MLA's Middle East Moves

SAN FRANCISCO -- How political should the Modern Language Association be?

December 30, 2008

SAN FRANCISCO -- How political should the Modern Language Association be?

That question was center stage at Monday's meeting of the MLA's Delegate Assembly -- a four-hour plus endurance test of association business and resolution writing. The Delegate Assembly tends to take a while to come to conclusion on most matters -- even when there is general consensus about the issue. So it took numerous votes and modifications before the group approved a measure calling for the creation of a standing committee on adjuncts -- a panel on which adjuncts would be most of the members and try to develop plans to improve the way they are treated.

Take some more controversial issues and things get really tricky. One of the topics that has vexed the MLA and other scholarly associations in recent years has been the question of how political to be on issues that aren't immediately related to scholarship or teaching. The Delegate Assembly -- frequently at the prodding of the Radical Caucus, which more than many other groups of MLA members, takes these votes seriously -- has over the years voted to take various stances, only to be blocked in some cases by the MLA's Executive Council, which has the power to review votes and determine whether they violate the MLA charter.

This year, MLA leaders invited discussion on how politically active the association should be. And while there was no conclusion on that question, the Delegate Assembly went on to take stands on several issues related to foreign policy. It voted to formally oppose the war in Iraq, and also to express solidarity with scholars of Palestinian literature. And as delegates gathered at the meeting, they walked by members holding signs to protest Israel's attacks on Gaza. “Gaza burns, MLA contemplates” read one sign. “Where are the humanities when humans die?” said another.

The level of political involvement for a disciplinary association is a subject debated in many groups. When the American Historical Association voted to condemn the war in Iraq, the public opposition came not from supporters of the war, but from historians who believed this was a stance for them to take individually, not as an organization.

In the general discussion of taking political stances, professors spoke on both sides. One professor said that "most people feel the MLA should represent them professionally and not politically," adding that it shouldn't be necessary for all members of the MLA to share political opinions. Taking positions on issues beyond scholarship and teaching would be "weakening the association," she said.

That perspective brought a sharp retort from another professor, who said: "If we buy into this argument that we should just talk about Shakespeare and shut up about everything else, we abdicate our responsibility as scholars."

The MLA proposal on Iraq was based in part on the fact that the historians group and the American Anthropological Association have taken stands related to Iraq and the MLA has not. Seemingly seeking to piggyback on those associations, the original draft of the resolution adopted by the MLA noted that these "sister academic organizations" had taken positions, and urged the MLA to disseminate those groups' positions against the war. (Relatively little mention was made in the discussion that the move is coming as a new administration, having pledged well before the MLA meeting to end the war in Iraq, is about to take office.)

In discussion of the resolution, the Delegate Assembly decided to go beyond the original draft and so now is stating that the MLA "joins the AAA and AHA in condemning the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq."

The discussion on scholarship on Palestinian literature and culture was more controversial. The measure states that the occupation of Palestinian territory has been "a critical condition in shaping modern Arabic literature" and that "those teaching and writing about the occupation and about Middle East culture have regularly come under fire." It goes on to state that the MLA "endorses teaching and scholarship about Palestinian culture, supports members who come under attack for pursuing such work, and expresses solidarity with scholars of Palestinian culture."

References to "Zionist groups" and a use of "Palestine" in a way that some critics said could be read to be denying the right of Israel to exist were removed from the resolution. But members of the Radical Caucus, which sponsored the measure, fought off efforts by Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, to replace the resolution with one that expressed solidarity both with those who study Palestinian and Israeli culture.

His resolution would have had the MLA express solidarity with scholars of Israeli and Palestinian culture. "[T]he MLA needs to support the academic freedom of all scholars but should remain neutral in the conflict," the proposed replacement said. Last year, Nelson led a successful effort to change a resolution about tenure fights involving critics of Israel to a broader statement that did not single out one side of the debate over the Middle East. This year, the Radical Caucus beat back his efforts -- frequently with strong attacks on the idea that there could be any equivalence between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Grover Furr, a Montclair State University professor who is a leader of the Radical Caucus, called Nelson's proposal "absolutely Orwellian," and "incredibly biased, one might say racist, certainly imperialist." Furr questioned why there should be any reluctance to criticize Zionist groups when "they proudly call themselves Zionist." He also mocked Nelson's statement that the original resolution would be divisive. "In the zeal to avoid divisiveness, this proposal is thoroughly repulsive," he said.

Some in the audience noted that the scholars with whom the MLA was expressing solidarity weren't necessarily scholars of Palestinian culture and literature. Several times during the debate, the case of Nadia Abu El-Haj was cited. She's an anthropologist at Barnard College who won tenure, but only after a strong campaign against her by pro-Israel groups who disagree with her research. While it's uncontested that she faced a campaign by supporters of Israel, one delegate noted that her research is about Israeli archeology, not Palestinian literature. And while another scholar cited the bias faced by the late Edward Said, a former MLA leader, a critic of the resolution during the debate noted that Said -- while a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause -- is best known not for his work on Palestinian culture, but for his analysis of Western concepts of the East.

While the Radical Caucus members were thrilled with the vote, it's not final. MLA leaders will review it and can reject it if they believe it would impede the organization's work, if it contains "erroneous, tortious or possibly libelous statements," or if it would be inconsistent with the association's charter or tax-exempt status. If the MLA Executive Council does not find such violations, the measure is forwarded to the full MLA membership for a vote.


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