Israel Boycotts Defeated at Modern Language Association, but More Trouble May Be Brewing
While advocates of anti-Israel boycotts at the Modern Language Association (MLA) sustained significant setbacks in 2017, their campaign to isolate the Jewish state may resurface with renewed vigor in the coming years.
Last January, the MLA’s Delegate Assembly shot down a resolution calling for a “boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” Instead, members voted to denounce the boycott for contradicting the MLA’s commitment to academic freedom, and urged the 24,000-member association to “refrain” from endorsing it.
Yet earlier this month, on the sidelines of the MLA’s annual meeting in New York, supporters of boycotts against Israel gathered to discuss the need “for new tactics and solidarities” to advance their cause. Organized by MLA Members for Justice in Palestine, the event — which was not directly sponsored by the association — was attended by some 50 people, including Professor Cary Nelson of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
Nelson, a past president of the American Association of University Professors and leader of MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, which campaigned against the 2017 boycott resolution, said he faced overt hostility and calls to leave as soon as he introduced himself to fellow attendees.
In a Jewish Journal article published on Saturday, Nelson said Judith Butler — a University of California, Berkeley professor who was one of the meeting’s designated speakers — called for his continued presence to be put to a group vote. An influential gender theorist and vocal proponent of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel in academia, Butler is slated to assume the MLA presidency for 2020-21.
“She repeatedly pressed me to leave,” Nelson told The Algemeiner, “and when I wouldn’t, she said, ‘there is nothing more we can do about him, we’ll have to proceed as best as we can.’”
Butler disputed this account, calling it “fanciful and falsifying” in comments to the Washington Free Beacon. “Several of us asked if he would like to leave and he declined,” she said. “In fact, I defended his right to stay, as he well knows.”
Nelson, in turn, dismissed her defense as “ridiculous” and added, “she didn’t … urge physical assault and physical removal from the room, so I’m grateful, but nothing that she did could be characterized as defending my right to stay.”
Butler said that she had “suggestions about how to move the BDS agenda forward [in the MLA], but she didn’t feel it was safe to discuss it with me in the room, because it wouldn’t be confidential anymore,” Nelson recalled. She asked participants to contact her after the meeting and indicated that funds — from an unspecified source — may be available to bring some of them to Berkeley, where they could continue the discussion, he added.
While no new proposals were shared during the meeting owing to his presence, Nelson said action would be “inevitable.”
“People aren’t giving up,” he explained, noting that efforts to target Israel were ongoing since the MLA’s 2007 convention.
He listed several ways that BDS advocates could continue to agitate in favor of the movement under Butler’s MLA presidency.
These include introducing resolutions calling for non-academic boycotts, “flooding” the association’s annual meeting with sessions hostile to Israel, and staging a trip to Israel in order to attract press attention. If the BDS advocates would be denied entry to the country upon arrival, Butler “could use her pulpit to denounce Israel, and she would feel that at that point, she has the right to do so,” Nelson said.
He pointed out that as “MLA presidents are supposed to be politically neutral,” the question with Butler’s upcoming presidency will be, “can she exercise self-control, and what can she arrange other MLA members to do?”
She could, for instance, encourage the MLA’s Executive Council and Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee to proceed with resolutions targeting Israel, which is “a confidential process that’s not exposed to the membership,” Nelson observed.
However, in light of the Jan. 5th incident, Nelson said, “any public actions that she takes would be somewhat compromised.”
He said that the MLA agreed to look into the event, following concerns raised by Professor Peter Herman of San Diego State University over Nelson’s treatment.
Yet in an email to Herman and seen by The Algemeiner, MLA Executive Director Paula Krebs claimed that Butler “did not call the meeting; she showed up to the meeting unannounced, just as Nelson did.”
A post on the event’s Facebook listing identified Butler as a designated speaker.
Nelson said that Krebs’ response meant he was “not full of immense confidence about how that investigation will proceed, but we’ll see.”
Butler and MLA Members for Justice in Palestine did not respond to requests for comment by publication time. A spokesperson for Krebs said the executive director was unable to comment due to travel.
Launched in 2005, the BDS campaign seeks to isolate Israel until it meets a number of demands set forth by Palestinian groups. Advocates promote it as a human rights movement aimed at pressuring Israel to comply with international law. Critics argue that BDS aims to end the country’s continued existence as a Jewish nation-state, a position repeatedly acknowledged by the campaign’s leading supporters.