We have previously covered the never-ending saga at the anti-Israel obsession of some members of Modern Language Association (MLA).

Those members have engaged in a years-long attempt to get MLA, the largest academic society in the humanities, to boycott Israel and to officially join the “Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” (BDS) movement.

After the radicals’ massive defeat at the MLA business meeting at the annual convention in Philadelphia in January, they are on the defensive: not only was their resolution to boycott Israel (2017-2) defeated by the Delegate Assembly, but a counter-resolution (2017-1), calling on MLA to reject academic boycott, was approved and placed before the general membership.

Not to be outdone, and lest anyone doubt the MLA’s partisan stance in the U.S., the membership will also be voting on a resolution (2017-4) to uphold “the ideal of free and unfettered scholarly exchange, including the right of scholars to travel across international borders” in the face of apparent threats from the Trump administration. While MLA resolutions condemning Trump or the GOP are arguably of a ‘dog bites man’ nature, and normally not worth delving into, we simply remind you that this resolution was drafted and approved before Mr. Trump assumed office.

The vote is open to MLA members from April 19th through June 1st. For ratification, the resolution must: (1) receive a majority of votes cast and (2) must constitute quorum by attaining at least 10% of the MLA membership (approximately 2,400 votes).

For background and previous Legal Insurrection coverage of the MLA see:

The anti-Israel activists have not taken the January defeat well, and are promising more efforts at the 2018 annual meeting.

Boycotters on the Defensive

In January’s MLA meeting, the Delegate Assembly rejected this year’s resolution calling for a boycott, by a vote of 113-79. This time, however, a second resolution, calling upon MLA to “refrain from endorsing the boycott” passed 101-93. This is the resolution (2017-1) currently before the membership.

The resolution reads as follows:

Resolution 2017-1

Whereas endorsing the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel contradicts the MLA’s purpose to promote teaching and research on language and literature;

Whereas the boycott’s prohibition of the evaluation of work of individual Israeli scholars conflicts with Resolution 2002-1, which condemns boycotts against scholars; and

Whereas endorsing the boycott could curtail debates with representatives of Israeli universities, such as faculty members, department chairs, and deans, thereby blocking possible dialogue and general scholarly exchange;

Be it resolved that the MLA refrain from endorsing the boycott

Vote on Anti-Boycott Measure Before MLA Membership

As expected, both sides have continued their pre-January campaign in anticipation of the vote. In the pro-Boycott corner (opposed to this resolution) is “MLA Members for Justice in Palestine“, in the anti-boycott corner (favoring this resolution) is “MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights”.

For the most part, the arguments are well worn and familiar to those who follow these matters.

(a) Pro-Boycott Side Misleadingly Invokes Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom

The pro-boycott campaign has not taken kindly to being on the defensive, resorting to some truly bizarre claims. These claims offer a rare glimpse into the hall of mirrors that is the worldview of BDS radicals.

Go ahead and re-read the resolution above and ask yourself if anything in it affects the rights of anybody to express their opinion, or, for that matter, to act individually, in their own capacity, in any matter whatsoever. The resolution states that the MLA, as a corporate body, will “refrain from supporting the boycott”.

One might have thought that respect for the academic freedom and freedom of speech and association, as well as commitments to the values of open research, would have already settled the matter in favor of refraining from activities like academic boycotts. But the existence of the boycott resolution that was rejected, should quickly dispel such naïve misconceptions.

It is an interesting question whether, when committing to a general principle, declaring or enacting a specific application of that very principle does more harm than good: does it reinforce the principle or weaken it, suggesting that without this specific statement, the action would have been acceptable? One might argue that passing a resolution calling on an organization already committed to academic freedom to refrain from violating that commitment specifically by boycotting Israel is redundant and potentially even counterproductive, implying that otherwise such action would be permissible. Alternatively, one might think this naïve given the propensity of MLA members to propose boycotts. But this sort of objection cannot be raised in good faith by someone who supports academic boycotts!

Yet, of course, just this claim is made by boycott supporters.

More bizarrely, the boycotters claim the resolution is “anti-free speech”.

(b) Claim That Resolution Opposing Boycott ‘stifles’ speech

Writing in Jacobin, David Palumbo-Liu of Stanford writes that should the MLA approve the resolution it would be “stifling a mode of protected speech – boycott – meant to facilitate academic freedom for a people who are unable to freely travel…and who are discriminated against…” (the language here is meant to echo the language of the anti-Trump resolution). “The MLA”, continues Palumbo-Liu, “would be succumbing to the ‘Palestine exception’” to free speech, “where apologists sing the praises of free speech, while bending over backwards to shield Israel from any protest or criticism”.

Such mythological ‘exceptions’ to free speech are often claimed quite vocally. They are especially rich coming from a named chair at Stanford University with a frequent column at Salon which hardly ‘bend[s] over backwards to shield Israel’ from anything.

Comparing the MLA’s fate to that of the ASA, Palumbo-Liu writes:

…what is at stake in the MLA vote: what the organization’s “private rules and arrangements” will be. Obviously, MLA members are free to say anything they want about the boycott, and choose to participate in it or not. What the MLA now has to decide is whether it wants to set a precedent of prohibiting members from acting collectively…

The fact of the matter is, the MLA has already passed a resolution condemning boycotts of individual scholars; its delegate assembly already rejected a resolution endorsing the academic boycott of Israel. (Link is in the original – OR)

What the resolution in question seeks to do is to make it impossible to ever raise the subject again, regardless of future events or the desires of MLA members. It would expand the scope of potentially verboten subjects, for if one can prohibit discussion of one topic there’s no reason others can’t be banned as well.

How Palumbo-Liu makes this leap from passing a resolution calling on MLA to refrain from boycott to banning discussion of a subject is puzzling indeed. By this logic, wouldn’t passage of the boycott (something Palumbo-Liu was actively involved in promoting) have had at least the same repercussions constraining its membership? Would passage of BDS have made it “impossible to ever raise the subject again”? Would it not at least have made it impossible or verboten for scholars who choose to collaborate with Israel or to question the MLA’s orthodoxies to do so?

If the answer is ‘yes’, the hypocrisy of asserting this complaint here by one the boycott’s chief proponents is astounding. If, on the other hand, the answer is ‘no’, it is difficult to see why the opposite resolution has these muzzling effects.

It seems plain as day (does it not?), that a resolution not to get involved in a political issue or not to curtail the freedom of association of MLA members who want to engage with Israel, i.e. the maintaining of the academic status quo, is not a form of censoring the beliefs or expressions of any MLA members.

On the other hand, the right that Palumbo-Liu wishes to affirm, to ‘act collectively’, is of a different sort: it cannot be enacted without interfering with the freedom of individual MLA members who dissent. By Palumbo-Liu’s reasoning, why is acting collectively in pursuit of boycott a right but acting collectively to not pursue one not a right?

This is of a piece with what is seen again and again among the so called ‘activist’ wing of academia: nothing can be neutral or apolitical. Acting is political, and so is not acting. If you want to stay out of a conflict to preserve your neutrality (because it is none of your business) or your integrity (because it’s not your expertise) or just because your membership might not be of one mind on the issue, you cannot.  This way, everything is poisoned by ideology and politics (colleges, professional associations, professional sports, etc.). The MLA on this view, is simply a part of the ‘left’ and is opposed to the ‘right’ (never mind how these terms are defined in the eyes of these activists), rather than an academic association that rises above these differences.

(c) Pro-Boycott Side Invokes Trump, Who Is Irrelevant to the Resolution

A petition was circulated by controversial anti-Israel Professor Jasbir Puar, calling on MLA not to circulate the petition to its membership. The petition claims the resolution:

stifles dissent by effectively silencing BDS supporters within the context of MLA governance…[it] truly chills speech. In this it dangerously accedes to the authoritarian, anti-democratic temper of the new Trump administration—surely not a temper the MLA wishes to adopt…Put bluntly, if passed it would deprive us of a constitutionally-protected form of free speech. Boycotts are a time-honored form of registering protest and disengaging ethically from unconscionable practices…

…The very existence of 2017-1 is a blight on the the ethical orientations of the MLA. We urge the MLA leadership to think critically about its role in challenging the uneven application of academic freedom and therefore not bring before its general membership this resolution that would chill dissent, preempt debate, and prohibit vital on-going conversations about BDS and the role of the US academy.

In other words, in the name of free speech and the right to collective action, the petitioners move to have the MLA table a resolution and not allow the collective membership vote, in the name of free speech.

In this vein, Bill Mullen, of Purdue University writes that “Passage of the resolution would be a disaster for the MLA, for academic freedom, and for the right to free speech”. How so?

in a climate or rabid right-wing suppression of minority rights, of Trumpian chants to ‘build walls’ and ban Muslims, of egregious bigotry and hatred, any gesture curtailing political expression is a political disaster and a gift to reactionary zealots.

It is not obvious why according to Mullen passing this resolution curtails expression, or, for that matter, why defeating this resolution doesn’t also curtail the political expression of BDS opponents (one can do this all day, of course). But this is not dramatic enough:

Indeed, the MLA would become the first academic organization in the world to declare itself opposed to the constitutionally protected right to boycott Israeli Universities. In so doing, it would align itself with right-wing state legislatures that have attempted to punish academics who support the boycott of Israeli Universities. The MLA would in effect do the work of the state in tamping down dissent against its support for Israel’s Occupation of Palestinian land and people, to the tune of 38 billion over 10 years. Donald Trump could not imagine a better gift.

This is sheer nonsense. Nobody is opposing the constitutional right of Mullen or others to boycott whomever they please (whether Mullen extends that right to those with whom he disagrees is answered, perhaps, here).

Second, a vote against boycott would send a chilling message from within the ranks of academia about academic freedom. Indeed, even by doing nothing, the MLA would be better off: The organization has no official position on academic boycott, which at least sends a message of neutrality to members.

It’s funny how the virtues of ‘doing nothing’ are touted when the shoe is on the other foot. Does this mean that Mullen and company now oppose the MLA’s taking an official position even if it is pro-boycott? Of course not.

Thirdly, this anti-boycott resolution is a form of self-censorship. A vote declaring that the Association will not boycott is tantamount to saying members of the Association should think twice about speaking out on Israel-Palestine. The vote would send the exact opposite message to the one promoted by free speech: that debate, discussion, and the decision to take a political position is encouraged.

Would not a vote declaring support for a boycott have been “tantamount to saying members of the Association should think twice” before, say, engaging with Israel, visiting Israel, collaborating with Israel, or, for that matter “speaking out on Israel-Palestine”, as long as they don’t agree with BDS’s dogmatic politics on the issue?

The Boycott campaign has circulated a petition repeating these talking points asking people to oppose the resolution as well as  a statement by “10 Past Presidents of the MLA” who oppose the resolution.

(d) Campaign In Favor of the Anti-Boycott Resolution

Meanwhile, the anti-boycott (MLA for Scholars’ Rights) side has released a series of videos on the harms that boycotts could bring to the association and to the academy.

To which the pro-Boycott camp has responded with typical grace and class:

Where to begin with the ironies that abound in this professionally produced video that piously appeals to people to…

Posted by MLA Members for Justice in Palestine on Monday, May 1, 2017

Conclusion:

It is rare to see the radical forces of BDS on the defensive in the humanities, not least, in the activist-prone MLA. The novelty of this moment should be appreciated. It’s hard to predict whether the anti-BDS Resolution will pass the membership. But should the resolution pass, the thunderous repudiation of BDS hijacking should be savored.

That said, it would be naïve to think that all is well in academia. Despite the hysterical antics quoted above, this will not be the last we hear of BDS at MLA. What victory for the anti-boycott camp in this resolution might suggest, though, is that the membership of MLA is tired of having their time wasted and their academic association’s reputation tarnished with this issue. That, rather than the passage of a particular resolution, would be a significant step towards restoring sanity in the academy.

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The author is a graduate student who must write under a pseudonym for fear of retribution from pro-BDS faculty.