Note: This is an expanded version of an article published Saturday.
CHICAGO -- The Modern Language Association's Delegate Assembly narrowly approved a resolution Saturday urging the U.S. State Department to express concern over what the measure calls restrictions on scholars' ability to travel to Israel and the West Bank to work at Palestinian universities.
The 60 to 53 vote followed hours of debate in which supporters of the measure framed their issue as a matter of human rights and academic freedom, while critics said that the association was singling out Israel based on faulty information and bias against the nation. Some critics are now charging that the process was flawed because the chair of the meeting had backed the boycott of Israel (more on this issue below).
The vote now goes forward for further review by MLA leaders, and then the membership, and so does not become official association policy just yet. But the issue set off intense debate here. The meeting of the Delegate Assembly was frequently interrupted by confusion over the rules -- and delegates on both sides of the issue expressed frustration over how the meeting was run. Some parliamentary decisions were revisited, and there were numerous interruptions in the proceedings so MLA leaders could study the rules. One attendee on Twitter wrote of the Delegate Assembly that "it's like the worst faculty mtg you ever attended, times 1 trillion."
Ostensibly, the vote was about a specific Israeli policy with regard to how some people are or are not admitted to visit the country. Proponents said scholars were being blocked from visiting Palestinian universities, while others cited the many American and other scholars who travel to those institutions all the time.
But much of the debate went beyond that. Supporters of the resolution talked about their view of Israeli abuses of Palestinians' rights, and cited U.S. aid to Israel as a reason to justify a focus on that country. Critics of the resolution, meanwhile, said that the MLA lacked the expertise to weigh in on these issues. Further, many critics said that the association risked its reputation by singling out Israel.
In a change made to the resolution before today's meeting that was cited by critics as an example of its flaws, references to Gaza were removed. Supporters said that they were trying to clarify the measure. But critics noted that Egyptian authorities control much of the entry to Gaza, and that the change illustrated that supporters hadn't done their homework.
The vote here took place against the backdrop of a recent vote by the American Studies Association to support a boycott of Israeli universities. But proponents of the measure denied repeatedly that this was a first step toward a boycott, and said that the matters were not necessarily related.
At the end of the meeting Saturday, the Delegate Assembly declined to take up an "emergency resolution" that would criticize those who have criticized the American Studies Association. For such a resolution -- submitted well after the normal deadline -- to be considered, 75 percent of the delegates would have to have approved it, and not even a majority voted to do so. Many delegates were at that point, however, clearly anxious to see the nearly five-hour meeting draw to a close.
The MLA announced however, that the emergency resolution would be referred to the association's Executive Committee for possible consideration. That was viewed as a victory by one of the supporters of the emergency resolution.
The debate about the main resolution was contentious from the start, with Richard Ohmann, one of the sponsors demanding an apology from Cary Nelson, one of its leading critics, for saying the resolution was a step toward a boycott vote. That statement is “false, insulting, damaging to our professional reputations," said Ohmann, professor emeritus of English at Wesleyan University. "I would like an apology." Ohmann called the resolution "narrow in scope."
Nelson, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and former president of the American Association of University Professors, responded to the apology request: "Not in this life."
Of the resolution as a whole, he said that "we need to act like scholars and look at evidence, not anecdotes." He repeatedly questioned why Israel was being singled out when there are complaints about scholars' access to many countries.
A Conflict of Interest?
At one point, a substitute resolution was proposed that would not have focused on or even mentioned Israel. That resolution stated that "boycotts, blacklists and travel restrictions directed against scholars and academic institutions pose a serious threat to academic freedom and scholarly debate." The resolution would have urged "all government and academic institutions" to refrain from those practices.
The chair of the meeting -- Margaret Ferguson of the University of California at Davis -- ruled the substitute out of order, on the grounds that it was too similar to past MLA resolutions. That ruling outraged many here. But others said that the substitute resolution should have been ruled out of order for not really being an amendment, but an entirely different resolution not related to the first one. Ferguson initially declined to let her ruling be challenged. Then she said it could be challenged. And the delegates voted to sustain her original ruling killing off the substitute proposal.
On Sunday, critics of the resolution learned that Ferguson is among those who has endorsed an academic boycott of Israel. To some, that suggested a clear conflict of interest, given that they see support for a boycott as evidence of hostility to Israel. There were various points during Saturday's session that Ferguson's rulings angered both sides of the debate over the resolution, and she did not once voice a substantive opinion on the resolution before the Delegate Assembly.
But critics said that had she not ruled against the substitute resolution, it might have gathered support. Further, they said on principle that on a contentious issue such as the resolution, it only made sense to have someone who would not be seen as having a conflict.
Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA, noted that Ferguson is the first vice president of the association, and that the person in that position is designated to preside over the Delegate Assembly. Feal said that she knew that Ferguson had signed a statement of support for the boycott, but that this was before she became an MLA officer. She rejected the idea that Ferguson should have recused herself or been passed over for leading the meeting. Many leaders of the MLA also are involved in various causes, and this should not disqualify them, she said.
Feal also questioned the motives of those who are raising questions about Ferguson. "By targeting this issue in this way, I think those who oppose the resolution are attempting to find anything possible with which to impugn the integrity and governance structure of the MLA," she said. Further she said that many of the groups opposing the resolution have made unfair and false statements (mischaracterizing the process for getting on the MLA program, for example) and that MLA leaders have faced a barrage of hateful emails and phone calls because of the controversy.
Nelson, however, said that the relevant issue was a conflict of interest. Via email he said that "by any professional standards," Ferguson is "guilty of a conflict of interest."
He added: "This fundamental conflict was not acknowledged either before the meeting or during it. The fact was hidden from Delegate Assembly members, except, presumably her fellow endorsers. Ferguson should certainly have recused herself. If any member of the MLA staff or executive council knew, they should have compelled her to do so. Instead she preferred to silence resolution opponents at every opportunity and rule an alternative resolution out of order. The entire proceeding was corrupt. The vote should be voided and Ferguson should resign her position in the organization."
Via email Ferguson said the following: "The resolution was not about a boycott, but about the rights of scholars, as so many previous MLA resolutions have been. Finding someone in our profession who has not commented about the rights of scholars, and who therefore would be qualified to chair this meeting in the opinion of some critics, would be extremely difficult if not impossible. I conducted the meeting carefully, in accordance with Robert's Rules, and with the assistance of MLA experts in those procedures who have advised presiding officers for years. When I ruled a substitute motion out of order, that decision was put to the Delegate Assembly members for a vote -- which I welcomed -- and the vote to sustain the chair's ruling was 88 yay and 25 nay. At no time did I offer any opinion on the resolution before the Delegate Assembly, nor do I believe that any previous statements I have made influenced in any way my capacity to conduct that meeting in an open and transparent way."
Many of those who spoke in favor of the resolution (the one adopted) accused supporters of Israel of distorting the issues. Nathan Brown of the University of California at Davis, said that it was time to take a stand against "rhetorical ploys." He said that all of the complaints about whether the MLA is qualified to take a stand on the issue amount to saying that "no one knows enough to speak out. It is an oppressive rhetoric to make us feel too ignorant," he said. "The rhetoric is, 'you are too stupid to decide for yourself.' "
Others supporting the resolution said that just because other countries have problems is no reason not to speak out against Israel. They compared Israel to apartheid South Africa and said that by the standards cited by supporters of Israel, no one could have spoken out about South Africa.
After the vote, Rachel Harris, head of the Hebrew division of the MLA, said she was upset by the outcome. Harris is assistant professor of Israeli literature and culture at Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, and she studies Palestinian authors who write in Hebrew. She said she was "deeply sympathetic" to many of the concerns of proponents of the resolution. But she said she was "appalled by the lack of critical evidence" in the debate and the singling out of Israel.
She said that "motions of this kind are part of a broader movement to delegitimize the study of Israel as an academic field."
How Much Impact?
The MLA no doubt has influence over many things, and its reports on subjects such as tenure and the foreign language curriculum have prompted considerable campus discussion. Updates of its style guide are much debated (and adopted). Many sessions at its annual meeting attract full houses of academics anxious to share ideas about literature, teaching and the state of the profession. To many scholars, the MLA provides an opportunity they have maybe once or twice a year to be in a room full of academics who share their research specialties and their literary passions.
But for all the debate here on the Middle East, the influence of MLA resolutions (whether on higher education or broader political issues) may be hard to demonstrate. The Delegate Assembly has voted to support repeal of the USA Patriot Act (2003), to grant tenure to adjuncts (2009) and to urge the adoption of comprehensive solutions to gun violence (2013). There have always been some MLA members who object to the association taking political stands. But on issues such as mentioned in this paragraph, most members who spoke at the Delegate Assembly agreed (and quite likely most MLA members share those views) -- and thus the votes didn't attract a lot of attention.
Saturday's vote, in contrast, attracted MLA members who normally ignore the Delegate Assembly, and journalists from far away took notice. The vote was covered critically in the Israeli press and enthusiastically in the Iranian press.
With the resolution that passed now moving to the MLA's Executive Council (and, if approved there, to the full membership), some of the lobbying over the issue will shift as well. Critics of the resolution vowed to continue pressuring against the measure, while also noting the relatively narrow margin by which it passed. Some posted comments on social media noting that the MLA has in the past approved resolutions seen by some as more critical of Israel than this year's.
In 2008, the Delegate Assembly passed a resolution that expressed "solidarity with scholars of Palestinian culture." The resolution specifically said that "education at all levels in the occupied territories is being stifled by the occupation."
But in other years, the MLA has resisted efforts to specifically criticize Israel. In 2007, the MLA's Radical Caucus proposed a resolution that called on the MLA to "defend the academic freedom and the freedom of speech of faculty and invited speakers to criticize Zionism and Israel." The resolution said that academic critics of Israel and Zionism were being unfairly attacked. But the resolution was amended so that it affirmed support for the academic freedom of all who work on the Middle East.
Taking a Stand on American Studies Boycott
The next big issue for the MLA (after considering the resolution on travel by scholars) will be the issue of whether to take a stand on the reaction to the American Studies Association's boycott vote.
Supporters said that they were pleased that the MLA's Executive Council will be taking up the issue. Barbara Foley, a professor of English at Rutgers University at Newark, said that in taking up the issue, the Executive Council is "taking seriously the attacks on academic freedom." She said that the MLA should stand up for the ASA as it faces "attacks by various politicians."
And indeed some politicians have been getting involved in the boycott debate in ways that some here (including those opposed to the boycott) find troublesome. Sheldon Silver, speaker of the New York Assembly, introduced legislation Friday that would bar public colleges from using state funds to support groups that favor boycotts, or to pay membership dues or travel expenses related to such groups.
But to some critics of the boycott, language in the emergency resolution would seem to criticize all of those who disagreed with the ASA's boycott vote, not just politicians who are threatening to cut off funds. The resolution expresses support for "the right of academic organizations and individuals, free from intimidation, to take positions in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against racism. Be it further resolved that the MLA encourage robust discussion of issues regarding the academic freedom of Palestinians."
Roz Rothstein, CEO of StandWithUs, a group that supports Israel, issued a statement saying this of the emergency measure: "This resolution was a backhanded effort to silence criticism of anti-Israel measures by denouncing it as intimidation. The ASA – or anyone else — has every right to make statement or enact resolutions, no matter how stupid or intellectually dishonest they are. But the MLA Delegate Assembly confirmed that opponents have the same right to strongly critique such measures."