, academic boycott is one of the key issues distinguishing radical forces of change working to wrest control of the academy from the guardians of a conservative status quo.

Nowhere was this line of political differentiation more evident than at the 2017 MLA Convention  in Philadelphia, where MLA Members for Justice in Palestine, aligned with the Radical Caucus and various forums within the association, faced off against MLA Members for Scholars Rights, an Israel defense group within the association with the backing of ten former MLA presidents, non-MLA Israeli academics like Dan Rabinowitz, and Israeli institutions such as the Committee of University Heads in Israel. (See the letter and video.) Gabriel Noah Brahm, associate professor of English at Northern Michigan University and a vocal member of the “Scholars Rights” group, exposes how opposition to the academic boycott of Israel goes hand in hand with retrograde understandings of the humanities. Brahm, who is also a Senior Research Fellow at the pro-Israeli front group Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), wrote an article for The Jerusalem Post on the MLA vote, deriding students and scholars who critique Israel from a critical race, postcolonial, or Marxist perspective: “Political correctness in academia puts knee-jerk support for certain preferred ‘victim groups’ over everything else. The self-righteous politics of selective outrage associated with ‘p.c.’ makes vacuous expressions of indignation over abstractions like White Privilege, Western Colonialism, Neoliberalism or Global Capitalism more important than concrete scholarship rooted in reasons and evidence.” He reads the MLA Delegate Assembly vote against the academic boycott as “a victory for scholarship over political correctness,” “a victory for facts over trendy ‘post-truth’ epistemology,” and no less than “the end of ‘identity liberalism’ in American life more broadly,” which he interprets as “a new and exciting trend toward affirming Western civilization’s universal values both in the academy and at large.” Brahm asserts that the defense of Western civilization against the politically correct barbarians that have invaded academia begins with a defense of Israel: “Perceived as an ‘outpost of the West,’ Israel came in for criticism by BDS at MLA. By the same token, putting a stop to BDS meant putting the brakes on postcolonial theory’s radical-chic opposition to universal Western values basic to liberal democracy.”

Perhaps Brahm is correct in his view that in 2017, the MLA, under the influence of groups like MLA Members for Scholars Rights, has returned to its conservative origins, recommitting to “Western civilization’s universal values.” Yet how is it possible that the MLA, which elected presidents who advocate for Palestinian rights, such as Edward Said, Houston Baker, and Margaret Ferguson, and also endorsed several resolutions on behalf of Palestinians, made what appears to be an about-face in 2017?

The MLA and the Changing Times

The MLA, founded in 1883, has grown into one of the largest international academic organizations based in the United States, with almost 24,000 members. Probably most well-known for the MLA guidelines on academic citations and the MLA database of scholarly publications in the humanities, the association’s original character and its mission have evolved in the last thirty years to reflect trends in literary and language studies; no longer limited to canonical European literatures and languages, the MLA has sought to keep pace with developments in scholarship and the academic culture of the humanities, and has often tied political engagements to its mission to develop academic best practices, professionalization, career development, and employment on the basis that those issues cannot be separated from racial and gender inequities in the profession or the messiness of US foreign policy. In the not-so-distant past, political resolutions on many topics have gone before the MLA Delegate Assembly. For example, in 2003, a member vote ratified a resolution calling for “the repeal of the USA PATRIOT Act because it infringes on the rights of members of the academic community and those whom they serve” (2003-3). In 2006, the membership ratified a resolution urging “that the phrase ‘undocumented workers’ be used in place of the abusive term ‘illegal aliens’ and that every state guarantee undocumented workers who live there in-state tuition” (2006-1), and in 2008, the MLA approved a resolution that endorses “teaching and scholarship about Palestinian culture, support[ing] members who come under attack for pursuing such work, and express[ing] solidarity with scholars of Palestinian culture” (2008-1).

Despite this remarkable legacy of political engagement, in its 2016-20 Strategic Plan the MLA seems to retreat from any political concerns other than those directly related to the profession. For instance, the Strategic Plan begins by announcing a commitment to “Advocacy,” implemented through “public activism,” but only in support of the humanities (see Strategic Plan page 10). The brief overview of MLA advocacy for the humanities is clearly responding to legislative hostility, decreased public funding for higher education, diminished job opportunities, and falling enrollments. But these important issues are not unrelated to neoliberal tendencies in US political culture, which dominate domestic and foreign policies.

The MLA today, like most literature and language departments, is marked by the contradiction of claiming to advocate for the humanities and, at the same time, disassociating from critical movements within the profession, which are directed against the very same neoliberal policies that have gutted higher education. This last point is related to Chris Newfield’s argument: “In 2017, universities will be tempted to follow a dual strategy: resist the Trump administration’s discriminatory agenda while adopting its underlying business model.” Newfield is a member of the Delegate Assembly and made the following points during the debate on the anti-boycott resolution, emphasizing the connection between academic self-governance, academic freedom, and the right to boycott Israel:

We may all agree that teaching and research on language and literature depends on academic freedom. Academic freedom is not a set of established rules but the effect of ongoing acts of shared governance….Professional life depends on the capacity for collaborative self-determination. The whereas clause that wrongly claims boycotts are outside the MLA’s purpose denies us a mild form of support for Palestinian self-determination while also denying our ability to regulate our own academic freedom through self-governance.

Given the size of the MLA, it is uncertain to what degree the membership at large shares the politically reactionary inclination of the 2017 Delegate Assembly. I will return to this question, which is crucial to interpreting the significance of the MLA Delegate Assembly vote on academic boycott.  But first, a little more contextualization will be helpful to understanding the process by which the issue came before the Delegate Assembly.

Background to the 2017 MLA Vote on Academic Boycott

MLA Members for Justice in Palestine came into existence following the 2014 convention in Chicago. At this convention, the MLA’s Delegate Assembly voted in support of a resolution criticizing Israel for denying US students and scholars the right to enter the occupied territories. MLA Resolution 2014-1 reads: “Be it resolved that the MLA urge the United States Department of State to contest Israel’s denials of entry to the West Bank by United States academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.”

The debate around the “right to enter” resolution was intense, with misinformed pro-Israeli members of the MLA arguing as if the resolution proposed a boycott Israel. In fact, Cary Nelson (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne), Russell Berman (Stanford), Rachel Harris (University of Illinois, Urbana-Champagne), and other opponents had prepared and distributed anti-boycott flyers countering Resolution 2014-1. When Resolution 2014-1, proposed by Bruce Robbins (Columbia University) and Dick Ohmann (Wesleyan University), went before the MLA Delegate Assembly, sixty delegates voted in favor and fifty-three voted against. The resolution then went to the membership for ratification, and the results were announced in June 2014: 1,560 members voted in favor of ratification of 2014-1 and 1,063 voted against ratification, but according to the MLA bylaws, “[r]esolutions forwarded to the membership must be ratified by a majority vote in which the number of those voting for ratification equals at least ten percent of the association’s membership, which was 2,390 votes this year.” A significant majority of voting members supported the resolution, but they were too few to meet the ten percent rule, and the pro-Palestinian resolution was not ratified. Pro-Israel media reported the vote as a defeat of Palestinian solidarity within the MLA, while pro-Palestinian coverage emphasized growing support among MLA members for Palestinian rights.

Inspired by the ASA endorsement of academic boycott in 2013, the growing wave of boycott endorsements among other professional associations, and the relative success of the “right to enter” resolution, David Lloyd (University of California-Riverside) and Rebecca Comay (University of Toronto) proposed an MLA academic boycott resolution in October 2014. At the same time, a pro-Israel group, MLA Members for Scholars Rights, headed by Russell Berman but also organized by Cary Nelson, proposed an anti-boycott resolution. Given that the two resolutions were directly opposed to each, the MLA executive and the Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee suggested that the proposers withdraw their resolutions until 2017 to allow the MLA members to be educated on the issues. Accordingly, the MLA created space in the annual convention and provided online groups for each side to present their positions. In 2015, 2016, and 2017, numerous panels, two public debates and a town hall meeting took place under the aegis of the MLA. For three years, the question of academic boycott was a central political concern of the MLA Conventions.

Finally, after the two-year delay, the academic boycott resolution went before the MLA Delegate Assembly on 7 January 2017, as did two anti-boycott and anti-Palestinian resolutions. Given the Delegate Assembly’s past support for the “right to enter” resolution and other indications during the 2017 convention, it appeared that the academic boycott resolution had a good chance of passing the Delegate Assembly. In the lead-up to the 7 January vote, especially during the 5 January Town Hall meeting, chaired by MLA president Kwame Anthony Appiah, who is on the record as opposing the boycott, dozens of MLA members lined up to pronounce their support for the academic boycott resolution; given the remarkable show of support, it seemed unlikely that the Scholars Rights anti-boycott resolution could win enough votes to pass. Furthermore, even if the Delegate Assembly did not vote in favor of the academic boycott resolution, it seemed unlikely—even unfathomable—that it would vote against the principle of the boycott, particularly given the results of the 2015 Delegate Assembly straw poll on boycott, as noted in David Lloyd’s piece in Mondoweiss: “the Modern Language Association’s Delegate Assembly affirmed in a straw poll by forty-eight votes to twenty-six that boycotts help to protect academic freedom. By sixty-six to zero, they also endorsed the idea that the MLA should roundly condemn retaliation against scholars who speak out publicly on matters concerning Palestine and Israel.”

Participation was very low in the 2015 straw poll, but over the last several years, every resolution that has concerned Palestine, Muslims, or other issues having to do with Middle East matters has been supported by the Delegate Assembly—notably the right to enter resolution (2013) and an anti-Islamophobia resolution (2016). It would appear that the approximately thirty-three percent turnover of Delegates from 2016 to 2017 produced a much more politically conservative Assembly.

Palestine at the 2017 MLA

Three resolutions relating to Israel-Palestine were debated at the 2017 MLA Convention:

Resolution 2017-1, calling on the MLA to “refrain from the boycott

Resolution 2017-2, calling on the MLA to “endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions

Resolution 2017-3, calling on the MLA to “condemn attacks on academic freedom in Palestinian universities, whether they are perpetrated by the Palestinian Authority or by Hamas.”

Resolution 2017-1 was successful, with 101 votes for and 93 votes against.

Resolution 2017-2 went down, with 79 votes for and 119 votes against

Resolution 2017-3 was indefinitely postponed.

Delegates debated Resolutions 2017-1 and 2017-2 for twenty-five minutes each and then voted on both before the results were revealed simultaneously. This process was unlike previous practice at the MLA, which historically was similar to the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Business Meeting, where discussion and voting was sequential, with Resolution 1 being discussed and voted on before moving on to Resolution 2. The MLA rules for the academic boycott resolutions were exceptional and little explanation was given for treating these two resolutions differently, for the time limits on the discussion, or for setting aside Resolution 2017-3. Perhaps an opportunity was missed to raise questions about the process, which might have changed the results, but in the midst of the meeting, no objections were raised about the rules.

The pro-boycott resolution (2017-2) was discussed first for twenty-five minutes, with mostly anti-boycott speakers standing at the mics and insisting that an academic boycott is a violation of academic freedom. They also emphasized how the resolution put the association at risk of lawsuits. They questioned why the MLA should single out Israel, when so many other countries violate human rights, including the United States. They even went so far as to claim that it was not in the interests of Palestinians, but rather served merely the interests of self-serving US-based scholars. Arguments in favor of the boycott resolution emphasized the importance of international solidarity within the MLA, advocacy for Palestinian educational rights, the role of the United States in supporting Israel, and the need to stand with scholars and students engaged in BDS activism. When the anti-boycott resolution (2017-2) came up for discussion many of the same arguments were made by both sides. At the conclusion of the discussion, the vote was taken electronically with clickers and the results were projected on a large screen. An audible sigh could be heard through the Grand Ballroom of the Philadelphia Marriott, deflation for those of us who had argued in favor of boycott, relief for those arguing against.

With little delay, the Delegate Assembly then turned its attention to Resolution 2017-3. Berman, a proposer of Resolution 2017-1, moved that Resolution 2017-3 be indefinitely postponed. Significant discussion of Berman’s clever motion to postpone ensued nonetheless because many MLA members, including some delegates, wished to expose the colonialist and racist nature of the pro-Israeli resolution, which could now be seen as a tactic to provide a second chance to the pro-Israel faction within the MLA in the event that the anti-boycott resolution failed. But finally, as many delegates left the hall, the assembly voted to indefinitely postpone Resolution 2017-3, which held the Palestinian Authority and Hamas singularly responsible for violations of Palestinian academic freedom.

The Assembly then considered an emergency resolution proposed by Michael Bérubé (Penn State University)concerning the threats to academic freedom posed by a Trump administration. Bérubé is among the former MLA presidents who signed a letter opposing academic boycott, and anti-boycott delegates enthusiastically affirmed their support with little concern for the academic freedoms of Palestinians. During the discussion of the emergency resolution, David Lloyd insightfully stated, “It is hard not to feel the hypocrisy of passing a resolution like this while denying our support to Palestinians who not only face a potential threat, but actually suffer the denials of academic and every other freedom that we are privileged to enjoy.”

The results of the MLA Delegate Assembly vote could not have been much worse for MLA members seeking to express their solidarity with Palestinians. MLA Members for Justice in Palestine did good work, but the pro-Israel group MLA Members for Scholars Rights got the upper hand when it counted. The pro-Israel side managed to get control of the Delegate Assembly in the years between 2015 and 2017, using the time to populate the MLA elected body with anti-boycott members and persuade other Delegates that endorsing the boycott resolution would constitute a threat to the association. MLA Members for Justice in Palestine relied on the principles that underwrite international solidarity, engaged the process proposed by the MLA, did not try to stack the Delegate Assembly, and did not have the means to communicate directly with the entire Delegate Assembly.

The time-span of three years to vote on the academic boycott resolutions might have given the anti-boycott pro-Israel side the upper hand to organize, especially given that the MLA Delegate Assembly vote came months after the AAA membership vote and the same pro-Israel resources set in place to defeat that academic boycott resolution would be available to fight against the MLA Members for Justice in Palestine resolution. There is some evidence that the Israeli government, either through its Ministry of Strategic Affairs, which is committed to undermining BDS, or through other channels, has interfered in and influenced the MLA. Cary Nelson, perhaps the most zealous opponent of the MLA academic boycott resolution, traveled to Israel in 2014, where he gave an alarmist anti-BDS talk at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv; he compared the BDS activism on US campuses to the anti-Vietnam War movement. Ynet reported after the MLA Delegate Assembly meeting that Israeli officials actively coordinated with anti-boycott MLA members, naming Berman and Nelson as key operatives on behalf of Israel:

Following the vote, Prof. Tzvi Zigler [sic]—head of the 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,” Professor Zigler continued.

It is impossible to know exactly how much support Nelson, Berman, Brahm, and company received from Israeli agencies to mount their campaign, but there should be some concern among the Executive Council of the MLA that the anti-boycott resolution 2017-1 is clearly serving the interests of Israel and its war on US scholars and students who engage in BDS activism. The Electronic Intifada posted an English translation/summary of a Maariv article by Yossi Melman detailing the various measures employed to attack BDS activists: “Among the ministry’s activities are what Melman terms ‘special operations’ or ‘black ops’ which may include ‘defamation campaigns, harassment and threats to the lives of activists’ as well as ‘infringing on and violating their privacy.’”

Making Sense of the MLA Vote on Academic Boycott

There can be little doubt that external forces played a role in the results of the MLA vote, but it also may be the case that the MLA has swung to the right, and the Delegate Assembly anti-academic boycott position signals a backlash against the politicization of the association, even as it asserts the liberal principle of academic freedom in the face of the Trump administration. Lara Deeb and Jessica Winegar’s article “Why Anthropologists Failed to Boycott Israeli Academic Institutions” provides a useful assessment of the various factors internal to the discipline of anthropology that certainly also played a role in influencing some MLA Delegates to vote against academic boycott: “Put simply, this is the longstanding fissure between scholars who understand politics and academia to be intertwined and those who believe they are separable.”

The 2017 Delegate Assembly that voted against academic boycott and in favor the American Association of University Professors statement on “Higher Education after the 2016 Election” is a perfect example of the contradiction of neoliberal values in the academy. Their opposition to the boycott and opposition to Trump is not unlike the posture of Hillary Clinton, who expressed in a letter to Haim Saban, a major contributor to her presidential campaign, her “alarm over the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement, or a global effort to isolate the State of Israel by ending commercial and academic exchanges. I know you agree that we need to make countering BDS a priority.” But it is precisely on the topic of Israel that Clinton’s politics coincide with Donald Trump’s, as is evident in in his speech to AIPAC and his tweets in response to John Kerry’s UN speech on Israeli settlements.

From the perspective of MLA Members for Justice in Palestine, the three-year process leading to the vote was viewed as an opportunity to talk about Palestinian rights as part of the official MLA agenda. The question of Palestine solidarity and academic boycott were prominently addressed in convention sessions during the period between 2015 and 2017. From a certain perspective—given the general character of the MLA, which did not support the boycott of South Africa in the 1980s, and the largely marginal place of Palestine within the association—this attention to an activist initiative was a win in and of itself. Despite the outcome of the vote, one should not overlook how much work has been done to galvanize discussion of the academic boycott at the center of the MLA, which has always been structurally conservative and whose membership is largely politically disengaged, white, and elitist, despite the fact that some MLA members past and present are among the most radical intellectuals working in the humanities. See for examples the video produced by MLA Members for Justice in Palestine.

Not only was the MLA made to engage with the rights of Palestinians in a consistent and critically significant manner, through debates, panels, online forums, and town hall meetings. Pro-boycott activists achieved a certain level of national prominence by making the MLA, one of the largest and most important academic associations, vote on an academic boycott of Israel. MLA Members for Justice in Palestine consists of ten or so graduate students and professors, with no institutional support and little free time; nevertheless, without any external funding, this group produced an informative and well coordinate campaign within the association, as is evident from the website. Over 450 members signed the MLA MJP open letter. The public achievements of the academic boycott campaign probably garnered more attention outside the MLA than it did among rank and file members—judging by the 5,885 unique visits to the website in January 2017 and the more than 37,000 page views of the website over the last year.

Despite the achievements of MLA Members for Justice in Palestine, the anti-boycott faction is now poised to achieve its goal of ending debate over the academic boycott of Israel within the association. The 2016-17 Delegate Assembly not only opposed the boycott by voting down Resolution 2017-2, but revealed itself to be a protector of Israel through the adoption of the anti-boycott resolution (2017-1) that seeks to stifle discussion of academic boycott. If passed by ten percent of the membership, resolution 2017-1 will, in essence, prevent any future attempts to promote BDS within the MLA or efforts to pass resolutions in defense of BDS activists.

The MLA Delegate Assembly under the influence of Berman and Nelson has now positioned the association as an ally of those state legislators and university administrators who seek to prohibit, indeed criminalize, BDS activism. Should the anti-boycott resolution gain the support of the membership, the MLA will become the most reactionary professional association in the US, aligned with Canary Mission, an online site committed to defaming students and faculty who support BDS, and other pro-Israeli instruments of intimidation. As the MLA moves Resolution 2017-1 forward to the membership vote, MLA Members for Justice in Palestine will now have to develop a new campaign, directed at challenging the legitimacy of the resolution and mobilizing members to vote en masse against this attempt to make the MLA a reference point for anti-BDS academic organizing.

The Modern Language Association and the 2017 Vote on the Academic Boycott of Israel

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