Israel Boycott Debate Sows Dissent at Annual MLA Convention

The Modern Language Association isn't considering a full-fledged boycott just yet, only a vote condemning Israel.

CHICAGO - Panelists launched a harsh attack against Israel at the annual convention of the Modern Language Association (MLA) in Chicago on Thursday, as part of the growing Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign spreading throughout American academia.

The MLA panel discussion on the academic boycott of Israel comes three weeks after the American Studies Association (ASA) endorsed a boycott of Israeli universities, the largest group of U.S. scholars to do so. About one-third of the group's more than 3,800 members voted, approving the boycott by 66 percent.

While the ASA is a relatively small organization, the impact of an MLA boycott would be far more significant as it comprises 30,000 members across more than 100 countries.

The panel discussing Israel – called “Academic Boycotts: A Conversation about Israel and Palestine” – was just one of 800 sessions during the four-day MLA conference, yet attracted crowd of about 200 people, far more than other panels at the event. The audience consistently applauded the panelists’ calls for boycotts against Israel and harsh condemnation of Israeli policies regarding the Palestinians. Panelists also compared Israel’s actions in the territories to the apartheid government in South Africa and alleged that Israel suppresses Palestinian education and research.

Samer Ali, a professor at the University of Texas at Austin, moderated the panel that included four like-minded scholars, all of whom provided scathing critiques of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. The panel did not include any academics who offered dissenting opinions, although Jewish groups and some MLA members were planning a response to the panel.

 “BDS is an invitation [to Israelis] to free oneself from the painful contradiction of advocating democracy and defending oppression,” said David Loyd, one of the panelists and a professor at the University of California.

Shutting out opposing views?

Meanwhile, pro-Israel groups condemned the MLA’s decision to hold the session.

“The panel should never have been accepted in the first place, because it was accepted under the pretense of opening up discussion when in fact it does not do that," said Jacob Baime, executive director of the Israel on Campus Coalition (ICC), which aims to build "strong leaders in the campus community to effectively advocate for Israel and change the campus Israel climate."

“The MLA's one-sided panel discussion is devoid of opposing views," Baime continued. "MLA members with alternative views feel they are being shut out of the conversation.”

Before the session began, the ICC distributed a series of flyers calling attention to a few of the panelists’ controversial remarks about Israel. The ICC also hosted its own panel at a nearby hotel on “Perspectives Against Academic Boycotts” following the MLA Panel.

When one of the panelists, Professor Richard Ohmann, was asked why the MLA should specifically target Israel, he replied, “The reason that we focus on Israel is because the U.S. is by far and away the world’s biggest supporter of Israel including with some of my tax money.”

No boycott for now, just condemnation

While there is no overarching proposal for a boycott of Israel, the MLA delegate assembly is set to vote on Saturday on a resolution calling for condemnation of Israel for arbitrarily barring American academics of Palestinian origin from entering the West Bank of Gaza Strip.

If the resolution passes, it still must be approved by a majority vote of the entire MLA membership later this year.

Marianne Hirsch, president of the MLA and a professor of English at Columbia University, emphasized that the resolution is not a boycott against Israel. She also added that she has received large amount of hate mail from anti-BDS activists.

Some MLA academics have also expressed discomfort with the session on Israel and Palestine. “I am concerned that with so much violence and oppression in the world, there is one session on BDS directed at Israel and not sessions on the many other countries that oppress their own people,” said Nicole Discenza, an English professor at the University of South Florida.

Dr. Craig Saper, a professor at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, vehemently opposes an MLA boycott of Israel similar to the one approved by the ASA. “The only people this hurts would be those who have nuanced and complicated relationships with the issues in Israeli universities,” he said. Saper suggested that the best way to help Palestinians would be to increase the MLA’s efforts to invite Palestinian modern language professors to American conferences.

After the session, which ended without disruption, Ali said “I think it went really well. People were very respectful. This was MLA at its best.”

He also defended the decision not to include any dissenting voices, saying this was a common approach in academic environments where panelists who agree on a particular model discuss their approaches while the audience raises critiques.

 “I hope there will be more conversations and awareness,” said Ali, who noted this panel was just part of the larger BDS movement spreading across the United States.

ADL 'outraged and disappointed'

Meanwhile, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) on Thursday expressed outrage and disappointment over the one-sided roundtable discussion that supported an academic boycott against Israel.

"We are outraged that a leading academic association has given its de facto imprimatur of legitimacy to the campaign to boycott Israeli academics and academic institutions by providing a platform to a panel of ideologues who addressed a largely partisan group which applauded their biased perspectives," read a statement from Abraham H. Foxman, the ADL's national director.

"It is particularly disappointing that the MLA allowed this panel on its program since the views of all the panelists directly contravene a 2002 MLA delegate assembly resolution stating that the ‘MLA condemns boycotts and blacklists against scholars or students on the basis of nationality, ethnic origins, and religious background as unfair, divisive, and inconsistent with academic freedom.’"

Foxman also lauded members of the MLA who "publicly countered the one-sided panel and stood up as committed advocates for academic freedom and open exchanges between scholars and academic institutions."

The ADL last month condemned the vote by the ASA to boycott Israeli academic institutions, calling it “intellectually dishonest and shameful.” Since then, more than 100 universities have rejected the ASA boycott of Israel.

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