PHILADELPHIA -- In a defeat for the movement to boycott Israeli academic institutions, members of the Modern Language Association’s Delegate Assembly voted down a resolution endorsing the academic boycott on Saturday. Instead, they voted to adopt another resolution that calls on the association of language and literature scholars to refrain from endorsing the boycott of Israeli universities.
The vote on Saturday in favor of the anti-boycott resolution was 101 to 93, while the pro-boycott resolution failed by a 113-79 margin. The anti-boycott resolution will now be forwarded to the MLA’s executive council, which will determine whether to distribute it to the full membership for a vote.
The vote on boycott at the MLA’s annual convention comes as about half a dozen U.S.-based scholarly associations, including the American Studies Association and the National Women’s Studies Association, have formally expressed their support for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions since 2013. Members of the American Anthropological Association narrowly voted down a pro-boycott resolution in the spring.
Opponents of the academic boycott of Israel argue that it limits academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas, a position held by the American Association of University Professors. The text of the anti-boycott resolution approved by members of the Delegate Assembly asserts that endorsing the Palestinian campaign to boycott Israeli academic institutions “contradicts the MLA’s purpose to promote teaching and research on language and literature” and could “curtail debates with representatives of Israeli universities, such as faculty members, department chairs and deans, thereby blocking possible dialogue and general scholarly exchange.”
Some MLA members have been pushing the organization for years to criticize or boycott Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, and the issue has occupied considerable time at the annual Delegate Assembly meetings. But as the debate has gone on, opponents have become organized as well. Twelve former MLA presidents earlier this week issued a letter opposing the boycott in which they argued that supporting a boycott of universities “will damage the reputation of the MLA and will do nothing to solve conflicts in the Middle East.”
“This resolution is not about justice for Palestinians who have been living under deplorable conditions under the occupation,” Sima Godfrey, the associate head of French, Hispanic and Italian studies at the University of British Columbia, said in her remarks against the boycott at the Delegate Assembly meeting. “I believe strongly in that justice and their right to that justice. This resolution is not about a two-state solution, which I believe in. This resolution is not about the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, which I deplore.” Rather, Godfrey argued the resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions is about holding Israeli academics collectively responsible for the policies of their government.
“Under such circumstances, as a Canadian, I should have boycotted most of the people in this room for the policies of Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Cheney and Bush, and I'm sure you realize that would have been ineffective,” she said.
Supporters of the boycott of Israeli universities, on the other hand, argue that it is a powerful way to show solidarity for Palestinians in the face of what the text of the pro-boycott resolution describes as “the systematic denial of academic freedom and educational rights for Palestinian scholars and students” and the United States’ material support for “Israel’s ongoing violations of human rights and international laws.”
“Our resolution is responding to a virtually unanimous call from Palestinian civil society,” Rebecca Comay, a professor of philosophy and comparative literature at the University of Toronto, said in introducing the pro-boycott resolution, which was voted down by a 59 to 41 percent ratio. “The boycott is an act of solidarity to counter the enormous injustices of dispossession, occupation, blockade and racial discrimination that Palestinians continue to suffer daily. These injustices have stripped Palestinians of their basic human rights, including their rights to education and academic freedom, rights we ourselves take for granted and to which the MLA is committed.”
Comay said she was “shocked” and “disappointed” by the results of the Delegate Assembly vote on Saturday. She described it as “shameful” that the MLA “would take a [negative] position on the activity of boycott, which is protected by the First Amendment. It’s like taking a vow of silence.”
She added that the anti-boycott resolution is not a principled stand against academic boycotts in general -- a position she said she respects even though she doesn't agree with it -- but rather “a specific resolution in which Israel was being singled out as a country that should be immune to a boycott by the MLA.”
“I was prepared for our resolution to fail to win the approval of the majority, but I was not expecting that the MLA would now be taking a principled position against the boycott, which is a much more actively negative stance,” Comay said.
Even if the MLA’s Delegate Assembly had approved a pro-boycott resolution Saturday, the matter would not have been conclusively decided. Any resolutions supported by the Delegate Assembly -- including the anti-boycott measure that was approved -- will be forwarded on, first to the MLA’s executive council, which under the association’s rules is charged with conducting a review of the “constitutional, legal and fiduciary issues posed by the language of each resolution approved by the Delegate Assembly.” The council will then determine whether to pass it along to the full membership of the association for a vote.
A change to MLA’s bylaws that went into effect in 2012 requires a resolution to receive the support of 10 percent of all members in order to pass. Since that bar’s been in place, only two of six resolutions submitted to the full membership for a vote have been ratified.
“Our work is not over with,” said Cary Nelson, the Jubilee Professor of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the co-editor of The Case Against Academic Boycotts of Israel. Nelson said that “it will be a challenge” to garner enough votes in support of the anti-boycott resolution to meet that 10 percent threshold.
“It will be helpful,” he said, “if we can get a strong member vote behind the resolution. Maybe we won't have to face this again for a while.”
In addition to approving the anti-boycott resolution and defeating the pro-boycott resolution, the MLA’s Delegate Assembly voted 83 to 78 to indefinitely postpone consideration of a resolution condemning alleged attacks on academic freedom by Palestinian political organizations, a resolution opposed by critics as “racist” and as victim blaming in focusing on alleged violations of rights carried out by Palestinians to the exclusion of those attributed to the Israeli government.
That resolution was introduced for consideration after the two boycott-related resolutions had been voted on and the anti-boycott faction emerged victorious. Upon introduction of the resolution, Russell A. Berman, the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities at Stanford University and a proposer of the anti-boycott resolution, spoke on behalf of the third resolution's proposer of record, the University of South Carolina's Agnes C. Mueller, who was not present. Berman called for the resolution to be withdrawn from consideration. But others in attendance, incensed at the introduction of a resolution that condemned Palestinian groups for academic freedom violations while ignoring violations perpetrated by the Israeli state, argued that the resolution as submitted should be subject to a full debate.
Barbara Foley, a distinguished professor of English and American studies at Rutgers University's campus in Newark, described the resolution, which called on the MLA to “condemn attacks on academic freedom in Palestinian universities, whether they are perpetrated by the Palestinian Authority or by Hamas, as racist.”
David Palumbo-Liu, a professor of comparative literature at Stanford, agreed. “I find the erasure of Israel in this resolution to be criminal,” said Palumbo-Liu, who objected to the resolution's silence on what he described as the “systemic state suppression of Palestinians.”
“I think that it is, as Barbara said, racist, and I would say that the move to table it reminds me of nothing so much as what happened after the declaration of ‘black lives matter’ when people said, ‘All lives matter,’” he said.
The vote to indefinitely postpone consideration of that resolution was decided by just a five-vote margin. In an earlier email interview with Inside Higher Ed conducted before the Delegate Assembly meeting, Mueller, the resolution's sponsor, said she had appended to the measure documentation of abuses of academic freedom carried out by Palestinian political groups. “The proponents of the boycott call themselves MLA Members for Justice in Palestine,” she said. “Here are real cases of injustice, documented by serious sources. If they really support justice in Palestine, they should support this.”
After consideration of the three resolutions related to the Middle East, Michael Bérubé, the Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of Literature at Pennsylvania State University, presented a resolution introduced under the association's emergency procedures responding to the election of Donald J. Trump to the U.S. presidency. The resolution, as amended, reaffirms the association's commitment to “the ideal of free and unfettered scholarly exchange” and its opposition to discrimination “on the basis of race, gender, class, ethnicity, color, age, sexual orientation, disability, religion, political beliefs or national origin,” and asserts that “the Trump administration threatens to violate these core principles of democracy and academic freedom.”
In light of this, the resolution, approved by the Delegate Assembly by a 104-8 margin, calls on the association to endorse the AAUP's statement "Higher Education After the 2016 Election" and encourages members to disseminate the statement widely.