Language academics defer resolution on Israel boycott for two years

Professor: ‘There is a radical fringe promoting BDS that wants to manipulate the structures of professional associations in order to generate anti-Israel statements.’

Boycott Israel  (photo credit: GUSTAV NACARINO / REUTERS)
Boycott Israel
A proposal to condemn Israel was not entertained at last week’s annual conference of the Modern Language Association (MLA), and proposals in favor of boycotts of the Jewish state will not be considered in 2016 either, according to the group’s former president.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post late last week, Russell Berman, professor of comparative literature and German studies at Stanford University, said the academic association’s Delegate Assembly Organizing Committee had declined to entertain either a motion supporting boycotts or one condemning them.
The committee, said Berman – who was one of the sponsors of the anti- BDS resolution – “examined these two proposed resolutions, found them to be antithetical to each other, and decided that rather than run the risk of finding the organization in a kind of a kind of contradiction with itself, if we adopted both, it decided to defer any boycott resolution for this year and for next year.”
Last year a proposal calling on the United States to “contest Israel’s denials of entry to the West Bank by US academics who have been invited to teach, confer or do research at Palestinian universities” failed to pass in a general vote of MLA members. Instead of a vote, this year’s conference featured a series of venues for the discussion of issues surrounding boycotts and academic freedom, but without any commitments.
Part of the reason that the resolution to censure Israel – which BDS opponents believed was intended to move the MLA toward a boycott – was able to make it to the delegate assembly for a vote in the first place, Berman said, was because the committee was “out of touch with the sentiments of members.”
“There is a radical fringe that is promoting BDS and wants to manipulate the structures of professional associations in order to generate anti-Israel statements,” he continued, citing the boycott resolution passed last year by the American Studies Association and the recent effort to pass a similar measure at a meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA).
Earlier last week, the AHA voted to keep two measures critical of Israel off the agenda of its annual meeting by a vote of 144 to 54.
“The vote from the MLA membership last year shows that there is an enormous majority that is not anti-Israel,” Berman asserted. “That includes people that are pro-Israel and that includes, of course, many professionals who just don’t think that a professional organization has any business developing foreign policy. I have many colleagues who don’t want to see the MLA politicized this way, separate from their views on the Middle East.”
A group calling itself MLA Members for Scholars’ Rights, with which Berman is associated, issued a statement prior to last week’s conference applauding the decision to keep Israel off the agenda.
“This week, the MLA’s Delegate Assembly will explore the question of academic boycotts and the threats they pose to academic freedom,” the group said. “While we appreciate the MLA’s decision to allow for conversation about such issues, we remain deeply concerned that a radical fringe is attempting to politicize the association, pushing it to embrace the same division and exclusion seen in the now largely discredited American Studies Association. We hope that the MLA will not follow that path.”