Israel boycott resolution fails at MLA convention

Opponents maintained that this resolution would have been the first step toward a full-blown boycott, divestment, and sanction- type decision.

Woman in boycott Israel shirt (photo credit: Reuters)
Woman in boycott Israel shirt
(photo credit: Reuters)
NEW YORK – The Modern Language Association of America announced that its members failed to muster the 10-percent vote required to pass a resolution that would have condemned Israel for several alleged incidents in which US academics were denied entry to the West Bank.
Opponents maintained that this resolution would have been the first step toward a full-blown boycott, divestment, and sanction- type decision, similar to that endorsed by the American Studies Association in December.
The MLA resolution, 2014-1, would have called on the US State Department 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.”
After passing a round of voting by the MLA’s ruling delegate assembly in January by a vote of 60-53, the resolution was sent to the membership for a sixweek voting period that began on April 20 and ended at noon on Sunday. At least 10 percent of the MLA’s 23,900 members had to participate in the vote for the resolution to pass or be rejected. In an announcement on its website, the MLA said, “There were 1,560 votes in favor of ratification and 1,063 against.
The vote fell 830 votes short of ratification.”
Prof. Cary Nelson of the University of Illinois at Urbana- Champaign, one of the leading organizers of MLA Members for Scholars Rights and who helped spearhead the monthslong campaign against the resolution, said this would have been just a foot in the door to an eventual full-blown BDS resolution.
“The MLA has considered these resolutions twice before, and they were struck down,” Nelson told The Jerusalem Post, “So they [BDS supporters in the MLA] tried something less controversial this time. A lot of people were not ready to be convinced that this was part of a larger agenda. We knew this was going to be very hard, but I’m extremely glad the resolution failed to pass.”
Supporters of Israel in the MLA will now begin gearing up for next January, when a similar showdown is almost guaranteed.
“They’ll be back with something or other,” Nelson said. He and many others will, however, continue to oppose the politicizing of the MLA. “I think people are much more likely to join ASA now, because they want an academic organization that takes controversial stands,” he said. “The majority of MLA members aren’t interested in taking a stand. And there is a fair amount of support for Israel in the MLA.”
Prof. Russell Berman of Stanford University, another one of the leaders of the campaign against the resolution, said in a statement that the fact that 94% of the MLA members refrained from endorsing the resolution “indicates a very strong reluctance to engage in politics extraneous to the core mission of the MLA: research and teaching in the modern languages and literatures.”
Geri Palast, the managing director of the Israel Action Network, joint initiative of the Jewish Federations of North America and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said it was “gratifying” to see the resolution defeated in the MLA, and that such a resolution “is a distortion of the role of what academic association should be.” The IAN provided research and educational support to scholars within the MLA who were lobbying against the resolution.
The American Jewish Committee welcomed the decision.
“The MLA’s repudiation of the BDS effort is yet another failure of those who have maliciously tried to use the American campus to delegitimize the State of Israel,” executive director David Harris said. The pro-Israel organization StandWithUs “congratulated the MLA members who did their homework and preserved the moral and intellectual integrity of their professional association.”
Much of the online discussion around the resolution featured ugly language: Nelson said that he was called a “Zionist attack dog” by a professor at Al-Quds University. Prof. Alessio Lerro of Temple University in Philadelphia said that the resolution was right to target Israel “given the humongous influence that Jewish scholars have in the decision- making process of academia in general.” Lerro questioned the authenticity of the six million number attributed to the Holocaust. Prof. Richard Pressman of St. Mary’s University in Texas wrote that he was “tired of Zionists constantly carping at those who support Palestinian rights... such as this Jewish American [Pressman].”
JTA contributed to this report.