On Wednesday, the Modern Language Association, one of the country’s larger academic organizations, resoundingly rejected any efforts to boycott the world’s only Jewish state. The resolution, which had previously passed at the organization’s annual conference, was ratified in a membership-wide vote by a margin of 1954 to 884. The resolution states:
Whereas endorsing the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel contradicts the MLA’s purpose to promote teaching and research on language and literature;
Whereas the boycott’s prohibition of the evaluation of work of individual Israeli scholars conflicts with Resolution 2002-1, which condemns boycotts against scholars; and
Whereas endorsing the boycott could curtail debates with representatives of Israeli universities, such as faculty members, department chairs, and deans, thereby blocking possible dialogue and general scholarly exchange;
Be it resolved that the MLA refrain from endorsing the boycott.
This particular incident offered a twist on the usual scholarly skirmishes over the issue. Typically, the debate centers around a pro-boycott resolution offered up by fringe anti-Israel members of a given academic association. But this year, the many MLA opponents of such boycotts decided to turn the tables and propose an anti-boycott resolution. As the ensuing vote revealed, there is really little groundswell support for cutting off contact with Israeli universities and scholars. Most academics reject the entire notion as antithetical to academic freedom when given the chance. By putting the boycott to a full membership vote, its opponents exposed that the BDS emperor has no clothes.
“BDS supporters infiltrate every avenue of the administration of an organization, so they don’t need 10,000 supporters, they need 50 supporters in key positions,” explained Dr. Rachel Harris of University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, who helped push the resolution. “They are then able to stand as if under a magnifying glass to project their effect when, in reality, it’s one small man behind a small curtain.” The vote, however, pulled back the curtain.
“Perhaps 10 percent of the organization was interested in discussing Israel and Palestine, and that was represented pretty much equally between BDS supporters and supporters of Israel,” said Harris. “But 90 percent felt that this was a completely inappropriate use of the organization and that it was preventing the organization from being able to engage in issues that directly affect its students and its faculty.”
The anti-boycott resolution was put forward by MLA Members for Scholars Rights, a diverse group of academics opposed to the boycott for reasons ranging from academic freedom to concerns about the politicization of scholarship. They produced fact sheets and educational videos, like the one below, to educate their colleagues.
“The biggest failure of boycott movement is that they assume that there is no other way to advocate for Palestinians and advocate against the occupation,” said Harris. “One of the things that we showed is that BDS is not the only way to engage in liberal Zionism or liberal humanitarian values, and that their suggestion that this is the only non-violent form of engagement is false and hyperbolic and dangerous and fails to take into account collateral damage.”
Ultimately, it became clear that there was little MLA appetite for such a boycott, and that many scholars were actually tired of having their association and its conferences hijacked by a small minority of political activists and turned into a referendum on Israel/Palestine.
“The obsession with BDS at the MLA was preventing other conversations from taking place,” explained Harris, “and those conversations weren’t about Israel. They were about the nature of the humanities, the problem of adjunct labor, the threat to historically black colleges, the issue of women’s representation within the ranks of organizational structures, and the crisis that is happening with our graduate students. What was happening was that we were unable to talk about any of these other issues essentially because a radical fringe had hijacked the organization as a megaphone for their own partisan politics.”