Scholars launch counter-measures against MLA’s moves toward boycott

30,000-member group to vote on resolution asking State Department to condemn Israel.

Israel boycott 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel boycott 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
NEW YORK – On Thursday in Chicago, the 30,000-member Modern Language Association of America will hold its annual conference that will include a panel discussion featuring supporters of the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement against Israel. At the same conference, the MLA Delegate Assembly, its governing body, will consider a resolution that would ask the State Department to condemn Israel for several incidents in which Israel denied US academics entry into Gaza or the West Bank.
In response, Prof. Cary Nelson of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Prof. Russell Berman of Stanford University have set up their own panel discussion, organized by Hillel On Campus and the Israel on Campus Coalition, that will advocate against boycotts. Their panel discussion is scheduled to take place directly after the BDS-advocating discussion.
“The mere calling for a boycott will impede the free flow of ideas,” Berman said on Tuesday, echoing the language many universities have used recently when speaking out against the American Studies Association’s boycott. “This is the lifeblood of higher education.
I think this [the ASA’s] boycott will have a significant effect, but less in Israel than on the quality of higher education in the US.”
The MLA in the past has opposed all academic boycotts, but neither Nelson nor Berman faulted the MLA for agreeing to host the BDS panel, which will feature five supporters of the movement, including the moderator. “They’re happy that we’re doing it [holding our opposing panel],” Nelson said, explaining that the MLA has hundreds of panel discussions scheduled for the three-day conference, many of which present only one side of an issue.
Nelson, a former president of the American Association of University Professors, and Berman, a former president of the MLA, have been distributing materials asking MLA members to vote against resolution 2014-1.
“What this resolution is doing is giving the MLA a foreign policy,” Nelson told reporters on Tuesday over a conference call organized by the Israel Action Network. “I will concede that the MLA needs a foreign policy, but only as soon as it appoints ambassadors to the region. Until then, the business of this organization is American academic issues and the many problems and challenges that we face.”
The resolution would condemn Israel for “arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by US academics who have been invited to teach, confer or do research at Palestinian universities,” and outlines four cases of American professors who were supposedly denied entry to the Palestinian territories.
Nelson and Berman insist that the MLA does not have the resources or the capacity to properly investigate the incidents outlined in the draft resolution.
They also say that the resolution is scant on details and contains several factual errors and weak evidence, including confusing the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and fails to follow up on how the four cases ended: Two of the academics were eventually let in, and three of the cases are five years old. Nelson and Berman say the evidence is not sufficient to prove “arbitrary denial of entry.”
“The MLA historically does not have the staff, does not have the experience, to investigate cases of mistreated faculty or issues on individual campuses,” Berman said.
More important, Berman continued, advocates of the BDS movement within the MLA have tried and failed three times before to push a boycott resolution through the organization.
This new resolution, both professors said, was meant as a precursor to further restrictions and eventually a boycott of Israel. “The same people who are behind this resolution have tried to recommend boycotts over the past decade,” Nelson said.
Will it pass? Nelson couldn’t say. “I haven’t the faintest idea,” he said, with some humor. “If the delegate assembly members read the background papers presented by the resolution’s proponents and by those who oppose it, then I think it cannot pass, if they’re fair,” he told The Jerusalem Post. “If you read both documents, then you have to have some reasonable doubt that the assertions in the resolution are true.… But you know, you can take a faculty member to the water, but you can’t make ’em drink. Some will just vote out of their convictions. I believe the evidence is very sound on our side of the fence. If they read it, the resolution will go down.”
The Modern Language Association did not respond to a request for comment.