In early January, I had what’s becoming an increasingly common experience: Supporters of a boycott tried to boycott me. The largest faculty organization here or abroad, the Modern Language Association, advertised a meeting at New York University to discuss the boycott of Israel. There I was asked to leave by several BDS-supporting faculty in attendance.
The episode is part and parcel of a larger effort to silence pro-Israel voices of dissent in the academy.
The MLA has been debating resolutions to boycott Israel or its universities since 2007. Back then, however, the point faculty for this cause were largely members of an MLA group called the Radical Caucus. Since about 2013, however, opposition to Israel has grown so strong in some areas of the humanities that is has become quite mainstream (interestingly, or not so interestingly, one does not find the same faculty members denouncing either the Assad government’s use of chemical weapons in Syria or ISIS’s revival of primitive forms of murder in Syria or Iraq).
This all came to a head in 2017, when competing boycott and anti-boycott resolutions came up for debate. The Radical Caucus members and their allies put forth a resolution to endorse the boycott of Israeli universities. On the other side was our coalition, pushing an anti-boycott resolution. Our side included both people supportive of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state and those adhering to a broad higher education principle, that boycotts of universities anywhere violate academic freedom by curtailing the dialogue and free exchange of ideas that is fundamental to higher education.
We won. And we won big. The resolution endorsing boycotts of Israeli universities was defeated and a resolution prohibiting future boycott resolutions was overwhelmingly endorsed by the organization’s members later that year.
I decided to attend.
My taxi was late after struggling in the snow for 45 minutes, so I arrived as things were already under way. I walked into a group of more than 40 people sitting in a circle.
As I entered, people looked up, and Butler immediately declared, “Cary, did you make a mistake and come to the wrong place?”
“No, I intended to come, perhaps irrationally,” I said.
“Well, it’s still a free country, isn’t it?” she remarked.
I allowed as how the US president didn’t seem to want it to remain one, foolishly hoping to lighten the atmosphere.
Butler offered me a seat next to her, and then said more to the group than to me, “Do you really want to sit here?”
“Anywhere will do,” I replied.
Those of us who had arrived late were asked to introduce ourselves and explain why we had come. I said that I supported a two-state solution, but opposed BDS because I believed boycotts of Israel would not promote peace; still, I went on, I was nonetheless interested in getting a better understanding of how others felt.
Immediately, a hostile speaker from across the room challenged me. “So you’re interested in our feelings, but not our ideas?
I said I was interested in both.
“You should leave,” someone else chimed in. Two others urged the same.
That’s when someone from the audience suggested a vote about whether I should be allowed to stay or made to go.
Butler endorsed the idea of a vote to make the question of my staying or my going a group decision (Butler now disputes that she endorsed the vote). Several others quickly supported her and repeated the demand for me to leave.
“Will you honor a vote to tell you to leave?” Butler asked me.
Not answering her directly, I said it was supposed to be a public meeting. People said that didn’t matter. They argued that they were young and vulnerable and I might take down their names and institutions and retaliate against them. After all, I was a person of power. Exactly what power no one volunteered to say. I pointed out I had defended graduate students and contingent faculty for decades, and had never criticized one by name. I assured people I was interested in hearing ideas.
Butler then concluded I was refusing to honor a vote demanding I leave, so they would just have to proceed as best they could.
She said 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 now not safe to do so with me 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 (Butler disputes that this occurred, too).
I was astonished. Who would be funding travel to this BDS meeting? The university? How would it be justified?
But my own treatment at this public meeting wasn’t the worst of what went on there. Although half of the hour I was in the meeting was spent berating me, the meeting was equally devoted to complaining that the BDS faction had been cheated by the June MLA vote.
“All we wanted was a level playing field,” Palumbo-Liu declared, “but we didn’t get one.”
What Butler and Palumbo-Liu managed to do this evening was to convince a group of young faculty and students that only a corrupt conspiracy could have defeated them in their effort to pass a BDS resolution boycotting the Jewish state. Convincing others of the malfeasance at work was the first step in organizing a new BDS campaign. Their opponents were unethical and unscrupulous, and that’s why they lost.
As Butler concluded, looking at me: “We need to overcome those who are dedicated to making the fight unfair.”
You might be asking yourself why it matters if the MLA is pro- or anti-BDS. Think of it this way: Its members are the people who teachour students. A formal organizational condemnation of Israel would give thousands of faculty members cover and encouragement to teach BDS-oriented courses about Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. They would no longer need the pretense of claiming to do anything else.
But worse than that, the pro-BDS MLA faction was repeating the same silencing strategies we’re seeing everywhere. Last year, Butler joined a group of faculty demanding that Berkeley cancel a lecture by a far right speaker invited by a recognized campus group. The increasing willingness to silence pro-Israel speakers has migrated to a general leftwing willingness to suppress all speech they find objectionable.
Increasingly, left-leaning faculty are allowing their sense of moral righteousness to trump the principles of academic freedom.
It is obvious this situation will get worse before it gets better. One of the great benefits of free speech on campus is that you get to listen to voices you do not just reject but actually abhor. Once you listen calmly to a serious opponent you cannot tolerate, you are better able to listen to others with whom you disagree. That is partly how a campus can train young people to respect dialogue and debate in a free society. Certainly national politicians increasingly need this lesson as well.
Faculty have an opportunity to model the kind of conversations they would like to see. Was the effort to throw me out of a public meeting a helpful lesson for the young students and faculty in attendance?
Cary Nelson is Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and an Affiliated Faculty member at the University of Haifa. His most recent book is “Dreams Deferred: A Concise Guide to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and the Movement to Boycott Israel”.