MLA Delegate Assembly narrowly approves controversial measure criticizing Israeli decisions on travel of scholars to the country and the West Bank. Should the meeting have been chaired by someone who backs boycott of Israel?
On December 27, William Kelly, the interim chancellor of the City University of New York, the vast university system in which I teach, published a statement condemning the resolution of American Studies Association to boycott Israeli universities. In his statement, Chancellor Kelly wrote, “The need for global cooperation has never been more urgent, and we repudiate any effort to foreclose productive dialogue.” Who, one might wonder, is this we the chancellor is invoking, and who exactly is foreclosing dialogue?
Kelly’s statement is part of a growing chorus of denunciations of the ASA resolution by university presidents and other academic leaders. In these public pronouncements, Kelly and his fellow executives almost always speak in the royal we, as if they talk for the entire university community. In many cases, such arrogation of the right to speak for the whole community is explicit. Amherst College President Biddy Martin, for example, writes in her rejection of the ASA resolution, “On behalf of the college, I express opposition to this academic boycott for several related reasons.”
Yet when university leaders like Kelly and Martin speak not based on their own personal opinions but in the name of the institution, they abrogate the academic freedom of their faculty members. None of the statements issued thus far have benefited from consultation with faculty senates or other representative bodies of faculty opinion. Think of the chilling impact of such presidential declarations on nontenured faculty members who may have participated in the ASA vote, who may be considering attending meetings of the ASA, or who may even hold dissenting critical viewpoints about the Israeli occupation of Palestine. These presidential denunciations threaten to create a witch hunt-like atmosphere on campuses.
The courageous response of a group of faculty members at Trinity College in Connecticut to President James F. Jones Jr.’s attack on the ASA resolution highlights the ways in which these denunciations infringe on academic freedom. The Trinity faculty members point out explicitly to Jones that, “you did not speak in our name – also members of the Trinity College community – when you wrote this ill-advised letter to the ASA president.”
The Trinity faculty had good cause to complain. Without consulting them, President Jones stated in his letter that if Trinity were still an institutional member of the ASA, “it would not be any longer after the misguided and unprincipled announcement of the boycott of the only democracy in the Middle East.” The Trinity faculty might also have objected to the fact that President Jones appears so concerned to protect the academic freedom of Israeli institutions while ignoring that of members of his own university community. What could explain this apparent contradiction between the presidential devotion to abstract notions of academic freedom and pronouncements that ride roughshod over academic freedom at the leaders’ own institutions?
The answer perhaps lies in President Jones’s characterization of Israel as the only democracy in the Middle East, a statement that the Trinity faculty remind him is not simply erroneous but also racially stereotyping. Following this gaffe, Jones goes on to ask rhetorically why the ASA is not boycotting “Syria, the Sudan, North Korea, China, Iran, Iraq, or Russia.”
An identical assertion concerning the regional uniqueness of Israeli democracy and a nearly equivalent list of human rights-violating nations occurs in a recent statement on the website of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. In this statement, the conference calls on university presidents not simply to “publicly reject this academic boycott and the Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) campaign against Israel” but to deny “any funds, direct or indirect, to the ASA or any other body that adopts similar measures.” As part of their campaign against the ASA, the conference is deploying alumni and donors to put pressure on college presidents, distributing highly distorted talking points such as the ones that appeared in President Jones’s and many other presidents’ statements, and ignoring the discussions that circulated before the ASA resolution was put up for a vote, including the collection of essays that I curated at the AAUP’s Journal for Academic Freedom. Also involved in this campaign are Zionist organizations like Stand With Us, whose website includes a “how to” list for campaigners against BDS.
The university presidents’ denunciations are likely to have a chilling impact on fair and open discussion of the BDS campaign on American university campuses. If they follow through on the call to deny all funding to the ASA without adequate consultation with their faculty members, academic leaders will be infringing even more directly on academic freedom.
This building crisis underlines that there is no such thing as academic freedom shorn of the institutional and material conditions that enable such freedom. This point, which, as Judith Butler has explained in her endorsement of BDS, highlights the fundamental lack of freedoms of Palestinian scholars, was key to the ASA’s endorsement of the boycott. It seems that scholars who have endorsed the ASA resolution, or who continue to participate in the ASA, may now be penalized with a withdrawal of institutional resources as well as subtle and not-so-subtle infringements of their academic freedom. It is worth remembering that the academic boycott endorsed by the ASA targets only institutions and not individuals, but the presidents in their defense of Israeli institutions are directly infringing on the rights of association and expression of individual faculty members.
Instead of attempting to silence debate in this manner, academic leaders who are truly interested in nurturing academic freedom at their institutions and elsewhere should establish forums in which the ASA resolution can be discussed and debated in a fair and evenhanded manner. After all, the ASA boycott controversy is not a flash in the pan. As David Theo Goldberg and Saree Makdisi argue, “A rising level of concern about the continuing Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory (now in its fifth decade), as well as the precarious position of Israel's beleaguered Palestinian minority, have been countered by increasingly strident, even furious, attempts to silence or stifle criticism of Israeli policy on American college campuses.” Goldberg and Makdisi’s article details the campaigns of “insinuation, accusation, and defamation” through which organizations such as the Israel on Campus Coalition seek to silence debate about Israel’s policies in the occupied territories. As part of this campaign, groups like Stand With Us distribute propaganda tools such as the Hasbara Handbook, which details strategies of “point scoring” while avoiding genuine debate. Against such attempts to silence discussion, Goldberg and Makdisi’s article sets out some clear ground rules for forums designed to promote civil, respectful, but critical engagements across political divides.
Surely the quashing of dissenting viewpoints should be anathema to university presidents who are truly committed to academic freedom. Courageous and enlightened academic leaders should be fostering critical debate rather than contributing to an atmosphere of intimidation on campus while repeating abstract, and ultimately hollow, endorsements of academic freedom.
Ashley Dawson is professor of English at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, and editor of the American Association of University Professors' Journal of Academic Freedom.
In December the American Studies Association joined the Association for Asian American Studies in calling for a boycott of academic and intellectual exchanges with Israeli colleges, universities, and individual faculty in protest of that country’s treatment of the Palestinians. Since the ASA’s resolution, scores of college and university presidents and the American Association of University Professors have proclaimed that this action is a violation of academic freedom.
The ASA resolution is a serious misstep toward achieving both peace and prosperity in the Middle East and reinforces greater barriers to knowledge and understanding across cultures. Awareness and appreciation of cultures in the Middle East (including traditions, languages, arts, religions, ethnicities, philosophies, economics, and politics) are precisely what we need.
In 1958 President Dwight Eisenhower signed into law the National Defense Education Act. He did so in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of the first earth-orbiting satellite, Sputnik, the previous October. At that time, the United States was woefully short of mathematicians and other scientists, and computer technology was beginning its meteoric rise. The NDEA provided funding to support and educate a new generation of engineers.
However, President Eisenhower’s action also recognized an enduring truth. When peoples of differing cultures live, work, and study together, they begin to understand that “difference” does not necessarily mean “wrong” or “bad.” Rather, they begin to recognize the human similarities across and among cultures. Under Title VI of the NDEA, international studies centers, foreign language and area studies fellowships, graduate and undergraduate international and intercultural studies programs, and citizen education for cultural understandings were funded. These programs focused largely on countries within the Soviet Bloc and have been credited as playing a significant role in promoting positive solutions and intercultural advancement in Eastern Europe. We need a similar initiative for the Middle East.
A dozen years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the horrific war in Syria, and the ongoing issues between Israel and neighboring regions have shaped our perceptions of the area's peoples and politics, whether accurate or not. I suspect many, if not most, are not accurate. Sadly, public perceptions foster the foreign policy that guides our relations with Middle Eastern countries.
Just as we need to know the peoples of the Middle East better, they need to know us better as well. International educational exchange between faculty and students is a proven strategy for accomplishing that goal. We should build ties, not cut them off, with Israeli universities, with Palestinian universities and with institutions throughout the region. That is why the ASA’s boycott is exactly the wrong action at the wrong time.
Devorah Lieberman is president of the University of La Verne.
In recent weeks a number of Modern Language Association members have talked with me about MLA Resolution 2014-1 to be voted on in Chicago on Saturday by the organization’s Delegate Assembly at the MLA’s annual meeting. The resolution "urges the U.S. Department of State to contest Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities.” Several people expressed doubt that any counter-evidence could be presented to question the conclusions advanced by the background paper distributed by the resolution’s proponents. They then typically advanced to the next stage of the discussion, wondering what arguments could possibly be raised to defeat the resolution. The background paper sounds reasonable, even factual, if you aren’t well informed or up-to-date about conditions in Israel and the occupied territories. The people I talked with concluded it was an open-and-shut case.
Until now, MLA members have been in the same situation as the American Studies Association members who voted on a boycott resolution in December: They have only been presented with one side of the case. But a group of MLA members have now put together a detailed document exposing factual errors, contested claims, and misleading conclusions in the background paper available to MLA members on the association’s website. Like the resolution’s proponents, they have drawn on material gathered by non-government organizations with an interest in the subject. Rather than an objective report, the pro-resolution background paper is now revealed to be essentially the prosecution’s case. The document prepared by the resolution’s opponents amounts to the case for the defense.
The case for the defense rebuts both arguments and examples put forward by proponents of the resolution. It shows that many international scholars work and teach in the West Bank. It demonstrates why visa denials may not be “arbitrary.” It shows how the documents supporting the resolution are flawed and unreliable, including some that are now out of date. And it shows how Israeli visa policies are comparable to visa policies elsewhere. There are fundamental disagreements of fact between the two sides.
The members of the MLA’s Delegate Assembly have thus become triers of the facts, acting to evaluate what are fundamentally a set of evidence-based issues: what are the conditions at Palestinian universities? Are faculty members from other countries who wish to do so able to teach there? Are Palestinian faculty members able to engage in professional travel? What Israeli security concerns that affect access are or are not valid? What travel rules should an existentially threatened country in a state of perpetual war feel justified in enforcing? Does Israel have the right to exclude foreign faculty who advocate violence?
It is fair to say that MLA members are not necessarily well-informed about the first questions and are not professionally equipped to answer the last three. They would ideally have to listen to weeks of expert testimony and questioning before voting on the resolution. Instead they will hear an afternoon’s debate by English and foreign language professors. If the resolution passes, it will then be subjected to a vote by the association’s 30,000 members.
The MLA is to be applauded for requiring a democratic vote by its members before a resolution is formally adopted by the organization as a whole. Unfortunately, neither the Delegate Assembly nor the MLA’s 30,000 members have been equipped to be triers of the facts. Indeed MLA’s members are not required to read the documents supporting or contesting the resolution. Nor will they even be able to sit in judgment and hear arguments. They would be free to vote on the basis of their prior convictions, much as many of the ASA’s members surely did. Many ASA members no doubt voted approval simply because they were angry at Israel. They took the only organizational opportunity they had to express their disapproval of Israeli policy. The efficacy or advisability of academic boycotts aside, they registered their general convictions. Indeed there is no guarantee that members of the Delegate Assembly will read the two sets of background documents before voting.
Unfortunately, the context and basis for voting on the MLA resolution are worse still. Whether or not you support academic boycotts is fundamentally a matter of principle. Principle alone can guide a vote. But the MLA resolution is fundamentally fact-based. The process the MLA uses is not adequate to the task of establishing the facts. It is fatally flawed, or at least it will be if the Delegate Assembly approves the resolution.
Before the American Association of University Professors censures a college or university administration, it reviews documents submitted by both faculty members and administrators, tasks staff to prepare a review of relevant issues and key questions needing answers, and selects a team of faculty knowledgeable about academic freedom and shared governance to visit the campus in question to interview interested parties. The AAUP then drafts a full report reaching consensus on the facts. The AAUP also shares the draft report with administrators and faculty members on the campus and requests comments. The revised report is published for comment. The organization’s 39-member National Council reviews the report and votes on whether to recommend a vote for censure to the annual meeting. This is the kind of process required to decide a fact-based case in a responsible and professional manner.
But the MLA is not merely contemplating censuring a university. It is basically censuring a country for its policies. When did MLA conduct site visits to Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank? When did the MLA give Israelis an opportunity to respond, a procedure the MLA’s rules would seem to require? Where is the consensus report evaluating arguments pro and con and giving MLA members a disinterested basis on which to vote? If the Delegate Assembly votes to approve the resolution after this flawed process proceeds, it will have undermined the credibility of the organization and gone a long way toward transforming it from a scholarly to a political one. It does not augur well for the group’s future as a widely endorsed advocacy vehicle for the humanities.
On the other hand, the Delegate Assembly has an opportunity to reject the resolution. Set beside one another, the two sets of documents make it clear that a good deal more objective evidence would be needed to prove the prosecution case. To follow through on the jury trial analogy: when the documents for and against the resolution are compared, the DA at the very least must conclude there is “reasonable doubt” the resolution is justified.
That is not to say that Israel should not take the risk of loosening the security restrictions under which Palestinian universities operate. That would be one component of a plan for jettisoning control of the West Bank, something Israel may have to do unilaterally if negotiations continue to fail. But it is to say that MLA’s ill-informed resolution and inadequate procedures have no role to play in the process. In an era of continuing adjunct abuse and politicians declaring the humanities of no economic use, the MLA should concentrate instead on saving a profession endangered in its own country.
Cary Nelson served as national president of the American Association of University Professors from 2006 to 2012. He teaches at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.