The Modern Language Association, which held its annual conference here Jan. 9-12, has approximately 28,000 humanities scholars in its membership, about 4,000 of whom attend the annual conference. The conference features hundreds of workshops and panels discussions — about 800 in total this year — on topics ranging from Italian-American literature to comics and graphic novels to old Norse language and literature.
The campaign to boycott Israel — commonly known as the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, or BDS — was surely the last thing on the minds of most MLA attendees in Chicago. So why did this year’s program include a roundtable panel discussion on academic boycotts of Israel and a factually flawed resolution alleging that Israel bars academics seeking to enter the West Bank?
In my view, it was nothing more than the political rampaging of a small cadre of MLA members intent on politicizing the event and taking advantage of the membership’s general lack of awareness to foist a wholly non-academic issue to the forefront of the conference.
Talking to friends and fellow MLA members, it was striking that none of them had heard of the academic boycott panel or the resolution. Indeed, MLA members seemed acutely unaware of the larger political context and agenda of the panel discussants and resolution proposers, including Omar Barghouti and David Lloyd, who are major players in the BDS movement.
The roundtable discussion was a closed session open only to MLA members. Those who attended were largely a self-selecting group of supporters. The room was half filled with about 100 people, although three security guards stood at the door. The atmosphere was similar to a pep rally, complete with much applause and grandstanding.
There was nothing academic about the panel discussion. Rather it was a hostile, politicized circus in the guise of an intellectual and academic discussion.
It got worse when MLA delegates moved to a discussion of Resolution 2014-1 charging that Israel bars academics seeking to enter the West Bank. The propaganda and polemics of resolution supporters was astounding.
In light of these events, I decided to step up to the microphone to speak out against the resolution at the open hearing of the Delegate Assembly. I spoke to the integrity of the MLA as an academic organization and the imperative that it remain apolitical. If organizations like the MLA become vehicles of the political agendas of its members, this respected group will be compromised, resulting in more harm to the already suffering state of the humanities.
Such results are being seen in other academic circles. Just look at the recent backlash to the American Studies Association’s vote to impose a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. More than 150 university presidents have publicly criticized academic boycotts. Several universities have withdrawn their institutional membership in the ASA.
The response to my testimony was predictable. Lloyd claimed BDS proponents were being “unfairly attacked, intimidated and threatened to suggest there would be a backlash against the MLA for this resolution.”
The Delegate Assembly on Jan. 11 was sheer chaos. The chairperson, Margaret Ferguson of the University of California, Davis, had little control over the room and seemed to change the rules as she went along, quashing those who simply wanted to be heard and eventually moving to suspend the rules of order expressly meant to govern the proceedings.
I can’t say those of us who knew in advance of the roundtable and the resolution were surprised by the insidious atmosphere. There was an expectation that most MLA delegates would be largely uninformed about these issues, and the delegates would vote on impulse without doing their due diligence and reading the background material.
The warnings were sadly apt. It surprised me to be in a room of accomplished scholars from highly respected universities and hear them respond to the resolution with a profound lack of awareness of its political context and implications.
In the end, while the body voted down consideration of an emergency resolution condemning “attacks” and “intimidation” of the ASA for its boycott, Resolution 2014-1, passed by a vote of 60-53, exhorted the U.S. State Department to investigate alleged “denials of entry” of American scholars traveling to pursue academic research and teach in the West Bank.
The resolution advances to the executive committee meeting in February and, if it passes there, will go to before MLA members for a vote. At that point, the resolution must be supported by a majority of voting members whose number equals at least 10 percent of the overall membership.
Colleagues who have attended MLA meetings for decades say they have never seen anything like what occurred. Several members who first learned of the agenda at the conference expressed such disgust that they threatened to cancel their membership if the resolution passes. A serious backlash by members this spring would not be surprising.
Preemptive preparations for this uphill battle were thorough and thoughtful. The impressive group of Jewish intellectuals who fought the resolution, led by highly respected professors Cary Nelson of the University of Illinois and Russell Berman of Stanford University, helped organize an alternative discussion on academic freedom immediately after the academic boycott roundtable.
Clearly the effort to counter the mainstreaming BDS initiatives within academic organizations is only beginning. MLA Scholars for Academic Freedom and anti-BDS forces such as the Israel Action Network, the Israel on Campus Coalition, the Anti-Defamation League and others will continue to educate and inform the MLA membership and initiate outreach to other academic organizations to promote responsibility, academic freedom and integrity.