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January 16, 2014

No Anti-Israel Momentum at the MLA

MLA convention.jpg

By Jonathan Marks

The Delegate Assembly of the Modern Language Association narrowly passed a resolution last Saturday urging the State Department to "contest Israel's denial of entry to the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities."  The anti-Israel movement within academia will try to present this as evidence for the movement's momentum, but it is really evidence of the opposite.

Begin with the resolution itself. When it was initially proposed, it included a reference not only to the West Bank but also to Gaza. It also referred to Israel's "arbitrary" denial of entry.  Removing these references certainly made passage of the resolution more likely, since supporters had presented no evidence concerning Gaza and very little concerning the arbitrariness of Israel's policies. But, as Cary Nelson points out, once the word "arbitrary" was removed, the resolution became ridiculous, since it now condemned Israel "for denying entry to people who might pose valid security risks." As opponents of the resolution argued, "foreign academics are free to enter the West Bank after acquiring a visa or permit." Requiring such a visa or permit is "standard procedure all over the world," and the overwhelming majority of visa requests are granted.

Proponents of the resolution had nothing to say about the "context for the aforementioned limited security restrictions Israel places on its generally broad policy regarding the travel of foreign citizens," namely the "very real terrorist threats to Israeli citizens" that followed the "breakdown of peace negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinan Authority."  It is no wonder they decided to remove the word "arbitrary" from the resolution.

However, having been compelled to gut their own resolution in the face of such objections, the resolution's proponents looked ridiculous for attempting to commit the MLA to such a controversial position without evidence.

Moreover, the resolution did not call for an academic boycott of Israel, as the Association for Asian American Studies and the American Studies Association had in 2013. Indeed, an emergency resolution put forward by MLA's Radical Caucus (their name, not mine), condemning attacks on the ASA failed to muster enough votes to be debated. The resolution's backers must have thought it had wide support, since emergency resolutions need a 75% supermajority to be considered by the Delegate Assembly. The Delegates voted 59-41 not to consider it.

The debate itself was a circus. As Jennifer Howard reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Margaret W. Ferguson, a professor of English at the University of California at Davis, had her hands full trying to keep order and allow commenters on both sides of the issue to speak their piece. Several times she asked people to "stand at ease" while MLA officials conferred about how to proceed. "Please don't shout," she said at one point."

What Howard does not tell us is that Margaret W. Ferguson (as Nelson does tell us) is on record endorsing the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. Ferguson made significant rulings, especially one not to consider an alternative resolution that expessed concern about both travel restrictions and boycotts and did not single out Israel alone for criticism. While the Delegates voted to uphold Ferguson's decision, Nelson is right that the "process and the vote were compromised" by Ferguson's failure to recuse herself, and that "the vote should be voided."

I doubt very much that the Executive Council will void the vote and suspect that the MLA membership, which must vote on the resolution, will support it. But that will not count as momentum. Six years ago, the MLA voted to support a resolution expressing solidarity with "scholars of Palestinian culture," in part on the grounds that "the occupation" was stifling "education at all levels." That resolution, at least as sweeping in its condemnation of Israel as this one, easily passed the Delegate Assembly by a 77-9 vote. This one barely passed by a vote of 60-53.

Anti-Israel academics and boycott opponents like to say that regardless of whether and by how much they win or lose individual votes, they are changing the terms of the debate, so that as David Lloyd, a leader in the U.S. boycott movement says, "critical discussion of Israel's policies towards Palestine will no longer be taboo." But, as I've written elsewhere, that argument is based on a demonstrably false premise. Israeli Apartheid Week has been a staple of campus life for almost nine years now. The MLA has been discussing an Israel policy it should not, of course, as a language and literature organization, even have, since at least 2007. The "taboo" Lloyd refers to is a fiction. What's happening now, thanks to the justified disgust provoked by the ASA resolution, is that the anti-Israel forces are on the defensive, so much so that Matthew Frye Jacobson, a spirited defender of that resolution, has taken to denying it really supports a boycott, although it plainly does.

The condemnation by more than 200 college and university leaders and almost 100 members of Congress is evidently having some effect on the appetite of academics for meaningless anti-Israel posturing. The narrow victory of the MLA resolution and the flat failure of the emergency resolution to support the ASA should be encouraging to those who are working to keep our scholarly organizations from becoming propaganda tools.
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Jonathan Marks is a Professor of Politics at Ursinus College.

(Photo: Delegates at the 2014 MLA Convention. Credit: Legal Insurrection.)



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