PHILADELPHIA – The U.S. Modern Language Association on Saturday rejected a resolution calling for an academic boycott of Israel.One-hundred and thirteen members of the delegate assembly voted against it while 79 voted in favor.
The four-day MLA convention underway in Philadelphia, which attracts thousands of scholars, is the biggest and most important annual humanities event in North America. A decision in favor of a boycott could have dealt a significant blow to Israeli academics and students working in departments of language, literature and related fields across the U.S., as well as to collaborations and research involving Israeli academic institutions.
The resolution was proposed by a group called MLA Members for Justice in Palestine. A decision on the initiative has been postponed for several years.The vote followed a dramatic discussion. Rebecca Comay, the author of the boycott proposal, told the audience that “Palestinians are stripped of the rights we ourselves take for granted.”
One member arguing against the boycott said: “It’s not only racism and anti-Semitism, it smacks of McCarthyism.” Another argued that it is “the same as boycotting those in this room for actions of Cheney and Bush.”Peter C. Herman, a San Diego University professor who opposes the initiative, told Haaretz: “A vote against the boycott is not a vote for the Netanyahu government. However, this boycott targets exactly the people who speak for dissent.”
In addition to the call for the boycott of Israel, the 300 members of the MLA’s delegate assembly were expected to vote on a few other resolutions, including bids to oppose all boycotts and to condemn the suppression of academic freedom in Palestinian universities in Gaza and the West Bank. After the delegates vote, the resolutions will be put up to a vote by all 25,000 MLA members.
MLA President Kwame Anthony Appiah was in favor of the boycott, as were Pulitzer-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, renowned philosopher and gender theorist Judith Butler, and Israeli Talmud scholar Daniel Boyarin. Israeli scholars opposing the boycott released a plea to MLA members to reject the resolution.
The convention, established in 1884, is the most important annual event for scholars of languages. In addition to hundreds of panels that take place at the conference, American universities hold interviews for teaching position at the conference, with graduate students’ careers hanging in the balance.