As reported extensively on this site, the Modern Language Association held its annual convention this weekend in Philadelphia.

At the meeting a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions was defeated and a resolution opposing academic boycotts was passed and is now before the general membership. For coverage see here and here.

I am an MLA member, and I was there. Unfortunately, for professional reasons, I am not able to write under my own name. Such is the nature of the BDS academic boycott. The under-the-radar boycott is for real, even as pro-BDS faculty push for a formal boycott such at that attempted at MLA.

Here’s what I observed, and what I think the implications are for the academic boycott movement – and the opposition.

The atmosphere was tense. The sessions were highly charged and emotional. Speakers compared each other to the Judenrat and the Spanish Inquisition. People were visibly nervous.

For the other 99% of conference attendees, on the other hand, the MLA was business as usual. The bar in the lobby of the Philadelphia Downtown Marriott was constantly packed, the atmosphere was social, festive, and gregarious. In the corridors just outside the rooms where the BDS focused sessions were taking place, you’d be hard pressed to detect that anything other than great fun. It’s not clear how many of the estimated 8,000 or so conference attendees even knew, much less cared, about the drama at the Delegate Assembly this weekend.

Inside Grand Ballroom GH, where the Delegate Assembly meeting was held, you could feel the tension, but you also couldn’t help but notice how empty the room was. The front half of the room, reserved for the actual delegates, was relatively full (although, given vote tallies, approximately two thirds were in attendance). The back half of the ballroom, reserved for the non-delegate audience, was strikingly vacant. A handful of activists and members of the press crowded the front two or three rows, followed by seven or eight rows of mostly empty seats.

https://twitter.com/slicksean/status/817787539398475776

This is the state of play at many of the BDS debates at student governments, faculty senates, and academic associations across the country.

Despite the press, the pomp, the social media storms, etc., the number of those invested is strikingly small. Yet the activist fringes constantly attempt to seize upon this apathy to hijack these associations with agendas of their own.

By getting the official organs of their organizations to grant their stamp of approval, without getting the attention, much less the actual consent, of the membership, activists hope to create an illusion of mass popular appeal for causes that command little support. This is no accident. MLA’s rules, for example, require that at least 10% of the general membership ratify resolutions passed. This, relatively low, threshold, too, was opposed by the pro-BDS contingent at the MLA.

BDS Strategy: If you don’t succeed, try, try, try again!

BDS activists are tireless in their pursuit of resolutions and dramatic statements.

In rare moments of candor, they admit their resolutions are unlikely to actually help those Palestinians with whom they profess to stand in solidarity, while simultaneously admitting that they are likely to harm their colleagues in Israel, even if only mildly. “Yes, there will be a small price that individual scholars will have to pay. That is the point” admitted Barnard Prof. Nadia Abu El Haj, at one of the panels in support of BDS. What they rely upon, however, is this shameless persistence’s exhausting their colleagues.

There is a fundamental asymmetry in the effectiveness of passing, as opposed to rejecting, a boycott resolution: BDS needs to pass only once in order to make a splash.

Passing BDS is a ‘man bites dog’ story. No matter how many times BDS is rejected, even if a particular BDS resolution is subsequently overturned, the damage is done. BDS advocates’ best hope, it seems, is therefore to continue pushing these resolutions until their colleagues tire of them. They only need to succeed once. And what better way is there to get an annoying topic off the agenda than to approve it so that it goes away once and forever?

It is for this reason, therefore, that there is a natural reluctance among more traditionally minded academics to bring legal measures or counter resolutions. Both such moves took place at MLA.

A threat by the Brandeis Center to enmesh the MLA in legal troubles jeopardizing its 501c3 status, as well as the counter resolutions (one opposing BDS, which passed, the other, condemning the actual violations to academic freedom by Palestinian forces) proved to be effective.

If the strategy is simply one of defense, of defeating BDS resolutions on the floor when they arise, it is bound to fail. Even a highly effective success rate will still lose some of these battles, in which case the damage is done. More importantly, it continues to incentivize BDS activists to pitch this battle year after year, affording them ill-deserved publicity and solidifying in the public’s mind that ‘something must be done’ about the plight of the Palestinians. That ‘something’ always involves blaming Israel and never involves actually solving anything.

On the other hand, by putting BDS on the defensive, by signaling to the organization that a stand in support of BDS means trouble for the association, or by getting the general membership to not only vote down a BDS resolution, but to vote up a resolution condemning academic boycotts, it’s possible that the tide will turn. BDS activists are now on the defensive and might think twice before bringing these resolutions before their organizations.

MLA Leadership had no intention of actually boycotting

The MLA leadership never was going to actually enter into the boycott.

This was apparent in the MLA’s leadership’s treatment of the two resolutions before the body. In at least three sessions: (1) a Townhall meeting held on the resolution, under the leadership of outgoing MLA President Kwame Anthony Appiah on Thursday night; (2) at the Open Hearing on Resolutions, chaired by outgoing Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee Chair Margaret Noodin; and (3) at the Delegate Assembly meeting itself, those presiding over the meeting began with a statement essentially distancing the MLA as a corporate body from the resolutions.

In all three instances, clarification was made that the word ‘endorse’ (or ‘endorsing’) which appeared in both resolutions is merely “an expression of sentiment or opinion” and could not require the MLA to take action that involves expenditure of funds or the forgoing of income, nor can it require members of the MLA to take actions of this sort. This, attendees were told, was at the advice of legal counsel, in concern of MLA’s jeopardizing its 501c3 status as a tax exempt non-profit organization.

Twice, in fact, once at the Open Hearing and once at the DA meeting, Donald Hall of the Executive Council reiterated this point, even stating explicitly that the MLA will not participate in a boycott. Executive Director Rosemary G. Feal further stated that the resolutions would not affect the selling of bibliographical materials to Israeli institutions. This was in stark contrast to the American Anthropological Association’s threat to withhold provision of Anthrosource to Israeli universities, should a boycott be enacted. The MLA made clear: there will be no enacting.

The Executive Committee even attempted to amend the BDS resolution (2017-2) on the floor of the DA meeting, to explicitly state:

“Be it further resolved that nothing in this resolution binds the MLA as a 501c3 to participate in boycott”.

BDS backer, and Executive Committee member, Stanford Prof. David Palumbo-Liu tried to use this defanging of the resolution to BDS’ advantage,  claiming that this rendered complaints about the damage BDS could enact moot. But, given the apparent toothless nature of the resolution, it is not entirely clear what those who behind it were hoping to achieve by passing it. Many of these folks have been advocating for, and some already enact a boycott without MLA’s official sanction. What does passing a resolution over the objections of those who oppose the boycott achieve?

Toothless? Not Quite 

In truth, however, such resolutions are not toothless.

It is precisely the institutional backing of the boycott that violates academic freedom and corrodes the spirit of open inquiry so vital to an academic institution (or to any corporate body, for that matter). This is true, not only of per se violations of academic freedom, such as boycotts, but of any unnecessary political or ideological stance embraced by an organization.

BDS advocates implicitly recognize this point, of course, in their own dismay and disgust expressed at the MLA for having voted against their own preferences and in passing resolution 2017-1.

Sugar-Coating and the Evasion of Responsibility

MLA leadership’s attempt to distance itself from the resolution had a powerful effect on the tenor of the vote. On the one hand, it strengthened the hand of BDS advocates by sugar coating the resolution and making it appear less costly to enact.

On the other hand, this sugar coating was skillfully handled by the anti-BDS contingent on the floor. The first Delegate to speak, Russell Berman of Stanford, stated outright that this sugarcoating indicates that the resolution is illegal. Berman cast the amendment as a “shameful effort to avoid responsibility”.

Cary Nelson and Rachel Harris, both of the University of Illinois, each pointed out that the resolution gives a green light to the harassment of individual scholars by MLA members, and Peter Herman of San Diego State University aptly characterized this evasion of responsibility as a ‘weasel move’.

BDS supporters, too, were not enthusiastic about the amendment, as they would clearly prefer an actual boycott imposed by the MLA as an organization. David Lloyd, co-sponsor of the boycott resolution, expressed his ‘dismay’ that ‘lawfare’ is being used against BDS. This is interesting, given the obvious purpose of an institutional boycott (as opposed to a voluntary one by Lloyd) as a clear attempt to give legal standing to BDS at the MLA, as well as Lloyd’s constant invoking of ‘international law’ as the grounds for BDS. Those who oppose lawfare shouldn’t be seeking to invoke it against others. When they do, they shouldn’t be surprised that it can bite them back.

The first 20 minutes of discussion at the Delegate Assembly meeting were dominated by the concern that BDS would enmesh the MLA in unwelcome politics and legal problems, that it would generate ugly incidents of academic ostracizing (John Skolnik of Umass reminded the audience of Mona Baker’s removal of Israeli scholars from the editorial board of her UK journal), and Jeffrey Wolfson of UT-Dallas reminded delegates of the risible calling of anti-BDS scholars as ‘Judenrat’ by a pro-BDS professor at the Townhall meeting).

Delegate Jane Mushabac of NY City College of Technology read a letter by twelve previous MLA Presidents urging the delegates to oppose the resolution. This set a clear tone in the room that a boycott was a serious upset to the status quo whose positive results were questionable, but whose negative effects to the organization (not only in terms of legal complications, but in terms of morale, unity, and credibility to speak out [concerns about the MLA’s credibility in the ‘era of Trump’ and so on]) were palpable.

While it is impossible to know the hearts and minds of the delegates who voted, it seems likely that this greatly impacted the subsequent unfolding of events. By the time the 25 minutes or so allotted to discussing the boycott resolution were up, anti-boycott forces had dominated the discussion.

It’s important to emphasize this, because, while it is comforting to think that better arguments and cooler heads won the day on the merits, this is not the entirety of the story.

Highly contingent factors, such as the order of speakers cuing at the microphone, set a tone hostile to the boycott that was difficult to counter. Had the order of speakers been reversed, had the boycotters dominated the audience, as they did at the American Anthropological Association, the outcome might have been different. The incredibly well coordinated speakers from MLA Members for Scholars Rights carried the day.

But while anti-BDS forces were effective in communicating just how a boycott resolution would be harmful, pro-BDS forces stuck to their rhetorical talking points about solidarity, power, colonialism, and empire.

Salah Hassan of Michigan State justified the boycott of Israel in particular because the Palestinians had asked him to. Had Native Americans asked him to boycott his own university as well, Hassan said, he’d gladly oblige. Referring to a video released by the anti-boycott side, Hassan added that the Israeli academics who protest the potential boycotts were ‘privileged’, which in modern radical parlance presumably means ‘permissibly harmed’.

Ebony Coletu of Penn State spoke of an ‘opportunity not to be complicit’, asking MLA delegates to ‘align ourselves with the most vulnerable members’ of our community, “If we cannot stand up for an inclusive notion” of a rights to education for Palestinians and “those here”, where will we “get the spine” to stand up to oppression, violence, exploitation, etc.? Remarkably, it never dawned on Kaletu that an inclusive notion of rights to education should also include Israelis. Nor did it occur to her, or to her colleagues, that a right to education does not, nor cannot, include the right to deny that right to others by boycotting them.

The usual identity politics followed: Delegate Rosaura Sanchez stated “as an ethnic minority of color who has lived under segregation, police harassment, xenophobia..” (this, presumably, refers to life in Southern California), “I understand only too well what it must be like to live as a Palestinian under occupation, settler colonialism…”, Jeffrey Sacks of UC Riverside (who earlier in the conference explained that all reading is a form of boycott and called for ‘decolonizing’ both Israel and the United States), spoke about how white the crowd was. This was to warm us up for the non-sequitur that “when one is thinking about Israel, one is thinking about systematic contexts of racial subordination”. “Israel”, Sacks explained, “is founded as a racialist state through expulsion and killing of Palestinians”.

UC Prof. David Lloyd, a founding member of the academic boycott movement in the U.S., in a remarkable display of a lack of imagination rhetorically asked: If we fail to honor the Palestinian ‘call’ for boycott, what else can they do?

When time ran out for discussion, the Delegates refused to extend the time further. Understandably, perhaps, they wanted to get out of there.

The Vote

While awaiting the results, several BDS activists pulled out their phones, hoping to catch a picture of the victorious results about to be displayed on screen.

As we now know, they were sorely disappointed.

The room mostly emptied out after this.

Those that remained, did so to combat the third resolution, condemning Palestinian violations of academic freedom. The tone was no longer victorious, it was wounded and angry. Barbara Foley, head of the Radical Caucus, called the resolution ‘disgusting’. David Lloyd added that it was ‘cynical, nasty, and silly’, and that he’d be ashamed of the MLA should they pass this resolution (no such concern for his opponents’ shame should his resolution have passed, of course), accusations of ‘blaming the victim’, racism, colonialism, as well as comparisons to the alleged sin of saying awful things like ‘all lives matter’ were thrown out.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the resolution’s apparent backers, offered to table the resolution, citing the divisiveness of it, and the DA’s lack of expertise to adjudicate the facts contained therein.

After much discussion, the resolution was postponed indefinitely by a small margin of 83-78. It is unfortunate, perhaps, that we’ll never know how the DA would have voted on this resolution.

Lessons

As said, it’s difficult to know just what worked and didn’t work with the Delegates. It seems, however, that there are still many who resent the politicization and embroiling of conflict that BDS threatens their organizations with.

The threat of real legal action, the obvious prospective headaches that BDS would bring, all clearly helped. Additionally, the anti-BDS contingent seemed better mobilized and more articulate this time around. But this is not something to rely on in moving forward.

One thing that emerged, as covered in our own story before the resolution, was how many factual errors the BDS advocacy documents contain. The oft-cited Alternative Information Center document listing all the ‘sins’ of Israeli academic institutions, is rife with demonstrable falsehoods. Cary Nelson published an extensive takedown of these last week in Fathom.

While it would be naïve to assume that the other side (or the Delegates) actually read Nelson’s piece this time (as opposed to watching the video, albeit only to confirm their view of Israeli academics as privileged) it is probably quite valuable moving forward for the lies and errors in these documents to be exposed in digestible format, for all to see.

Conspicuously absent from many BDS debates are those who are intimately familiar with the facts on the ground, and with Israeli society. Where are the many professors of Hebrew literature or Israeli literature academics who can both personally attest to the facts about the conflict and to how they and their friends will be affected by BDS? While true Israel haters might not be moved by the plight of their colleagues (your suffering is a small price to pay), many others might be, and could be moved by either facts or empathy.

While yesterday was clearly a victory for anti-BDS forces, it would be folly to assume that this is over. Right now, the BDS forces are licking their wounds, but they’ve declared their intentions to fight another day.

Some, notably Robert Warrior, a leading pro-BDS professor, have stated their intentions to leave the MLA. This could be an interesting precedent.

But, the trend in the humanities is currently towards more activism, rather than less.

BDS has lost by startlingly small margins at MLA and in Anthropology. These could reverse the next time around. One concern, is that as these fields further radicalize, fewer mainstream academics enter them (this is arguably already the case in Anthropology). Older scholars like Cary Nelson and Russell Berman, who hold great persuasive power with delegates, will eventually retire, and who will replace them?

Ironically, a loss at these associations might have prompted the sort of reaction necessary to stimulate a self-correction sooner, when there are still sane academics within the ranks of these fields.

One hopes, however, that self-correction will be attained by other means.

The MLA has dodged this bullet. Sanity has lived to fight another day.