[WAJ Note: We covered the Modern Language Association anti-Israel effort from afar, gathering tweets from those in the room, including Joel Griffith.  I thought it would be helpful for readers to hear directly from Joel, and he kindly agreed to write a post. Joel paid to join MLA just so he could get inside, and here is his first hand report.]

On Saturday, the Modern Language Association (MLA) Delegate Assembly suffered through more than four hours of parliamentary confusion as it considered two controversial resolutions related to Israel.

Despite the rancor, pro-Israel advocates are savoring a partial victory as the 2014 MLA Convention concludes—the first such academic victory in recent memory.

Repeatedly, the assembly became engrossed in debates over whether to extend time for resolution debate. Requests to stand by as the chair consulted the rules expert distracted from attempts at meaningful discussion. Frustrated laughter spontaneously rippled throughout the audience on numerous occasions as procedural questions tangles the chair in bewilderment. In the midst of the ruckus, MLA staff member David Lawrence demanded I cease recording.

The first resolution accused Israel of having “arbitrarily denied academics of Palestinian entry into the West Bank and Gaza.” Delegates were requested to approve deletion of reference to Gaza after realizing that Egypt, not Israel, controls the entry of academics into Gaza. Perhaps some background information should have been gathered prior to such defamation.

In addition, the substance of the resolution was in error, as evidenced by a recent United States Department of State human rights report which advises that “no overt threat to academic freedom” exists in Israel.

Delegates and other members of the MLA in attendance were allotted limited individual amounts of time to speak regarding the resolution. Immediately, lines began to from at three microphones interspersed throughout the crowd of approximately 250 people.

As expected, advocates of the resolution passionately spoke. Professor Nathan Brown of UC Davis stridently condemned the “use of chemical weapons by the state of Israel.” When I approached Professor Brown at the conclusion of the assembly for an explanation of his “chemical weapons” accusation, he brashly relayed that he does not grant interviews to “Zionist journalists.”

Professor Samer Ali of the University of Texas arose to tell the audience that “Israel as an avatar for Jews in general needs to be singled out.” Professor Ali proclaimed on the delegate assembly floor, “I’m not an activist.” Yet, he has stated that Israel has engaged in “massacres of indigenous populations” and has a right to exist only because “anything else would be more tragic.”

Furthermore, Professor Ali moderated a boycott, divesture, sanctions (BDS) panel consisting of four anti-Israel experts earlier in the week. Far from acting as an objective discussion facilitator, the professor issued a “request for crowd sourcing” on Facebook for anti-Israel arguments for use during the panel.

This bias was expected. The big surprise, however, consisted of numerous delegates and other MLA members who eloquently questioned the premises and motivations behind the resolution. Professor Cary Nelson informed the audience that the “chemical weapons use” was merely tear gas. Other delegates questioned the fairness in singling out Israel for condemnation when atrocities by other nations are far worse.

As pro-Israel MLA members pleaded with the chair for extended debate, exclamations of “shut up” and “let’s vote” could be heard from anti-Israel faction. Momentum had shifted!

After a spirited but time limited debate, the assembly thinly approved the resolution by a vote of 60 to 53. The margin of approval was far slimmer than either side anticipated.

Less than an hour later, the delegate assembly was asked to consider an even more egregious resolution proposed by Professor Grover Furr on behalf of the Radical Caucus in English and the Modern Languages.

Professor Furr’s resolution promised solidarity on the part of the MLA for American Studies Association (ASA) members which recently committed to an academic boycott of Israel. In part, the resolution condemned “the attacks on the ASA” and expressed support for the “right of academic organizations and individuals…to take positions in solidarity with the Palestinian struggle against racism.”

Professor Furr is notorious for being an apologist for one of the murderous dictators of all-time, Joseph Stalin. In 2012, Furr proclaimed, “I know they say he killed 20, 30, 40 million people…It’s bullshit.” This Leftist professor has “yet to find one crime – one crime that Stalin committed.”

In a severe blow to BDS advocates, only 41% of the delegate assembly voted to send the Radical Caucus resolution to the floor for debate. This fell far shy of the 75% requirement to consider an “emergency resolution.

Despite delegate refusal to even debate the resolution, the chair of the session assured the Professor Furr that his resolution would still be referred to the MLA’s Executive Committee for consideration.

The chair who chose to circumvent the delegate assembly is Margaret Ferguson, professor from UC Davis. She is a public supporter of BDS and the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

In my follow-up interview with Professor Furr, he bemoaned that “there was a lot of a lot of…obstruction”, placing partial blame on “the Zionist contingent.”

Indeed, the physical presence of organizations such as the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC) helped stem the tide of anti-Israel bias. Through bold engagement on the battlefield of ideas, those committed to justice can alter the conversation and attain results. The mitigated damage from the 2014 MLA Convention demonstrated this.


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