In April, I described two resolutions up for approval by members of the Modern Language Association (MLA), the world’s largest academic organization of teachers of languages and literature.
The first called on the organization to “refrain from endorsing” the academic boycott of Israeli institutions; the second endorsed an American Association of University Professors (AAUP) statement that describes the potential threat to academic freedom posed by Donald Trump’s election. This measure affirms the MLA’s commitment to “free and unfettered scholarly exchange” and its opposition to discrimination.
As I noted, the two resolutions actually contradict each other:
If it approves both measures, the MLA would be voting to safeguard its members’ academic freedom while stifling a mode of protected speech — a boycott — meant to facilitate academic freedom for a people who are unable to freely travel across international borders, and who are discriminated against because of their race, ethnicity, political beliefs, and national origin.
On Wednesday, the MLA announced the results of the vote: both passed by wide margins.
Although the results have disappointed activists within the MLA — some of whom are now threatening to resign their memberships en masse — we must consider the vote in the context of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as a whole. The anti-boycott forces currently have more power, especially within academia, but progressives who oppose Israeli settler colonialism are gaining power.
The anti-boycott resolution first appeared at the MLA’s January conference, where a competing pro-boycott resolution also came up for vote. The pro-BDS measure lost, and many wondered why the organization would consider an effectively redundant resolution.
Of course, the difference between not endorsing and “refrain[ing] from endorsing” counts: the resolution that passed this week blocks any future boycott proposals and effectively gags pro-Palestinian activists.
The battle between the two resolutions was never fair. As the Jerusalem Post reported, several Israeli organizations helped the MLA’s anti-boycott faction, which used underhanded tactics to ensure its victory.
For example, because the MLA does not share its members’ email addresses, the anti-BDS group hired graduate students to mine the printed directory and create a bootlegged list. It then blasted the general membership with mass messages, often disguised as official MLA communications.
The pro-boycott side had no outside support. Not only did it have to battle its opposition in the MLA, but it also faced a steady stream of pro-Israel statements from university administrators, state and national politicians — including both presidential candidates — and propaganda from the Israeli government.
The MLA has historically taken a conservative position on such matters — it also refrained from backing the South African anti-apartheid boycott. Perhaps the organization’s regressive politics explains why the vast majority of its membership — 84 percent — did not bother voting in the referendum at all.
Back in January, Gabriel Noah Brahm spoke for the conservative wing of the organization, depicting the defeat of the pro-BDS resolution as a defeat of “political correctness.” Brahm argued that the MLA is split between real scholars and anti-intellectual activists:
Political correctness in academia puts knee-jerk support for certain preferred “victim groups” over everything else. . . . Where p.c. prevails in the humanities, careful attention to complex works of literary merit worth reading is jettisoned in favor of simplistic moralizing, always harping on the same monotonous litany of concerns.
Moreover, instead of learning to tolerate diversity of opinion and embrace ambiguity, ambivalence, and uncertainty as inherent to the human condition, students are hectored by “activist” teachers into holding a handful of approved positions on “race, class, and gender.” That there is more to life, no student thus inoculated against independent thought is meant to dream.
So, it is important to recognize that BDS as a “movement” on American college campuses feeds off this anti-intellectual environment.
Cynthia Franklin, a professor of English at the University of Hawaii and a member of the Organizing Collective of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI), reacted to the membership’s vote differently, arguing that it too represents “knee-jerk support” for a preferred group:
The MLA resolution . . . singles out and protects Israel from boycott. . . . That the same members affirming this resolution voted for one opposing Trump and supporting the AAUP statement for free and unfettered scholarly exchange is deeply hypocritical. To pass these resolutions together could not make clearer that for the MLA, rights do not extend to our Palestinian colleagues. With these two passed resolutions, bankrupt liberalism works in lockstep with far-right repression.
While many MLA members agree with Franklin and are preparing to leave the organization, others are trying to persuade them to stay. A movement within the organization’s progressive wing is urging pro-BDS members to renew and trying to recruit new members.
They refuse to cede the MLA to its reactionary members, taking inspiration from the persistence and endurance of the Palestinian people.
These activists have the right idea. While large, traditional academic organizations are unlikely to take any serious steps against Israel’s illegal occupation, younger groups have already stepped up.
Last June, the American Anthropological Association (AAA) membership also voted on a boycott resolution. More than half of the membership participated. While the resolution failed, it was much closer: only thirty-nine votes separated the two sides.
Like the MLA, the AAA has a deeply conservative streak, and outside organizations played a major role in defeating the measure. The narrow margin, however, shows that a much higher proportion of young, politically involved scholars, many of whom are people of color, not only belong to the organization but play a key role in its governance.
If pro-Palestinian scholars want to see the MLA join the BDS movement, they need to flood the organization’s membership rolls, not empty them.
Outside the Academy
Meanwhile, progressives are deepening their ties to organizations and individuals outside the academy. These alliances not only advance the cause more broadly and strengthen the argument within academia, they also reach younger and more progressive Americans.
Sunaina Maira, a professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Davis who also belongs to the USACBI Organizing Collective, finds these developments hopeful. Citing “a string of victories in interdisciplinary fields and successful divestment campaigns by students and academic unions,” she argues that “the taboo on criticism of Israeli apartheid and occupation has been shattered in the academy.”
It seems academia is just catching up with the rest of the world. Maira notes the “growing groundswell of solidarity with occupied, besieged, and racially subjugated Palestinians in the public domain, including in the arts, sports, and popular culture.”
“The cultural boycott,” she says, “is the next phase of this grassroots struggle, emerging alongside and in partnership with BLM, the DAPL movement, feminist mobilization, and challenges to white nationalism and racial supremacy.”
Andrew Ross, a professor at New York University and a member of the Decolonize This Place arts collective, sees the growing support for BDS — and the fierce resistance to it — as evidence that the tide is turning against the Israeli occupation:
The arts boycott of South Africa took a ruinous toll on the apartheid system, and so defenders of the Occupation have been working hard on that sector in hopes of staving off a similar outcome in Israel. But most cultural workers know the Occupation is indefensible, they just need a little help and support to take a moral stand.
Academia could provide that support and help forge a stronger coalition, which is why this week’s resolution was disheartening.
At the same time, we shouldn’t exaggerate the significance of the MLA vote.
Polls show a dramatic shift in public opinion with regard to Israel. Younger people increasingly side with the Palestinian cause, and mainstream politicians have done what many thought would be impossible: normalize the debate over Palestinian rights.
Who would have imagined, even a few years ago, that the California Democratic Party would issue a resolution echoing language from the Sanders campaign: “Peace also means security for every Palestinian. It means achieving self-determination, civil rights, and economic well-being for the Palestinian people.” The resolution also “rejects any effort to restrict or discourage open public discourse on issues surrounding Israel and Palestine.”
The MLA may have muzzled its own members. It may have shown itself to be on the side of an outmoded vision of the liberal arts, one that’s unwilling to address intolerance, injustice, and inhumanity in an open and meaningful manner.
But the tide is turning against stifled debate and apologetics for Israeli occupation.
The author is a member of the MLA Executive Council and the USACBI Organizing Collective, but the views expressed here are his own.