Dueling Groups Debate BDS Inside and Outside of MLA Convention

January 13, 2014 8:18 am 0 comments

Cary Nelson, an Modern Language Association (MLA) member and University of Illinois professor who spoke on a panel across the street from the MLA convention on academic freedom in Israel. The panel was arranged as an alternative to an MLA convention session that included supporters but no opponents of the BDS movement against Israel. Photo: Sage Ross via Wikimedia Commons.

JNS.org - CHICAGO—The Modern Language Association (MLA) delegate committee on Saturday passed Resolution 2014-1, which condemns Israel for denials of entry by U.S. academics into the West Bank, in a 60-53 vote. The MLA Executive Committee will now need to approve the resolution before it goes to a vote among MLA members.

The original text of the resolution condemned Israel for “arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U.S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities,” but the words “Gaza” and “arbitrary” were removed before the vote.

A day earlier, an MLA caucus also introduced an “Emergency Resolution in Support of the American Studies Association.” The American Studies Association (ASA) recently voted to endorse an academic boycott of Israel. The MLA delegate assembly declined to consider that resolution Saturday. Seventy-five percent of MLA convention delegates needed to approve the resolution before it could be debated and voted on, and only 41 percent did. The issue, however, may be referred to the Executive Committee for consideration.

Both votes come in the wake of the MLA’s much-anticipated “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine” roundtable on Jan. 9 as part of its 2014 convention in Chicago. MLA members expressed their opposition to academic boycotts of Israel during an alternative session offsite the same day.

“The MLA supports the right of its members to organize sessions on topics of interest to the profession and to propose resolutions addressing issues of professional concern,” Rosemary Feal, executive director of the MLA told JNS.org in an email.

The official convention panel Jan. 9, which JNS.org could not attend after being denied a press credential to cover the convention by MLA, featured supporters but no opponents of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel.

“In our view the BDS panel should never have been accepted in the first place. It was accepted under the pretext of opening up discussion when it in fact doesn’t do that,” said Jacob Baime, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC). After being denied an MLA convention meeting room to present an alternative session to the BDS roundtable, Hillel International and ICC organized a panel on academic freedom in Israel across the street from the convention.

Supporting materials to the MLA resolution from the Campaign for the Right to Enter Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) allege that Palestinian universities and departments are unable to engage quality staff due to entry restrictions by Israel. In 2009, Rima Merriman, an American citizen of Palestinian descent, reported being denied re-entry to Palestinian-controlled territory and was unable to resume her post at the Arab American University-Jenin. She said that through the help of an attorney, the U.S. Consulate, and several independent organizations, she was eventually able to re-enter. Several similar cases were cited in the resolution’s supporting materials.

But a report issued by MLA members opposing the convention’s Resolution 2014-1 states that in 2012, only 142 Americans were denied entry to Israel and the disputed territories out of 626,000 who wanted to enter, a refusal rate of about 0.023 percent. The U.S. restricts entry to its own borders at a much higher rate—5.4 percent in 2012 for Israeli applications for “B” visas, as reported by both the Israeli embassy in the U.S. and the U.S. State Department.

“The chance of an Israeli wanting to come to America and being refused by the American authorities for getting a visa is 200 times greater than that of an American trying to enter Israel,” Ilan Troen, director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies at Brandeis University and professor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Israel, told JNS.org. Troen was a panelist on the alternative session organized by Hillel and ICC.

The opposing report also notes that for approval, MLA resolutions must be accompanied by “material that provides evidence in support of the [resolution’s] claims,” according to the MLA constitution. In fact, before the language on Gaza was removed, Resolution 2014-1’s supporting documents and the cases mentioned by the documents did not include any examples of a failed re-entry to Gaza, but rather only of failed re-entries to the West Bank. The resolution also did not mention that Gaza since 2006 has been under the control of the terror group Hamas, not under Israeli control.

The official MLA session’s panel on Jan. 9 included BDS movement co-founder Omar Barghouti and University of Texas professor Barbara Jane Harlow, who has stated her support for the American Studies Association (ASA) boycott of Israel. The panel also included University of Southern California professor of English David Lloyd, a well-known BDS activist, and Wesleyan University professor Richard Ohmann, who signed a 2009 letter that described Israeli treatment of Palestinians as “one of the most massive, ethnocidal atrocities of modern times.”

“BDS is an invitation [to Israelis] to free oneself from the painful contradiction of advocating democracy and defending oppression,” Lloyd said at the session, according to Haaretz.

MLA’s Feal said the alternative panel, also held Jan. 9, was arranged too late for inclusion in the official program. “We were pleased also that an alternative panel on BDS could be organized and presented,” she said, adding that all attendees at the BDS session “were invited by that session’s organizers to attend the alternative panel, and we welcomed that discussion as an important contribution to the free exchange of ideas among colleagues.”

Feal added that “contrary to what has been reported in some outlets, a broad range of opinions and perspectives on BDS were expressed in yesterday’s roundtable, both by the panelists and in the lively question-and-answer session that was part of the session.”

But University of Texas professor Samer Ali, the organizer of the official MLA panel on BDS, told the Chronicle of Higher Education that “if people want to come and debate occupation, I think it will be a waste of their time, because that’s not what the roundtable is about.”

According to a report compiled by Peggy Shapiro, Chicago community coordinator for the pro-Israel education group StandWithUs and a member of the MLA who attended the official session on BDS, speakers at the panel continuously referred to Israel as “racist” and to its citizens as “colonizers.” They described Israel as an “apartheid” state more than 12 times, according to Shapiro.

Michael Kotzin, senior counselor to the president at Chicago’s Jewish United Fund, also attended the official session and told JNS.org that a majority of the questions directed at the panelists expressed opposing views. On the panel, speakers referred to what they considered an unfair conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism in criticism directed at their views. The panelists expressed that the BDS movement calls for a boycott of Israel as a state, not a boycott of the Jewish people, according to Kotzin.

There was a “recurring undercurrent” with mentions like the “Israel lobby” or “the lobby” during the session, as well as of the terms “money,” “power,” and “influence” in the context of Israeli control over American policy. “This kind of language is echoing anti-Semitic concepts,” said Kotzin.

“Criticism of Israeli policies or Zionism is not necessarily anti-Semitic. But the mere fact that one has anti-Zionist views does not prove that one is not anti-Semitic,” Russell Berman, a Stanford University professor and past president of MLA, said at the alternative session.

Richard Cravatts, president of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, said that panelists in the official MLA discussion claimed that the recent ASA resolution to boycott Israel put the issue on the public’s radar and likely made a boycott of Israel a more viable tool.

None of the panelists, however, admitted that they were “actually pushing for the elimination of the Jewish state” because “they’re asking Israel to change policies that would actually be political suicide,” said Cravatts. No one on the panel “mentioned any responsibility on the part of the Palestinians,” Cravatts added.

“Why is the wall there? Because Jews were being murdered in pizzerias and cafes,” he said.

At the alternative session, panelist Gabriel Brahm, an MLA member and professor at Northern Michigan University, said he endorses the Palestinian right to self-determination, but that the one-state solution that BDS espouses is a call against Jewish identity and should therefore be properly categorized as anti-Semitic.

“The stigma that properly applies to anti-Semitism should also apply to anti-Zionism,” he said.

Much of the discussion at the alternative panel focused on how the BDS movement claims a lack of academic freedom in Israel and the disputed territories, but then also calls for an academic boycott of Israel, which in itself violates academic freedom.

“The false issue is the respect for academic freedom,” Troen told JNS.org. “Israeli education is based upon academic freedom and has such latitude and openess that there are few systems in the world that can match Israel. You can find at Israeli universities people who hold the most extreme and opposite views who function together and teach at the same institutions. There is no exclusion.”

Alternative session panelist Cary Nelson, an MLA member and a professor at the University of Illinois, told JNS.org in an email that he does not necessarily object to political subjects being discussed at humanities events, but opposes “political advocacy when it is not based on a search for the truth and when it is mounted dishonestly.”

“The speakers at the BDS panel have convinced themselves that Israel is the prime source of injustice in the world, despite its being surrounded by utterly undemocratic and repressive regimes… No rational explanations have been offered for why a focus on Israel among all other nations is warranted,” said Nelson.

Berman told JNS.org in an email that it is “important to focus on the real issue here: how academic boycotts poison academic life.”

“Scholars as citizens have a right to engage in politics, but much less so in the classroom,” Berman said. “However, in the case at hand, the issue is not whether scholars should engage in civic life at all but rather the specifically bad quality of BDS politics. BDS is the problem, not civic engagement. One has to be willing to make qualitative distinctions like this.”

Shapiro noted that only about 125 of the 4,000 conference attendees attended the official BDS panel. Several fliers which rebutted the arguments of the boycott proponents were placed on audience seats. Shapiro also spoke to the delegate committee before Saturday’s vote on Resolution 2014-1.

“There is no understanding or explanation for Israel’s defense and opponents of the Resolution are given only one minute to unwind a tangled web of misinformation, unsubstantiated anecdotes which are presented with no context,” Shapiro said.

“For example, removing the word Gaza because the resolution presenters were not even aware of the simple fact that the entry to Gaza is in Egyptian and not Israeli control. What else did they not tell and what else do we need to make an informed decision?” she added.

Berman said in a statement after the vote that it is “unfortunate that the Delegate Assembly has focused exclusively on Israel and relied on embarrassingly poor documentation.” The vote “does a disservice to the MLA,” he said.

But Berman doesn’t see the BDS movement as an imminent threat to the state of U.S. education. Only one MLA convention session out of about 800 was devoted to the subject of BDS, and most other sessions are “full of rich creative scholarship,” he said at the alternative panel Jan. 9.

“If you take a look at the figures, more and more [research] funds come into Israel because it’s just an extraordinary academic environment… The impact [of BDS on Israeli academia] is really symbolic, not practical,” said Troen.

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