MLA Convention Update: Academic Boycott Resolution at the Town Hall Meeting and Open Hearing

screen-shot-2017-01-06-at-11-51-27-pmOn Thursday January 5, approximately 200 people attended the MLA Town Hall Meeting on academic boycott that was convened by the MLA and chaired by the current President Anthony Appiah. The Town Hall Meeting was the first of a two of sessions that focused on the Delegate Assembly vote on a resolution to endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.

The actual debate and vote on the resolutions will begin on Saturday January 7, in the early afternoon between 12:00-1:00 and is likely to last most of the afternoon. If you are attending the MLA, come to the Delegate Assembly meeting in Grand Ballroom Salon G-H of the Marriott Philadelphia and speak out in favor of the boycott resolution.

At the Town Hall Meeting, which was in many ways a test run for the arguments of both sides, MLA Convention organizers had three lines for members who wished to address the following question: “Should the MLA endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions.” The first line was ostensibly for members who do not hold a position on the question–there were virtually no members who stood in this line that could legitimately claim to be neutral, but that did not prevent several opponents of the boycott resolution from taking their turn in the first line. The second line was for supporters of the resolutions. The third line was for opponents. Professor Appiah with the support of MLA officials and staff tried to limit speakers to 1 minute, often resorting to using the gavel to call the speakers to order.  In the course of the one hour and forty-five minute meeting, which began at 5:15, opponents to the resolution regularly spoke over the 1 minute allowed and were on one occasion shouted down by Professor Appiah for refusing to cede the microphone to the next speaker. And as just noted, several times opponents of the boycott resolution used the neutral line to make statements against the resolution. Despite these breaches in procedure by the anti-boycott side–signs of desperation on the part of a limited and strident pro-Israel contingent–as the meeting progressed, it became increasing evident that supporters of the academic boycott were more numerous, more varied in their arguments, more informed on the issues, and more diverse in terms of their institutional, cultural and disciplinary identities.

About one hour into the meeting, no new speakers from the anti-boycott side stood in line three, exhausted and redundant, they had nothing to add to their weak and repetitive claims about the dangers of the boycott. Meanwhile, new speaker after new speaker took the floor from line two to pronounce support for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, offering well stated reasons why a professional association such as the MLA should endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. These reasons ranged from supporting Palestinian educational rights and academic freedom to critiquing Israeli colonialism to opposing the US’s unconditional support of Israel to defending the right of MLA members to engaged in boycott politics free from intimidation.

Friday January 6 at the Open Hearing on Delegate Assembly Resolutions, many of the same people, who spoke at the Town Hall Meeting, stated their positions at the preliminary discussion of the resolutions that will go before the elected body of the Modern Language Association on Saturday. Three resolutions presented in a timely manner (before the October 1, 2016 deadline) and one emergency resolution were discussed in the following order:

Resolution 2017-1 (Anti-boycott proposed by Russell A. Berman and Martin B. Shichtman)
Whereas endorsing the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel contradicts the MLA’s purpose to promote teaching and research on language and literature,
Whereas the boycott’s prohibition of the evaluation of work of individual Israeli scholars conflicts with Resolution 2002-1, which condemns boycotts against scholars,

Whereas endorsing the boycott could curtail debates with representatives of Israeli universities, such as faculty members, department chairs and deans, thereby blocking possible dialogue and general scholarly exchange,
Be it resolved that the MLA refrain from endorsing the boycott.

Resolution 2017-2 (Pro-boycott proposed by Rebecca Comay and David Lloyd)
Whereas the MLA affirms: “When academic freedom is curtailed, higher education is compromised”;

Whereas the US materially supports Israel’s ongoing violations of human rights and international law;
Whereas these violations include the systematic denial of academic freedom and educational rights for Palestinian scholars and students;
Whereas Israeli universities are instrumental in perpetuating these violations;
Be it resolved that the MLA endorses Palestinian civil society’s call for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions; and

Be it further resolved that the MLA affirms the right of faculty and students everywhere to advocate for the

Resolution 2017-3 (Condemning Palestinian political organizations, proposed by Agnes C. Mueller)
Whereas repeated attacks on the academic freedom of Palestinian scholars and students by Palestinian political organizations, including both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas, have been documented,
Whereas these attacks on academic freedom constrain scholarly pursuits in Palestinian universities,
Be it resolved that the MLA condemn attacks on academic freedom in Palestinian universities, whether they are perpetrated by the Palestinian Authority or by Hamas.

Emergence Resolution (On AAUP Statement on  “Higher Education After the 2016 Election,” proposed by Michael Berube, Penn State University)
Whereas, the Modern Language Association upholds the ideal of free and unfettered scholarly exchange, including the right of scholars to travel across international borders;
Whereas, the MLA opposes discrimination—among faculty, staff, and students—on the basis of race, gender, class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, religion or national origin; and

Whereas, the MLA is aware that the Trump Administration threatens to violate these core principles of democracy and academic freedom,
Be it resolved that the MLA strongly endorses the statement of the American Association of University Professors, “Higher Education After the 2016 Election,” and urges members to disseminate it widely.

Unsurprisingly, the anti-boycott side repeated their same ludicrous claims about the threats posed by an academic boycott to Israeli academics, who presented as the last remaining site of decency in Israel. They state their concern for the academic freedom of American scholars working with Israelis, claiming erroneously that an MLA vote to endorse the academic boycott would have the power to prevent them from pursuing their research and collaborations with Israeli. These claims are the basis of Resolution 2017-1, which is merely an affirmation of the existing status quo–that is to say, currently the MLA refrains from boycotting. No explanation was given for need to pass this resolution, which is merely aimed at silencing supporters of the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. The effect of this resolution, were it to be passed by the Delegate Assembly, would be nothing less than a condemnation of the BDS movement by the MLA in the name of protecting Israel from criticism, making the MLA complicit with Israeli repression of Palestinians and positioning the MLA on the side of anti-boycott laws that have been enacted in Israel and have been debated in state legislatures in the United States.

When the discreen-shot-2017-01-07-at-12-06-31-amscussion moved to Resolution 2017-2, a member of the MLA Executive Council took the floor to state that an amendment to the resolution would be advanced at the Delegate Assembly to the effect that given the charitable status of the association, the resolution to endorse the boycott would not be binding on the MLA. It is unclear whether this amendment will in effect be written into the resolution or how it would change the resolution. The point of the amendment appears to clarify the meaning of “endorse” and the status of the resolution, which Rosemary Feal, current Executive Director of MLA, indicated could only express the sentiment of the association. In other words, according to the bylaws of the MLA, in this interpretation of the terms, “a resolution to endorse” anything is not a binding policy, but only an expression of sentiment.

Resolution 2017-3, which condemns the Palestinian Authority and Hamas without naming Israel as an oppressor of Palestinian rights was largely challenged from the floor. Few speakers at the open hearing stood up to defend what was clearly a rearguard action of the anti-boycott MLA members seeking to muddy the waters. This disingenuous move did not deceive anybody in the room and is not likely to get any serious traction during the Delegate Assembly meeting.

Oddly, Michael Berube’s resolution, which refers to the Trump Administration’s threats to violate  “core principles of democracy and academic freedom” received significant support from the same MLA members who oppose the boycott resolution. 6-7 speakers who rose up to state their overwhelming support for Berube’s emergency resolution, seemingly  blind to the contradiction in their positions as they denounced Trump, who has expressed admiration for Israel and some of its most extreme policies–such as religious/racial profiling, building security walls and torture.  This point was made eloquently by David Lloyd without rebuttal.

On Saturday afternoon, the 275 or so delegates will hear many of the same arguments made over the last two days, indeed over the last two years, and then they will vote. We encourage all supporters of justice for Palestinians to attend the Delegate Assembly and to state their support for Resolution 2017-2.  The MLA is entering the final phase of a long process of educating the membership on the deplorable conditions of Palestinians subject to an unrelenting military occupation that will only intensify in the coming years. If the MLA does not act now to vote for justice for Palestinians, the association is condemning itself to complicity in Israel’s crimes and critical irrelevance.

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