The MLA has an inconsistent record of taking positions on international affairs and academic rights. In the 1980s, the MLA did not join the boycott of apartheid South Africa, but the association’s Executive Council issued a 2016 “Statement of Support for Turkish Academics.” In that statement, the MLA “condemns Turkish state violence in Kurdish-dominated Southeast Anatolia and asks the government to observe national and international law and to initiate a peace process.” In connection with support for academic freedom in the Palestinian context, the MLA membership ratified a resolution in 2008 that endorses “teaching and scholarship about Palestinian culture, support[ing] members who come under attack for pursuing such work, and express[ing] solidarity with scholars of Palestinian culture” (2008-1). And in the 2015 Delegate Assembly straw poll on boycotts, the members voted that boycotts are not a violation of academic freedom, but rather help to protect it. David Lloyd reported at the time on the straw poll for Mondoweiss: “the Modern Language Association’s Delegate Assembly affirmed in a straw poll by 48 votes to 26 that boycotts help to protect academic freedom. By 66 to 0, they also endorsed the idea that the MLA should roundly condemn retaliation against scholars who speak out publicly on matters concerning Palestine and Israel.”
In regards to the MLA decision, the fight was conducted within the Association itself, led by Prof. Neslon from the University of Illinois, and Prof. Berman from Stanford University. They were assisted by various Jewish organizations, along with The Committee of University Heads in Israel.
— Professor Ziegler, Head of the The Committee of University Heads in Israel
But since 2015, as is evident by the anti-academic boycott voting at the 2017 MLA Delegate Assembly meeting, the political inclination of the association’s elected body has changed dramatically, voting by a small margin (101 yes vs 93 no) for an anti-boycott resolution and by a relatively larger margin (79 yes vs 113 no) against the academic boycott resolution.
There are a number of reasons why members of the Delegate Assembly may have voted against the academic boycott, perhaps most importantly is the specter of a lawsuit against the MLA, a threat that The Loius D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights under Law made in a letter addressed to President (Anthony Appiah) and Executive Director (Rosemary Feal) of the MLA prior to the 2017 Convention. The Brandeis Center “cautioned the Modern Language Association (MLA) against a controversial anti-Israel resolution that some MLA members are urging upon the association. LDB is a national civil rights organization, known for its work fighting anti-Semitism in higher education” (see LDB to MLA).
The threat of a law suit coming from a pro-Israel institution had an impact on the MLA Executive Council, which moved to amend the pro-academic boycott resolution to explicitly state that the resolution would not be binding on the association and would not constrain the association. The motion to amend was rejected by the Delegate Assembly, but the discussion of the amendment emphasized that the academic boycott might be viewed as illegal and would ostensibly jeopardize the association’s charitable status. Palestine Legal in its report The Palestine Exception to Free Speech argues that anti-boycott legal intimidation and the passage of anti-boycott legislation violate the First Amendment. Nevertheless, the Brandeis Center’s threat of a law suit, no matter how frivolous, worked to frighten the MLA Executive Council and probably many MLA Delegates who voted against the academic boycott resolution.
Still that does not explain why 101 Delegates voted in favor of Resolution 2017-1 calling on the association to refrain from the academic boycott. After all, if the MLA voted against the boycott resolution, the association was refraining from the boycott. The vote in favor of 2017-1 in effect suggests that academic boycott is an illegitimate expression of academic freedom, a startling reversal of the results of the 2015 Delegate Assembly straw poll.
This political shift may be the result of a backlash against political debates within the MLA, or it may be a return to conservative positions on the mission of the association, but it is also noteworthy that Israeli academics and agencies not affiliated with the MLA sought to determine the outcome. For example, before the vote, Israeli anthropologist Dan Rabinowitz, who teaches at Tel-Aviv University and uses the email firstname.lastname@example.org to organize opposition to the international academic boycott movement, coordinated with Russell Berman a petition of Israeli scholars against the MLA boycott. Berman, one of the proposers of the anti-boycott resolution, or somebody acting on his behalf, then embedded the Israeli petition and an Israeli produced anti-boycott video in a letter signed by 10 former MLA Presidents–including Berman–which was sent to “all” MLA Delegates. (It is worth noting that not all of the 280 Delegate Assembly members received the letter from the Presidents. Those affiliated with MLA Members for Justice in Palestine were purged from the mail merge. It is not clear if Berman obtain the MLA Delegate Assembly mailing list, or if he hired staff to collect email addresses of delegates.) Below is the email thread in its entirety showing the connection between Rabinowitz and Berman as they work to lobby the Delegate Assembly:
———- Forwarded message ———-
From: Dan Rabinowitz <email@example.com>
Date: Wed, Jan 4, 2017 at 7:19 AM
Subject: Our letter and video clip delivered to MLA’s delegates Tuesday
To: “Prof. Dan Rabinowitz” <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Our letter, including the video clip, was delivered to the 280 Delegates of the MLA yesterday. The e-mail introducing it, which you can see below, came from Prof. Russel Berman (Stanford), as well as a number of additional former Presidents of the MLA.
The Town Hall meeting at the MLA convention is Thursday at 17:00 (SET), that’s midnight in Tel-Aviv. It will be a circus, with many hundreds of BDS supporters taking over, jeering and cheering, as they did in Denver at the AAA members’ meeting and elsewhere. This said, I am making a last ditch attempt to get the organizers to agree to a video conference intervention from Tel-Aviv at that meeting. Will let you guys know if we can pull this through.
The vote at the Delegates Assembly is Saturday 11:00 (SET).
Thanks everyone for your support and participation
Prof. Dan Rabinowitz
Department of Sociology and Anthropology
From: Russell Berman [mailto:email@example.com] On Behalf Of Russell Berman
Sent: Tuesday, January 03, 2017 3:09 PM
To: undisclosed recepients
Subject: Former MLA Presidents Speak Out
Dear << Test First Name >>,
On Saturday you will vote on a resolution, 2017-2 that calls for the MLA to endorse a boycott of Israeli universities. We, former presidents of the MLA, oppose the boycott. Approving a boycott of universities will damage the reputation of the MLA and will do nothing to solve conflicts in the Middle East. We urge you to vote against the resolution.
Colleagues in our fields at Israeli universities have asked us to share a letter to you. It is important that you hear from those scholars who would bear the burden of the boycott. We strongly urge you to read their letter and to listen to their voices.
You are also invited to watch a video our Israeli colleagues produced about the resolution:
Russell A. Berman
Sandra M. Gilbert
Herbert S. Lindenberger
Theodore J. Ziolkowski
Reporting in Israel after the MLA convention revealed that the Brandeis Center law suit threat and the Dan Rabinowitz petition and video were not isolated actions, but part of a concerted campaign with direct links to Israeli institutions. YNet quotes Professor Zvi Ziegler, professor emeritus of Mathematics at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology and head of the The Committee of University Heads in Israel, a forum to combat academic boycotts, who said the following after the MLA vote:
. . . “boycott attempts (against Israeli universities) have failed by and large due to the immense efforts of The Committee of University Heads in Israel vis-à-vis our counterparts abroad.”
“In regards to the MLA decision, the fight was conducted within the Association itself, led by Prof. Neslon from the University of Illinois, and Prof. Berman from Stanford University. They were assisted by various Jewish organizations, along with The Committee of University Heads in Israel,” Professor Zigler [sic] continued.
That Israeli institutions and Israeli academics oppose the boycott of Israeli universities and join forces with anti-boycott US academics, like Russell Berman and Cary Nelson, is not surprising. What is disconcerting is that Delegate Assembly members, the Executive Council and possibly former presidents of the association were not made aware that MLA Members for Scholars Rights, the anti-boycott group within MLA lead by Russell Berman, was in fact working directly with non-member Israelis and pro-Israeli institutions in the US who have no connection to our discipline in an effort to influence the process.
In contrast, MLA Members for Justice in Palestine openly affirms in its evidence document supporting the academic boycott resolution and elsewhere that endorsing the boycott is a response to a call from Palestinian grassroots organizations for a boycott, which operates under the guidelines laid out by Palestine Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (PACBI). In addition, MLA members who traveled to Palestinian universities in summer 2016 published a report detailing their contact with Palestinian academics and students. Furthermore, it is one thing to express international solidarity with Palestinian people by advocating a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, it is an altogether other matter for the MLA to take a position in the service of Israel as a consequence of the covert influence of institutions in Israel, such as Ziegler’s Committee of University Heads, or the overt threats of pro-Israeli institutions in the US, like the the Brandeis Center.