The Modern Language Association (MLA) has blundered repeatedly over its treatment of Israel in the run-up to its annual conference this week. Technically the 30,000 member association is not contemplating a resolution to boycott, divest from, or sanction Israel (BDS) per se at this week’s upcoming confab. Instead it is debating a halfway measure that insiders observe is intended to be a stepping-stone to worse actions. But it is doing so in a way that should embarrass every one of its members. This is not just a mistake. This is five blunders rolled into one.
1. Introducing a Polarizing Anti-Israel Resolution
Despite the backlash against last month’s BDS resolution at the American Studies Association, the MLA is considering a resolution that would urge the U.S. State Department to oppose the allegedly “arbitrary denials of entry” to American academics seeking to teach or conduct research at West Bank and Gaza universities. This half-way measure is, as former American Association of University Professors Presidents Cary Nelson explains, a step along the way towards a formal BDS resolution: “They proposed the travel resolution as a fallback,” said Nelson. “They’re trying something else as a step toward a boycott resolution the next time. If they can win this, they will move onto the next one.” So BDS advocates stepped back from advancing a full-fledge BDS resolution that they clearly knew would fail, but they are using the MLA as a political tool to achieve the next best thing.
2. Substituting Politics for Scholarship
Worse than the resolution itself is the MLA’s process for considering it. This week, the convention features only a one-sided roundtable discussion on “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine,” which includes only BDS supporters but no opponents. There is nothing remotely academic about the panel, which does not purport to advance or disseminate modern language scholarship but only to politicize it in polarizing fashion. The panel’s supporters of the BDS movement are: BDS leader Omar Barghouti, the University of Texas at Austin’s Barbara Jane Harlow, the University of California at Riverside’s David C. Lloyd, and Wesleyan University’s Richard M. Ohmann. This is a politically biased, unscholarly approach, and it has nothing to do with the association’s mission. The MLA’s resolution may land them in hot water with the Internal Revenue Service, but the entire process is also a disservice to those of their members who expect the association to pursue the mission for which it was established and for which it has received tax-exempt status.
3. Suppressing Dissenting Voices
Worse, the MLA is barring those on the other side of the debate from making their own presentations at the conference. Specifically, the MLA rejected a counter-panel featuring former MLA President Russell Berman, Brandeis University Israel Studies Chair Ilan Troen, and cultural theorist Gabriel Noah Brahm, Jr. This silencing of one side of the debate brings no credit to the BDS movement, which is constantly trying to defend itself against arguments that it violates the academic freedom of Israeli professors, and certainly none to the MLA. In this case, of course, it is also American professors, including Israel’s supporters within the MLA, whom the MLA would silence.
4. Blocking Media Transparency
To make matters worse, the MLA went so far as to deny press credentials to reporters who could be expected to report on the MLA’s flaws. First, the association denied credentials to a reporter from the conservative Daily Caller web service, which had been interested in covering the MLA’s BDS controversy. In fairness to the MLA, the Daily Caller hardly demonstrated the association’s misjudgment when it decried the association as “fascist douchebags.” But the MLA did not limit itself to banning the Daily Caller. Next the association went so far as to bar the mainstream Jewish JNS.org news service. An MLA spokesperson reportedly JNS.org that the convention “reserves media credentials for outlets and journalists that are substantively focused on academic issues” – even though JNS.org had sent the MLA no fewer than nine examples of publications that they had produced on academic issues. The MLA may think itself clever for banning Jewish and conservative journalists who might otherwise cover embarrassing aspects of the MLA’s proceedings. In fact, the MLA’s actions only demonstrate their awareness that their annual convention will be a source of some disgrace.
5. Inviting Hatred and Bigotry
The worst aspect of such anti-Israel resolutions is neither their unscholarly character, nor their politicization, nor their polarization, nor their hostility to academic freedom, nor their non-transparency. Rather, BDS resolutions and their bedfellows are at best invitations to bigotry and at worst carriers of hate. The point is not that their exponents are all anti-Semitic. Empirical research shows that anti-Zionist attitudes correlate positively with Jew-hatred. That is to say, those who dislike Israel are much more likely to dislike Jews. The more they fiercely hate Israel, the more fiercely they are likely to hate Jews. But some of Israel’s critics are not anti-Semitic, as far as the best available research has been able to ascertain. Even where particular anti-Israel activists are not personally motivated by anti-Semitism, however, they invariably give voice to traditional anti-Semitic stereotypes and defamations. It is not impossible to support BDS for anti-Semitic reasons, just as it is not impossible to support the poll tax for non-racist reasons. In both cases, those accused of bigotry have provided race-neutral justifications for their actions. Nevertheless, it is rarely disputed nowadays that the poll tax was used as a central device in racist efforts to disenfranchise African Americans. It was a racist institution even if some non-racists were duped into using it. In the same way, BDS has become a central weapon in anti-Semitic efforts to delegitimize both Israel and the Jewish people. In providing a forum for BDS supporters – indeed giving BDS supporters privileges denied to BDS opponents – the MLA is a using its tax-exempt contributions to advance an essentially hate-motivated enterprise. No wonder they do not want reporters to cover this.