Modern Language Association rejects BDS resolution

Endorsing an academic and cultural boycott of Israel "contradicts the MLA's purpose to promote teaching and research on language and literature."

January 8, 2017 12:40
4 minute read.
bds boycott

Activists from the BDS movement against Israel [File]. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In yet another blow to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, the Modern Language Association voted on Saturday to reject an academic boycott of Israel.

The proposed measure was defeated by a vote of 113 to 79 at the MLA’s annual convention in Philadelphia.

Instead the association adopted an anti-BDS resolution proposed by the MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights by a vote of 101 to 93.

The BDS resolution was initiated by the MLA Members for Justice in Palestine which called on the association to boycott Israeli academic institutions until “Israel respects its obligations towards the Palestinian people under international law and norms of human rights.”

The resolution stated that Israeli academic institutions are “instrumental” in perpetuating violations against Palestinians, including “the systematic denial of academic freedom and educational rights for Palestinian scholars and students.”

As such, the resolution called for the MLA to endorse “Palestinian civil society’s call for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions” and to affirm the “right of faculty and students everywhere to advocate for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, without retaliation.”

In contrast, the anti-BDS resolution sought to bring to a vote a measure that would effectively cement the association’s opposition to academic boycotts and put an end to the yearly pro-BDS resolutions.

It stated that endorsing an academic and cultural boycott of Israel “contradicts the MLA’s purpose to promote teaching and research on language and literature.”

Following the vote, the scholars’ rights group said on its website that the boycott resolution was full of half-truths and factual errors which it sought to counter, and said it was “deeply gratified” the resolution failed to pass.

The anti-BDS resolution is set for a vote by the whole MLA membership after a review by the group’s executive council.

Prof. Zvi Ziegler, head of a forum established by the Association of University Heads in Israel to counter academic boycotts, welcomed the “difficult defeat” suffered by the pro-BDS supporters.

“The organized boycott attempts in the last year have failed, in part thanks to the persistent struggle of heads of universities, vis-a-vis leaders in academia abroad,” he said.

Ziegler said that in the case of the MLA, professors from the organization organized the counter- efforts, led by Prof. Cary Nelson from the University of Illinois and Prof. Russell Berman from Stanford University, with the assistance of a number of Jewish organizations.

“In parallel to the successes in thwarting the organizational/institutional boycott initiatives we view with concern the increase of overt as well as covert personal boycotts, whose primary harm is to young researchers who are at the start of their careers, especially in the humanities and social sciences,” he said, affirming that forum would continue to counter these boycott initiatives.

Major US Jewish organizations were quick to praise the decision after having been vocal in their opposition to the resolution ahead of the vote.

The Israel Action Network, an initiative of The Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said the organization was “delighted and greatly relieved” by the move to reject the boycott.

“The resolution would have greatly undermined the tenets of academic freedom, hindered vital discourse and open dialogue on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and restricted relationships with Israel’s universities and scholars in a punitive fashion,” said IAN chairman Skip Schrayer.

IAN further applauded those who supported, by a vote of 101 to 93, a separate resolution that called on the MLA to refrain from supporting such a boycott and urged the entire membership to ratify the resolution.

Noting that academics, including Israeli ones, tend to be among those most critical of their government, it said that a boycott against them would have only caused harm to a segment of Israeli society “working hardest to bring about peace.”

“No scholar or higher institution of learning should be singled out based on nationality, especially considering the crucial role academics play in their society as thought leaders,” Schrayer stressed.

“Blacklisting in such a manner will not aid in bringing about peace and reconciliation; these measures can and will result only in restricting free access for Israeli academics to research and collaborate with their international colleagues.

Moreover, such measures recall dark times in the recent history of humanity when particular groups were marginalized and punished.”

The American Jewish Committee also welcomed the result of Saturday’s vote. “The MLA has firmly repudiated those who try to exploit American colleges and universities to delegitimize the State of Israel,” said AJC CEO David Harris. “The MLA today has sent a message to the entire academic community that American and Israeli campuses benefit greatly from academic cooperation and that boycotting Israel, the only democratic nation in the region, and a country which has been seeking peace with its neighbors since its rebirth in 1948, will not be tolerated because it does not in any way advance peace.”

The World Jewish Congress echoed these sentiments and accused campus anti-Israel organizations of encouraging young people to blindly support boycotts without considering their repercussions.

“Boycotts inherently disregard the critical nature of open thought and discussion,” WJC CEO Robert Singer stated. “The essence of academia is the common pursuance of ideas, shared dialogue and cooperation. The boycott movement silences these voices, and prevents the fruits of these efforts from emerging. We hope other academic organizations will embrace the path taken by the MLA today.”

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