Yesterday, at the Modern Language Association (MLA) annual meetings in Chicago there was Panel 48, one of more than 800 on this year’s program. The MLA has a membership of more than 30,000 university and college academic specialists in English, literature and history. This panel in particular has drawn media attention and controversy because of the theme, “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine”. It is reflective of the furor raised over recent resolutions favoring Academic Boycotts passed by both the 5,000 member American Studies Association (ASA) and even smaller 1,700 member Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) in mid-December 2013. These academic groups are a distinct minority in the groves of American Academia.
Moreover the Academic boycott of Israeli academic institutions is a two edged sword, as it would bar contact with a number of similarly minded Israeli academics. The uproar has led to formal rejection of the academic boycott of Israeli institutions by more than 150 American Universities, including some of the universities where MLA Panel 48 members are affiliated. Six of the objecting Universities have withdrawn department affiliations with the ASA. Further the 47,000 member American Association of University Professors (AAUP), with 500 local campus and 39 state chapters, has opposed the ASA and NAISA Israel academic boycotts on the grounds of denial of academic freedom as contained its 1940 protocol and 2005 restatement.
Across town in Chicago another panel was convened under the auspices of the Chicago Jewish Federation to express opposing views from pro-Israel advocates including Hillel International (HI), the Israel Campus Initiative (ICI), and StandWithUs. Pro-Israel and anti-boycott advocates had protested the denial of opportunities to present opposing views at the MLA panel. Moreover as noted in a January 2, 2014 JNS.org release on the contretemps the MLA had advised them that counter panels would have had to file by the deadline, April 1, 2013. The JNS.org release noted the exchange between MLA executive director Rosemary G. Feal who wrote ICC director Jacob Baime, “We do not rent space at our convention for nonmembers to hold discussions.” To which ICC‘s Baime and HI’s Neusner replied:
“We believe the members of the MLA deserve to hear a far more diverse set of perspectives on the issue of academic freedom in Israel and nearby countries. The MLA members, as academics, certainly can appreciate the value of multiple perspectives on what is a very controversial issue,” ICC’s Baime said.
“MLA has its policies, as any organization is privileged to do. We are disappointed that they wouldn’t make room for us at the convention,” Noam Neusner, a spokesman for Hillel International said.
Panel 48 presenters included Samer M. Ali, Univ. of Texas, Austin; Omar Barghouti, Independent Scholar; Barbara Jane Harlow, Univ. of Texas, Austin; David C. Lloyd, Univ. of California, Riverside; and Richard M. Ohmann, Wesleyan Univ. Samer Ali of Texas University presided at MLA Panel 48. He indicated that the genesis was the unsuccessful intervention by New York City politicians and Mayoral candidates to prevent pro-BDS advocates from appearing at Brooklyn College in February 2013.
A Weekly Standard article by American Enterprise Institute Fellow Max Eden, “Why this Boycott is Not like the Others” provided background on the panelists. Eden wrote:
The panel on Thursday will feature four belligerent anti-Israel activist advocates and a moderator who makes the panelists look like Likudniks. Barbara Harlow has already publicly endorsed an academic boycott. Richard Ohmann has declared that our “taxes have for years supported Israel’s project of ethnic cleansing.” David Lloyd wrote in the Electronic Intifada, a website devoted to Israel’s destruction, “It is not only that … all Israeli institutions are complicit in the occupation. It is that the occupation and its practices are the truth of Israel itself.” Omar Barghouti, the fourth panelist, is a co-founder of the BDS movement who says “the white race is the most violent in the history of mankind.” In a hypocrisy nearly too great to be believed, Barghouti earned a Master’s degree from Tel Aviv University and is currently pursuing his second Master’s there. The university was overwhelmed by a petition with more than 175,000 signatures calling for Barghouti’s expulsion, but it stood on principle and refused.
The panel moderator is UT-Austin’s Samer Ali, whose public Facebook page gives away the game. One of his posts reads: “Our enemy is not radical Islam. It is global capitalism.” This page features multiple posts depicting Iranians as morally superior to Republicans and a link to a video highlighting Ayatollah Khomeini’s alleged personal generosity.
Three separate reports provide coverage of what transpired at the dueling sessions in Chicago yesterday: Inside Higher Ed blog article, “The Two Session Solution”; Ha’aretz, report “Israel boycott debate sows dissent at annual MLA convention“; and, JNS.org coverage, “Dueling panels debate BDS inside and outside of MLA convention”. They provide a comprehensive picture of the proceedings and the proposed resolution of MLA Panel 48 to be introduced at Saturday’s plenary session.. That resolution condemns Israel for barring American scholars from pursuing academic engagements with Palestinian universities in Gaza and the West Bank. The Forward noted in its article on the MLA contretemps, “Israel Battle Roils the Modern Language Association”, the language for the proposed resolution of MLA Panel 48:
MLA 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.
The Panel 48 resolution is to be introduced at the plenary session Saturday by Ohmann of Wesleyan University and Columbia University English Professor Bruce Robbins. We know Robbins because of the debate that roiled the Morningside Campus with the release of the Columbia Unbecoming documentary about intimidation of Jewish students by members of Middle East Arts Language and Culture faculty. That was crystallized by the controversial tenure appointment of pro-Palestinian Professor Joseph Massad. Robbins, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia was quoted during the episode saying, “The Israeli government has no right to the sufferings of the Holocaust” and has “betrayed the memory of the Holocaust.”
Former AAUP President and University of Illinois professor, Cary Nelson, who appeared at yesterday’s second panel, published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, Another Anti–Israel Vote Comes to Academia” in which he laid out the issues confronting academia. His conclusion was:
A truer indication of the real goal is the boycott movement’s success at increasing intolerance on American campuses. Junior faculty members sympathetic to Israel fear for their jobs if they make their views known. Established faculty who grasp the complexity of Middle East politics hold their tongues for fear of harassment by those who are more interested in offering lessons in contemporary demonology than in sound history. The politically correct stance in many academic departments is that Palestinians are victims and Israelis are oppressors. Period.
The fundamental goal of the boycott movement is not the peaceful coexistence of two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian, but rather the elimination of Israel. One nation called Palestine would rule from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Those Jews not exiled or killed in the transition to an Arab-dominated nation would live as second-class citizens without fundamental rights.
There is no political route toward a one-state solution. But some American professors are too blinded by hatred of Israel—or too naive—to see that they are inadvertently advocating for armed conflict.
At the MLA panel 48 discussions, Barghouti took Nelson to task, by suggesting that AAUP’s long standing Academic Freedom standards did not comply with the lesser ones of the United Nations. Nelson at the second opposing panel countered suggesting that the arguments of Barghouti and others on the panel were “delusional and irrational”:
…praising 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 ASA. 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.”
Russell Berman, director of German studies and professor of comparative literature at Stanford University and former MLA President drew attention to the selective anti-Semitic stands of the Israeli academic boycott supporters, saying:
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.
What does it mean, Berman said, if boycott supporters have “come around to Jew counting?”
According to the JNS.org account of yesterday’s session less than 125 of the 4,000 conference attendees were at the Israeli Academic Boycott MLA Panel 48. Perhaps, that may be a forecast of a possible defeat for the misguided resolution at Saturday’s plenary session of the MLA.
EDITORS NOTE: This column originally appeared on The New English Review.