CHICAGO -- To get to Session 48 (out of more than 800) at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association Thursday, attendees had to show an official name badge to get on the escalator and again to get in the room (switched at the last minute to a large ballroom on the chance of crowds). With some publications complaining that they weren't eligible for press passes, some of those attending wore multiple hats -- a Harvard University graduate student, for example (who could register to attend the MLA in that capacity), was covering the event for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
Inside the meeting, multiple groups sympathetic to Israel were leaving material on the hundreds of seats, only a fraction of which were ever used. One scholar came in and asked if this was the meeting of the Dante Society -- and was dismayed to learn otherwise.
Session 48 may have attracted more scrutiny than any other at this year's MLA. It featured a panel of scholars, all highly critical of Israel, and most supportive or sympathetic to the movement to boycott Israeli universities. The lack of strong critics of the boycott prompted other scholars to set up an alternative panel, which met right after the MLA session, at another hotel.
It seems unlikely that minds were changed at either session. At the official MLA event, the audience (to judge from applause and questions) featured a contingent of boycott supporters and a contingent of boycott opponents. The audience at the second session appeared to be entirely anti-boycott professors and students.
There were moves to promote civility amid the dissension. At the first panel, the second one was mentioned, so that people who wanted that perspective could go and listen (if willing to trudge a bit through the snow here). At the second, the first panel's moderator was thanked for that courtesy.
But beneath that politeness, it was clear that the panelists disagree in big ways -- about the boycott, about the "two state" approach of creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel, about how academic freedom should be defined, and about the impact of the boycott movement on academe. At both panels, speakers said that the recent vote by the American Studies Association to back the boycott represented a significant turning point for American higher education.
The first set of speakers cheered this development as a breakthrough for human rights. The second set sees in the boycott movement a departure from important values of academic freedom -- and some say it is time to be honest about anti-Semitism in the movement (even if not in all its members).
Origins of the Session
Samer M. Ali of the University of Texas at Austin was the chief organizer and moderator of the MLA session. He said that, contrary to popular belief that the event was planned because of the ASA vote, it had another spark. That was the February incident at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York where an event featuring speakers who favor the Israel boycott was criticized by many political leaders. College leaders defended the right of professors to hold the event, but some suggested that the political science department's co-sponsorship suggested institutional endorsement of the boycott.
The fact that there was so much debate over just having speakers express support for the boycott, Ali said, suggested the need for broader discussion. And that's why he and other scholars proposed the session. He noted that, at the MLA, it is standard practice to propose a slate of speakers who have a common approach to an issue, and then to let the audience engage. Ali protected the time allotted to the question period (something not all moderators do), saying he wanted to be sure everyone could have a say.
"I believe Israel has a right to exist," he said. But he added that he rejects "any ideology that favors one group over another," and he said Zionism was such an ideology.
Ali's overall emphasis was in favor of discussion. "I wish to exclude no one," he said. "There is no us and them."
As to the boycott, Ali was one of two speakers at the MLA session who questioned it -- although not for the reasons some boycott critics would like to hear. Ali said it was "bizarre" to favor a boycott of Israeli universities when many academics there speak out against the policies of Israel's government. He said that he would like to see stronger actions than a boycott taken against Israel.
Similarly, Richard Ohmann, a professor of English emeritus at Wesleyan University, said that he was opposed to the boycott because it ignores the way American colleges and universities are "complicit" in Israel's policies, by "decades of fearful silence" about talking about Israel critically, and through U.S. tax dollars that support Israel.
At the same time, however, he said he "cheered" the ASA vote for opening up the conversation. Where he has some regrets, he said, is that so much of the discussion since the ASA vote has been academic freedom, as opposed to about the Palestinians and how society should help them.
"There has been no discussion of U.S. responsibility for Israel," he said. "Is this the discussion we had hoped for?" He also criticized the "thundering" of college presidents who have been opposing the ASA vote. "What is the message that these presidents have sent to tenure-track professors?" he said.
David C. Lloyd, a professor of English at the University of California at Riverside who is a boycott supporter, said he believes the right issues are now getting attention. "I've talked on four radio stations this week," he said. "That hasn't happened before."
Other speakers on the panel discussed various ways they believe Israel oppresses Palestinians, with repeated reference to Israel as an "apartheid" state.
What About Academic Freedom?
When it came time for questions, some of the focus turned to academic freedom and to the question of whether the boycott movement is targeting some groups (namely Jewish scholars in Israel or those of any background who study Israel). One person in the audience said that under a boycott, scholars could not attend conferences in Israel, use Israeli archives or perhaps even cite books published in Israel. "This is about delegitimizing the study of Israel," she said.
Others asked if Arab scholars would have to leave Israeli universities -- and whether this was not denying their rights.
Omar Barghouti, an independent scholar who has helped organize the boycott movement (though he attended an Israeli university), said that there was no reason to limit the rights of Palestinian scholars or students to go to Israeli universities. "People living under oppression have no choice," he said. The boycott movement was about posing a challenge to those who "do have a moral choice."
But to the extent that some people in the United States must adjust their research or teaching agendas because of a boycott, Barghouti said that was a reasonable price to pay. "They are giving up something for a greater good," he said. "There are moral dilemmas here."
Barghouti also seemed to mock Cary Nelson, who has cited the American Association of University Professors' definitions of academic freedom to oppose the boycott. Barghouti, addressing Nelson during the question period, said that the AAUP should pay attention to United Nations definitions of academic freedom (which are less protective than the AAUP's definition). Someday, he said, "you will have to abide by" the UN definitions.
'Delusional and Irrational'
Nelson spoke about academic freedom at length in the second session of the day on the boycott movement. He said that boycott proponents' discussion of the issue isn't just wrong but is "delusional and irrational."
For example, Nelson said that the American Studies Association repeatedly claims that its policies don't create any academic freedom issues. He praised Barghouti for at least admitting that he was calling for academics to give up some freedom.
Nelson said that was the least of the problems with the boycott as envisioned by Barghouti and the American Studies Association. Nelson noted that the groups have left open the possibility of working with Israeli scholars deemed to be supportive of the Palestinian cause. However one feels about that cause, Nelson said, the idea of creating lists of acceptable and unacceptable scholars can't be taken seriously as consistent with academic freedom.
This system creates "the right to suppress people he doesn't like," Nelson said. "This is selective academic tyranny."
Throughout the discussions here, speakers said that some groups were being unfairly maligned. Pro-boycott speakers here and elsewhere have talked about the hate mail they receive and how they must fight off unfair charges of anti-Semitism.
Russell Berman, a past MLA president who is director of German studies and professor of comparative literature at Stanford University who spoke at the second session, said that the real issue in need of discussion was the way anti-Semitic ideas are being given support by some in the pro-boycott movement. He stressed that he did not believe that all criticism of Israel or Zionism is anti-Semitic. But he said that when boycott defenders talk about facing false charges of anti-Semitism, they are engaged in "an attempt to silence the Jewish community." When pro-boycott people criticize the "Zionist lobby," they are trying to question the right of anyone affiliated with certain groups to participate in the debate.
Berman said that the idea that some of the boycott discussion crosses the line beyond political debate can be seen in the comments one sees on social media, or even in articles that show up on pro-boycott websites. He referred to an article in The Electronic Intifada (one of the main websites associated with the Israel boycott) that looked at discussion of boycott and Israel-Palestine issues in the liberal publication The Nation. The article noted the number of Jews who have published on these topics in the last year in the magazine, compared to the number of Palestinians. In the wake of the ASA vote, four pieces were by Jewish authors and one by a Palestinian, the article said -- and this was not necessarily mitigated by the articles generally being pro-boycott.
What does it mean, Berman said, if boycott supporters have "come around to Jew counting?"
Several speakers questioned why it was legitimate to be "anti-Zionist" when pro-boycott supporters did not seem to object to any other group besides Jews having a nation.
When he looks at this kind of discussion, and the way the pro-boycott professors are talking about academic freedom, Berman said he worries about the impact of the movement on "academic character" in the United States. He said that he doesn't expect the boycott to change the policies of the Israeli government, but to create an "agenda for political monitoring" in the United States. By declaring it possible to determine some Israeli scholars -- but not all -- as worthy of contact, Berman said, the boycott movement has "cast an Orwellian pall on the free exchange of ideas."
At the end of the second session, some in the audience said that they wished the panelists there had been able to interact more directly with those at the first panel. But given that this was not possible, they said they were pleased to have had the separate discussion.