MLA Votes to ‘Refrain’ From Backing Israel Boycott

Move -- by 2-to-1 margin -- follows several years of heated debates at association’s annual meetings.

June 15, 2017
 

By a large margin, members of the Modern Language Association have voted to “refrain from endorsing the boycott” of Israeli universities that has been pushed for years -- including within the MLA -- by advocates for Palestinians.

For years, the MLA's Delegate Assembly has debated various measures related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In January the Delegate Assembly rejected a resolution endorsing the boycott of Israel, and then by a narrow margin approved a resolution that the MLA should refrain from endorsing the boycott. Under MLA rules, measures that are approved by the Delegate Assembly are then sent to the full membership for approval. Ten percent of MLA members must vote in favor of a resolution for it to become association policy -- a bar that few resolutions have been able to get over.

This year, the MLA announced Wednesday, there were 18,279 eligible voters, so 1,828 votes were required to ratify the resolution. The measure for the association to refrain from boycotting Israeli universities was passed by a vote of 1,954 to 885.

The move to boycott Israeli universities has for years had strong support in British academe, but had been less evident in the United States. That changed in 2013, and about half a dozen U.S.-based scholarly associations, including the American Studies Association and the National Women’s Studies Association, have backed the boycott. Those votes led many college and university presidents to issue statements opposing the boycott. The boycott movement attracted little support in the physical and biological sciences and technology fields, where ties between American and Israeli institutions have been growing.

But starting last year, the boycott movement lost significant momentum -- even in academic groups that have many members who are critical of Israel's policies. The American Anthropological Association last year narrowly voted down a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions. And now the MLA has adopted as official policy an anti-boycott stance.

Russell Berman, the Walter A. Haas Professor in the Humanities, as well as a professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford University, has been among the leaders of those opposing the Israel boycott.

"This is a good outcome for the MLA and for higher education," Berman said via email. "It affirms the principle that scholars should not boycott scholars. The MLA membership does not want to be pulled into political controversies that have little or nothing to do with the mission of the association. Instead, at a time when the humanities face major threats, we have crucial battles before us concerning funding for public universities, the status of non-tenure-track instructors, and the future of the NEH. It is time to put the divisive boycott debate behind us and to unite as a professional association to meet these challenges."

Rebecca Comay, professor of philosophy and comparative literature at the University of Toronto, and a supporter of the boycott movement, had a very different reaction.

"This is a shameful moment for the MLA," Comay said. "It will contribute to the climate of repression on campuses everywhere. It will serve to undermine the efforts of pro-Palestinian human rights activists. It sends out a clear message to the membership that the priority of the association is to protect the privilege of Israeli and American scholars."

The debate within the MLA and other scholarly associations has always been about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and also about the role of scholarly organizations.

On the former set of issues, proponents of the boycott have said that Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories -- now in place for 50 years -- is a moral outrage on which professors should take a stand. The growth of the boycott movement in American academe has come during years that the Likud Party has controlled the government of Israel, and the optimism that followed Camp David and Oslo has been long forgotten.

Opponents of the boycott movement have frequently stressed that they, like their opponents on the issue, oppose many Israeli policies and favor Palestinian statehood. Many anti-boycott speeches at MLA sessions started with variations of "I don't support the Israeli government, but …"

While critics have generally focused on arguments about the role of the MLA, many have also said that the pro-boycott side has made exaggerated criticisms of Israel and singled out that country in a way that is unfair. Many have also said that academic boycotts violate principles of academic freedom and make a false assumption that academics back the political leaders' positions. (In Israel, many of the staunchest supporters of Palestinian rights are within academe.)

With regard to the role of scholarly associations, supporters of the boycott have said that academic groups can exercise influence by taking stands on important issues. But critics have said that academic groups should focus on subjects on which they have unique expertise and should avoid contentious political issues that (even if they have an impact on academe) are not fundamentally academic issues.

Debate over these issues is not unique to the MLA or the Middle East. For example, members of the American Historical Association in 2007 voted to condemn the war in Iraq, and the debate featured hardly anyone in favor of the war, but many who worried about potential downsides to the AHA taking any position as an organization on the subject.

The debates in various associations over the Israel boycott have also renewed deliberation over whether those who attend various events at scholarly meetings reflect their disciplines as a whole.

In the case of the MLA, a narrow vote for the refrain resolution at the Delegate Assembly was followed by a 2-to-1 vote in favor when all members were invited to participate. In the case of the anthropology association, the full membership's very narrow vote against the boycott followed an overwhelming vote in favor of boycott -- 1,040 to 136 -- by attendees of the annual meeting.

Rosemary G. Feal, executive director of the MLA, said in an interview that "if you look at the fewer than 200 delegates who participate" in the Delegate Assembly votes, "that's going to be a different conversation than if you open it up to the whole membership."

The MLA leadership did not take a stand on the vote, but has been studying the issue of when the association should speak out on public issues, she said.

Feal noted the contrast between the debates on the Middle East in the Delegate Assembly and much of the rest of the MLA convention. The Delegate Assembly typically features long discussions of professional issues, such as the treatment of non-tenure-track faculty members. Indeed, those discussions may not capture public attention. And the vast majority of those at the MLA's annual conclaves are attending sessions about literature or language or teaching, or are serving on search committees -- and many pay little attention to the political debates in the Delegate Assembly.

In advance of this year's vote to refrain from the Israel boycott, some supporters of the boycott said that the measure would limit their rights of free speech.

Timothy Brennan, a professor of comparative literature, English and American studies at the University of Minnesota, wrote on the website of MLA Members for Justice in Palestine that the resolution, "which suppresses debate over Israel within the MLA and, indeed, is intended to prevent any public statement by the organization critical of the Israeli state is itself an outrage and a betrayal, of course, of everything the MLA nominally stands for … It is a mood very much in the spirit of the United States’ more general rightward turn, but now taken up enthusiastically, it appears, by a frustrated sector sick and tired of critical thought, angry at its own professional disenfranchisement, and eager to get revenge on the humanities’ earlier progressive commitments."

Feal said she did not believe anyone's right to expression was being denied. She noted that MLA members maintain the right to repeal the resolution. Further, she noted that the resolution was narrowly focused on the Israel boycott, and did not preclude resolutions that are critical of Israel, or sessions at MLA meetings that feature criticism of Israel.

Cary Nelson, Jubilee Professor of English at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has been a prominent anti-boycott voice in the MLA. His position has surprised and angered many of his longtime allies within the MLA. Via email he said that the key to the vote's outcome was an effort by boycott opponents to encourage people to participate in the referendum.

"We believed from the outset that the majority of members did not want to debate an MLA foreign policy, that they wanted to concentrate instead on defending an imperiled profession and helping its most vulnerable graduate student and contingent members," Nelson said. "The challenge was to get out the vote, and many of us worked hard at that task. But MLA members also do not believe that Israel is the Darth Vader of nations; they have lent their voice to the growing chorus of those who do not want to boycott Israeli universities but instead choose to talk with their students and faculty about literature and to work with them to promote the cause of peace."

 

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