The Media and the 2017 MLA Vote on Academic Boycott

The MLA, like other academic associations, wants to be covered by the national media, but it generally gets very little screen-shot-2017-01-17-at-1-57-46-am press coverage for its achievements, which are of little interest to most people outside of the association. Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle of Education report on the highlights of the annual MLA convention in summary fashion, but the meeting does not tend to generate big news. As much as the MLA leadership wants good press, it does not relish the media attention associated with controversy, particularly controversy having to do with the academic boycott of Israel.

Rosemary Feal, the outgoing Executive Director of the MLA, did not want to deal with the issue of academic boycott, which divided the association. Had the boycott resolution passed, Feal and her staff in their posh New York offices would have had to contend with a deluge of virtual assaults from supporters of Israel, as was the case in 2014 when the Delegate Assembly voted in favor of the rather mild Resolution 2014-1: “the MLA urges the U.S. Department of State to contest Israel’s arbitrary denials of entry to Gaza and the West Bank by U. S. academics who have been invited to teach, confer, or do research at Palestinian universities” (See DA Minutes for debate of resolution 2014-1). No doubt Feal and other MLA employees were relieved that the academic boycott resolution was voted down at the 2017 Convention.

Still there was some rather muted mainstream press coverage of the Delegate Assembly vote against the boycott of Israeli academic institutions at the 2017 MLA Convention. The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education published short reports on the vote, but nothing substantial about the conference. Inside Higher Ed ran a few articles on the convention, but its coverage of the academic boycott vote was the most detailed, getting more ink than the anti-Trump emergency resolution. Without the debate over the academic boycott of Israel, it is not clear that the MLA Convention would get any serious media attention; instead the association whose relevance is increasingly in question among scholars and students, would barely exist in the consciousness of anyone other than the members.

Beyond the mainstream press, a number of articles by advocates for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions appeared in the wake of the convention vote and offer analysis of the Delegate Assembly vote to defend Israel:

In “‘Progressive’ Defenders of the Racial State: Reflections on the Modern Language Association BDS vote” which is posted on Mondoweiss, David Lloyd astutely observes: “Significantly, the academic associations that have succeeded in or even come close to passing boycott resolutions to date have all been ones whose members embrace as part of their disciplinary commitment the analysis of forms of discrimination, whether based on race, colonialism, sexuality or gender: the Association for Asian American Studies, American Studies, the National Women’s Studies Association, Native and Indigenous Studies, to name but a few of the still growing number.  As the boycott campaign proceeds, its activists will have to take on the sober lesson of how much harder it will be to move mainstream associations and fields that are far more shaped and far less concerned by this country’s history of colonialism and racial discrimination.  But the natural and growing solidarity between the movement for justice in Palestine and other movements for social, racial and sexual justice, which can only strengthen under the Trump administration that has already brought together those equally natural allies, Zionists and White Nationalists, gives reason to predict that the boycott movement has yet to reach its limit.”

Al Jazeera posted a David Palumbo Liu op ed which makes the following points about the political importance of the academic boycott movement: “Already, the aggregation of such acts of solidarity have raised international consciousness with regard to Palestinian rights like no other movement has. In its decade of existence, BDS has cleared a space for debate on this topic like no other movement has. The Israeli regime, and the Trump administration, know this well, and have pledged to destroy BDS, such is its real danger to the status quo.”

And Bill Mullen writes in the conclusion of an article titled “Why was BDS beaten at the MLA conference?” for the Socialist Worker the following: “well-coordinated grassroots BDS activism is still a powerful weapon against well-funded, state-supported campaigns to defend Israeli apartheid. The MLA anti-boycott group had assistance from a public relations teams to help shape its ‘message,’ and had the obvious favor of the rich, bureaucratic, MLA leadership, which tried at the last minute to amend the pro-boycott resolution so as to encourage a ‘no’ vote.”

Compare Lloyd’s, Palumbo Liu’s or Mullen’s assessments of the MLA vote to the anti-boycott media commentary, such as the views presented by Gabriel Noah Brahm in “The End of Identity Liberalism,” an op ed published in the Jerusalem Post, and one can see what is at stake intellectually and politically in the debate over academic boycott.  The debate does not merely set pro-Palestinian academics against pro-Israeli academics; it is the occasion in which opposing visions of the humanities are played out. The fundamental difference being between a critical position that calls on the US academy to change, to become more egalitarian, accessible and responsive to social injustices and a reactionary position that aims to preserve the established privileges of white elites and the primacy of Euro-American culture.

Whereas pro-boycott arguments assert the transformative potential of BDS, its ability to expose structural discrimination in Israel and challenge the status quo in the US academy, Brahm’s anti-boycott claims are little more than rants against political correctness and defenses of western civilization. Take for example this exemplary quote from Brahm: “Perceived as an ‘outpost of the West,’ Israel came in for criticism by BDS at MLA. By the same token, putting a stop to BDS meant putting the brakes on postcolonial theory’s radical-chic opposition to universal Western values basic to liberal democracy.” Along with Russell Berman, Cary Nelson and Rachel Harris, Braham is one of the major voices of the anti-boycott movement within the MLA and his op ed in the Jerusalem Post offers a pretty good sense of the intellectual limitations, not to mention the contemptible politics, of pro-Israeli academics in the United States.