The Delegate Session of the Modern Language Association began with an hour-long session on the perils of falling enrollment in the MLA and reduced support for the humanities in general.
What better way to get a pedantic organization into the headlines than a little anti-Israel action? So the MLA Delegate Assembly took up two resolutions targeting Israel.
Now, for the first time, reporters flocked to cover a conference whose delegate sessions are normally a “Roberts Rules of Order” soporific.
One resolution (2013-1), asking the US State Department to pressure Israel to relax its controls on who enters the country, passed by a narrow margin. By the time it made it the floor, it had been defanged because of its shoddy research. The oversight committee presented it for a vote after making two amendments because of “insubstantial support.” Gaza was removed because the resolution’s sponsors had ignored the fact that Egypt controls Gaza’s southern border entries. Rather than amend the resolution to also condemn Egyptian restrictions, they simply removed Gaza. If Israel couldn’t be blamed, apparently there was no point to the resolution. Another required amendment was removal of the word “arbitrarily,” because Israel’s visa requirements are not arbitrary but rather are consistent with the standards of other liberal democracies.
In a chaotic 5.5-hour session, where there was more time spent discussing how much time should be allocated speakers from the floor than on speakers actually speaking, I was one of the few who had a full three minutes.
There was so much I had wanted to say about the ludicrous complaints against Israel’s security measures at a venue with extremely tight security – so restrictive that I had to re-register and obtain a new entrance ticket just because I went to the ladies room. With few afforded the opportunity to speak, I tried to make the most of my three minutes.
“Delegates, look carefully at the packet you received, not for what is in it, but for what is not in it. There is no understanding or explanation of Israel’s defense needs, 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. 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 know to make an informed decision? “They also said there is a State Department warning not to visit Israel. Not true. The warning is not to visit Gaza – because it’s run by a terrorist organization.”
I read from the State Department site on my smartphone, a technological feat I had not known I could perform.
Israel’s visa requirements are similar to those of other liberal democracies, though Israel is forced to be more vigilant because of the dangers of ongoing terrorism. The resolution never acknowledged this reality. Israel’s visa denials can be appealed in Israel’s courts.
Nonetheless, in 2012, Israel rejected only 0.02 percent of the 626,000 Americans who sought visas, while the US denial rate of Israeli applications for B-visas was 5.4%. Furthermore, Palestinian universities themselves boast about the number of foreign professors, including Americans, who teach at their schools.
But facts be damned! The delegates passed the resolution (60-53).
It must now go to the executive committee, who will probably pass it because it says nothing but sounds like someone is taking a stand against Israel. If they approve it, the 30,000 members of the MLA will vote for or against it online. Ten percent of members must vote for it to officially pass.
An amended resolution calling for academic freedom of access and entry to be applied to all nations was defeated after a number a parliamentary twists and maneuvers by the moderator.
Five hours after the meeting began, the “Emergency Resolution in Support of the American Studies Association” was brought to the floor. This resolution, which was introduced by the MLA’s Radical Caucus, was turned down for consideration and discussion by a vote of 59 to 41. (As an emergency resolution, it required 75% of the vote to be entertained.) Perhaps it was rejected because the ASA had faced increasing criticism because of its vote last month for an academic boycott of Israel.
The major US academic organizations and 182 leading universities had strongly condemned the measure as an assault on academic freedom.
Perhaps the delegates were standing up for the right of the ASA to say stupid things and the right of others to point out the stupidity.
Perhaps they were just exhausted from waiting for hours to speak, watching the moderators scurry around examining rule books, being told to stand “at ease,” and then told that the rules had been misread. That this conference of language professors has so much trouble communicating clearly is a topic for another article.
If the MLA had hoped to have its moment in the lights, it may regret getting what it asked for. The morally bankrupt vote, the lack of sound scholarship, the almost comical chaos, and the perversion of rules were in the spotlight, an embarrassment which will make MLA members cringe and ultimately harm the once worthy goals of the organization.
The writer is the Midwest community coordinator of StandWithUs, an MLA member, and professor emeritus and chair of the Foreign Language/ ESL Department at Harold Washington College, Chicago.