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One-sided, anti-Israel Panel to 'Debate' Next U.S. Academic Boycott

BDS battleground turns to January convention of 30,000-member Modern Language Association, but the game seems rigged.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

The results of the upcoming deliberations on academic boycotts of Israel, scheduled to be held at the Chicago convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in January, should not hold you in suspense. In fact, they are a foregone conclusion.

That’s because the panel that has been chosen to “debate” the issue is comprised of one moderator and four panelists who are outspoken supporters of the Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement and, in some cases, unabashed activists on its behalf. The number of panelists with any sort of dissenting view, according to the current lineup, will be, not to put too fine a point on it, zero.

It’s true that MLA Executive Director Rosemary Feal told Haaretz in an email on Tuesday that “currently, there is no resolution urging a boycott of Israeli institutions on the agenda for the MLA Delegate Assembly." Instead, she wrote, the MLA is to consider a call on the U.S. State Department to rebuke Israel for its “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."

Nonetheless, the January 9 panel entitled “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine” is likely to draw much more media attention than in years past because of this week’s highly publicized decision by the 5,000-member American Studies Association (ASA) to boycott Israeli academic institutions, as well a similar, though much less noticed, resolution adopted on Sunday by the governing body of the 750-strong Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA).

Despite the expected scrutiny, however, the MLA has placed the Israel boycott debate in the hands of moderator Professor Samer Ali of the University of Texas at Austin, who is already engaging with boycott critics on his Facebook account to counter claims that academic boycotts unfairly “single out” Israel.

But Ali, who teaches Middle Eastern Studies, is actually less identified with the BDS movement that any of his guests on the panel. These include, first and foremost, one of the actual founders of the movement, the Qatari-born Omar Barghouti, possibly the number one BDS spokesman in the world and the author of its manifest Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions: The Global Struggle for Palestinian Rights. Barghouti is listed on the MLA program as an “independent scholar."

The credentials of the other panelists are no less impressive, from a pro-boycott point of view. They include David Lloyd, Professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, who is a founding member of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, which is, in itself, an offshoot of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

Lloyd, who was one of the first U.S. campaigners on behalf of an anti-Israel academic boycott, accused Israeli institutions of higher learning in May of this year of “violations of academic freedom that are so pervasive as to amount to what some scholars have named 'scholasticide' and which form part of a larger system that can only be understood as aimed at preventing the reproduction and survival of Palestinian intellectual life and culture.”

Joining Lloyd at the Sheraton Chicago on January 9 will be Professor Barbara Harlow, also of the University of Texas at Austin, a well known academic with numerous books and articles to her name, whose interests include, according to her own testimony “imperialism and orientalism” and who publicly endorsed the boycott several years ago.

Rounding out the completely one-sided group is emeritus Professor Richard Ohmann of Wesleyan University, a self-confessed Marxist but also a widely-respected name in English studies, who wrote in 2009, for example that “our taxes have for years supported Israel's project of ethnic cleansing."

Ohmann, a signatory to a 2011 petition that called on financial giant TIAA-CREF to disinvest from American companies “profiting from the occupation," has actually called on European academics to boycott his own American colleagues because “surely we are complicit in the occupation of Palestine to about the same degree as Israeli academics.”

Feal, unfortunately, did not respond to our request for her reaction to the ridiculously one-sided makeup of the boycott panel and the exclusion of any opponent of a boycott. She did however point us to a 2002 MLA letter protesting the expulsion of two Israeli researchers from the University of Manchester as well as to the “MLA’s longstanding advocacy of nondiscrimination against any scholars based on their ideologies or nationalities.”

Established in 1883, the MLA is a much broader and well-known organization than the already-boycotting ASA, with 30,000 members in over 100 countries worldwide. The MLA publishes a style guide that is the most widely accepted authority on writing scholarly and research papers at American academic institutions.

Boycott Israel sign (illustration)Credit: Dreamstime

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