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Israel Vote Goes Forward

March 14, 2014

Get ready for the next round of Modern Language Association deliberations on a resolution about Israel and the West Bank.

The resolution was approved -- 60 to 53 -- by the association's Delegate Assembly in January, following hours of intense debate. It criticizes Israel as an "occupying power" and urges the U.S. State Department "to contest Israel’s denials of entry to the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities."

Under MLA rules, resolutions do not become official policy until they are approved by the Executive Council for a vote by the full membership. This week the MLA informed the Delegate Assembly that the Executive Council had done so, setting up a full vote.

But the MLA is not sending another resolution forward. That measure criticizes moves to strip City College of San Francisco of its accreditation. The resolution is being withheld because of the way it refers to the Lumina Foundation (more on that below).

The Israel Resolution

The resolution on Israel has been hailed by academic supporters of the Palestinian cause as an important victory. They argued at the Delegate Assembly and elsewhere that Israeli actions limit academic freedom at Palestinian institutions and make it difficult for some American academics to travel to Palestinian universities. So, they say, it is important for academic groups to take a stand.

Critics of the resolution said that it amounted to the MLA taking sides in an international dispute over which delegates did not know all the facts. Further, they said that by taking a stand on Israel and not evaluating other nations, the MLA was joining in the delegitimization of Israel -- while ignoring attacks on academic freedom globally. Other critics said that the MLA should not focus on international issues at a time that humanities programs and scholars face so many challenges in the United States.

The resolution does not take a stand on the movement to boycott Israeli universities, and the word "boycott" does not appear in the resolution. But the Delegate Assembly vote at the association's annual meeting took place only weeks after the American Studies Association voted to boycott Israeli universities. While some supporters of the resolution stressed that it was not a boycott measure, others were open about wanting the MLA to take such a position in the future. Many critics of the resolution -- including plenty who call for a Palestinian state -- said that they thought the vote would encourage a boycott vote by the MLA in the future.

For the resolution to be considered official MLA policy, it will need not only backing by a majority of those voting, but those voting yes must equal at least 10 percent of the roughly 28,000 people who are members of the MLA. In the last two years, the membership has been polled on three resolutions, and two failed to get 10 percent of the members voting yes. To vote, one must be a member by April 16. MLA members will receive information on voting on Monday and voting will end on June 1. A members-only portion of the MLA website will feature arguments on both sides, and places for members to post comments.

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the MLA, stressed in her letter to the Delegate Assembly (a copy of which was forwarded by a member to Inside Higher Ed) that the Executive Council didn't take stands on the merits of resolutions, but would hold back those that violated MLA rules or might pose a threat to the organization's nonprofit status. The MLA, she wrote, was committed to the principles of "participatory democracy."

In an interview, she said she hoped that MLA members would debate the issues and make their decisions with civility, despite the strong disagreements the issue raises. There were numerous heated exchanges at the Delegate Assembly meeting. But Feal said that "I think our members, when they reflect in writing and publish their comments under their name" on the MLA site, will promote civility and "a level of integrity."

Some critics of the resolution had urged the Executive Council not to forward it to the members for a vote. Cary Nelson, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a prominent critic of the resolution, said that it was a mistake for the measure to go forward and that he hoped members would reject it.

"The great tragedy of all efforts to criminalize Israel is that they undermine efforts to get Palestinians their own West Bank state, the only realistic goal for the region," Nelson said via email. "I have every hope that MLA's members will vote to reject Resolution 2014-1, thereby standing with peace and compromise, rather than with the organized [boycott] hatred campaign that the misguided members of MLA¹s Delegate Assembly opted to support."

Lumina and CCSF

While the MLA delegates spent hours at their annual meeting debating the Israel resolution, they proceeded to an immediate vote (and an overwhelming one of 92 to 2) to criticize the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges for moving to revoke accreditation of City College of San Francisco. Feal wrote to the Delegate Assembly that this resolution was not being forwarded to the members, but the concerns have to do with the preamble, not the stance on CCSF's accreditation.

The preamble begins: "Whereas foundations such as Lumina, with an agenda of privatization and with corporate funding, are influencing accreditation processes and related state education codes;"

Feal wrote in this week's letter that the resolution was being held back "on the advice of the MLA’s attorneys because it contains potentially libelous statements concerning an agenda attributed to 'foundations such as Lumina.' The general counsel from the Lumina Foundation also wrote to me to say that the resolution 'does not accurately reflect the foundation’s agenda or work.' " (Lumina generally describes itself as focused on college completion and efforts to define the meaning and rigor of college degrees.)

The sponsors of the resolution will be able to submit a modified version to next year's Delegate Assembly, Feal said. But if the resolution still mentions Lumina, the foundation will be given the chance to submit a response.

 

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