MLA Academic Boycott Debates

On the first day of the MLA 2016 Convention in Austin (Thursday January 7), two academic boycott debate panels took place.  MLA Members for Justice in Palestine organized the first debate. Opponents of academic boycott organized the second debate panel. Approximately 75 people attended the first debate panel, which included remarkable presentations by Saree Makdisi and Rebecca Comay. Screen Shot 2016-01-09 at 8.59.23 AMAbout half that number of MLA members were present at the second panel, which appeared to be a staged attempt to discredit the MLA for even allowing the debate to take place. The comparatively low attendance at the second panel suggests that a greater number of MLA members sympathize with the pro-boycott position. Furthermore, based on the force their presentations and the applause, supporters of the resolution who presented on the 2 panels clearly won the day.

For decades, pro-Israeli apologists have used the same arguments to defend the violence of the occupation and anti-Palestinian racism within Israel. The evidence of Israel’s human rights abuse and denial of equality to its Palestinian citizens that the advocates of boycott presented cannot be refuted. Instead, the defenders of Israel resort to anti-Arab and anti-Muslim claims, insisting that conditions are better for Palestinians under Israeli rule. In effect, every time pro-Israeli scholars made a statement during the two debates invoking academic freedom or  Israel’s enlightened educational system, the case for the academic boycott was made stronger, exposing  a fundamental feature of Israeli colonialist discourse and racial supremacism, which was particularly evident in the presentations by Gabriel Noah Brahm and David Pan on the first panel.

Several additional panels addressing Palestinian culture and boycott politics also have been organized at this year’s MLA. “Boycott Literature” took place on Thursday, 7 January, 5:15–6:30 p.m. This panel focused on an especially public form of literature that is marked by historic boycotts. The papers took up the MLA presidential theme, “literature and its publics,” by enlarging the frame of academic boycott debates. Discussions of boycott in Irish, Indian, Chicano, and South African cultural history. Panelists included: Dina Al-Kassim (Univ. of British Columbia), Marcial Gonzalez (Berkeley), Susan Cannon Harris (Notre Dame) and S. Shankar (Univ. of Hawai‘i).

On Friday, 8 January, 8:30–9:45 a.m.  a special session titled “What It Means for MLA Members to Support the Academic Boycott of Israel” also took place which included presentations by Gina Dent (UC, Santa Cruz), Alex Lubin (University of New Mexico), Bill V. Mullen (Purdue), Malini Johar Schueller (University of Florida), and Rajini Srikanth (UMass, Boston). Rima Najjar Merriman from Al Quds University in Palestine was also listed on the program, but was not able to attend the conference. The panelists all have expertise in both the history and politics of boycott in general. Their papers addressed the specific guidelines for the academic boycott of Israel and some of the common questions raised about what it would mean for the MLA as an professional organization to join the international movement to boycott Israeli universities.

Below is a list of additional MLA panels that address Palestinian culture, the academic boycott and solidarities across the global divide. Some of the papers will be published in the future on this site.

Friday, 8 January

1:45–3:00 p.m., 18D, ACC

Politics of Solidarities and Cross-Racial Alliances

3:30–4:45 p.m., 6A, ACC

Displaced Subjects: Asian American Studies and Palestine

Saturday January 9, 

8:30–9:45 a.m., Lone Star F, JW Marriott

Salaita, Academic Freedom, and the Question of Palestine: Where Do We Go from Here

12:00 noon–1:15 p.m., Lone Star A, JW Marriott

Palestinian Literature: Conditions of Possibility, Conditions of Justice

5:15–6:30 p.m., 311, JW Marriott

Palestine in the Internationalist Imagination

Sunday January 10

Beyond Darwish: The Struggle Continues

Sunday, 10 January, 10:15–11:30 a.m., 209, JW Marriott

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