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MLA Vote to Criticize Israel Falls Short

June 5, 2014

The final vote on the Modern Language Association's proposed resolution on Palestinian universities was a bit anticlimactic, and gave proponents and critics of the measure alike something to cheer.

The controversial resolution 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."

Of those who voted, a majority backed the resolution. But the MLA requires that 10 percent of members vote Yes on a resolution for it to become association policy and that threshold wasn't met, so the resolution does not become MLA policy. (In past years since the association instituted the 10 percent rule, some measures, but not all, have reached that level of support.)

On this resolution, there were 1,560 votes in favor of ratification and 1,063 votes against. But the required minimum Yes votes was 2,390. The association announced the results Wednesday.

In January, the resolution was approved -- 60 to 53 -- by the association's Delegate Assembly, following hours of intense debate. That set the stage for the membership vote.

The MLA resolution did not call for an academic boycott of Israel, as the American Studies Association did in December. However, some supporters of the MLA resolution want to see a boycott, and many on both sides of the issue saw the debate on the resolution as a possible prelude to one on the boycott.

Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel​, said via email that he considered the vote a victory for advocates of a boycott, who he said were "buoyed and inspired by the MLA vote. The fact that 60 percent of the total votes cast -- 1,500 out of 2,500 -- supported the resolution to censure Israel is quite a significant development, given the MLA's prominence. It may usher in further measures holding Israel accountable for its regime of occupation and apartheid and holding its academic institutions to account for their deep and persistent complicity in this regime."

He acknowledged that the measure did not meet the 10 percent minimum to count, but said that "the trend cannot be mistaken: gone are the days when Israel’s lobby could impose its will through the usual bullying and smearing tactics."

Other supporters of the boycott movement also praised the outcome, emphasizing the vote and not the lack of enough voters to make the decision count. The Electronic Intifada website headline was: "Large majority votes for MLA resolution condemning Israeli restrictions on academics."

But critics of the resolution stressed that the measure failed to become MLA policy. The Israel Action Network praised the MLA for “choosing to honor academic freedom and integrity by refusing to ratify this baseless and discriminatory resolution.” The statement from the network said that the resolution "singled out the state of Israel for discriminatory treatment based on distortions and bias."

MLA Members for Scholars' Rights, a group formed to oppose the resolution, issued an analysis that emphasized that the resolution did not come close to attracting the level of support needed to become MLA policy, noting that only 6 percent of members backed it.

This move, the association said, could return the MLA "to its core purposes: deepening our understanding of our long, compelling, international literary inheritance; improving our resources for teaching our students; and promoting the role and presence of the humanities here and abroad. This is a task that grows larger and more challenging with every year, and it would only be made more difficult if we turned the organization into a vehicle for the partisan politics of a minority of its members."

The group said that "[t]here are times when the MLA has a reason to enter political debates -- most notably when U.S. government policy affects its members’ ability to teach and do research. But MLA does not need a foreign policy. In this case, a resolution’s proposers imagined themselves qualified to judge how another country’s security needs should impact that country’s visa policies."

 

 

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