Lawfare against Academic Boycott and MLA Resolution 2017-1

Setting the Context: The 2017 MLA Delegate Assembly Meeting

At its January 7, 2017 meeting, the MLA Delegate Assembly voted against a resolution (2017-2) to endorse the boycott of Israeli academic institutions and in favor of an anti-boycott resolution (2017-1). The discussion of the two resolutions during the Delegate Assembly meeting was marked by a number of exceptional procedures that worked in favor of the anti-boycott position. But setting aside the procedural issues, the leadership (former MLA President Anthony Appiah and some Executive Council members) made public statements in advance of the vote that aimed at delegitimating the pro-boycott resolution. And on the very day of the vote, as the Delegates prepared to debate the pro-boycott resolution, a member of the MLA Executive Council made a motion to revise the resolution, stating that an endorsement of boycott in no way was binding on the association; the motivation behind this motion was grounded in a concern that the MLA might open itself to a lawsuit should the Delegate Assembly vote in favor of a resolution to boycott Israeli academic institutions.  The motion to revise the pro-boycott resolution was defeated, but  it raised the threat of the lawsuit, which the Brandeis Center  for Human Rights Under Law had made in a letter to the MLA.

#Vote No on Resolution 2017-1/Protect Free Speech

Voting on MLA Resolutions: April 19-June 1

Lawfare Against the ASA

The American Studies Association (ASA) had similarly been threatened with legal action when it voted on a resolution to endorse the academic boycott of Israel. In April 2016, Michael L. Barton, Simon Bronner and Charles D. Kupfer, all of Pennsylvania State University at Harrisburg, and Michael Rockland of Rutgers University filed a lawsuit against the ASA. The Brandeis Center and two other legal firms joined together to represent the 4 plaintiffs in their case. The case is based on the claim that the endorsement of the boycott violates the bylaws of the ASA. According to a Palestine Legal update on the case,  at a March 31, 2017 hearing, “a district court in Washington D.C. dismissed plaintiffs’ ultra vires claim that the ASA operated beyond its corporate charter by passing an academic boycott resolution in 2013.” The Palestine Legal update goes further to explain: “The court also dismissed all of plaintiffs’ derivative claims for breach of fiduciary duty, but allowed the case to proceed to discovery – a preliminary stage in the litigation process – on the breach of contract, corporate waste, and D.C. Nonprofit Corporation Act claims.” The case against the ASA will continue, but the initial decision of the court suggests that the grounds for the lawsuit are limited at best. For a more detailed analysis of the court’s opinion on the lawsuit against ASA, see David Palumbo Liu’s article in Truthout.

Anti-Boycott Legislation

The lawsuit against the ASA and the threat of a lawsuit against the MLA are part of a much wider campaign aimed at undermining the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which has emerged over the last decade as the most effective form of international solidarity with Palestinians. The academic boycott movement has been especially important, emphasizing the great disparity between the systematic violation of Palestinian rights to education and the enormous privileges of Israeli scholars and students. Moreover, the academic boycott movement exposes the complicity between Israeli academic institutions and Israeli state violence directed against Palestinians.

In response to the growing BDS movement, Israel and its supporters in the US have undertaken a campaign aimed at lobbying state legislatures and governors to pass repressive bills aimed at punishing advocates and endorsers of the boycott of Israel. For example, in June 2016 Governor Cuomo tweeted his intention to sign an anti-boycott executive order “that says very clearly we [New Yorkers?] are against the BDS movement. If you boycott Israel, New York will boycott you.” As Ben Norton reported for Salon “anti-boycott legislation has remained in the New York legislature. Senate Bill S6378A, whose assembly counterpart A9036 is also in committee, passed the senate and is in committee in the assembly. This bill, which was sponsored by Republican Jack M. Martins and has bipartisan co-sponsor support, would punish those who boycott Israel but simultaneously allow a boycott of U.S. enemies.”

MLA Resolution 2017-1

MLA Resolution 2017-1 is in effect doing the same kind of work as the threat of lawsuits and legislative actions against BDS supporters. In addition, it affirms Israeli exceptionalism by prohibiting boycotts related to Israel while inconsistently allowing boycotts of other countries or even U.S. states, such as North Carolina. Inversely, while protecting Israel, Resolution 2017-1 takes a hostile position specifically toward human rights advocacy in support of Palestinians,  denying equal treatment based on nationality. Ultimately, the discriminatory resolution creates a adversarial relationship between the association and many MLA members, limiting free speech of those belonging to historically underrepresented groups in the academy.

Express your opposition to MLA  Resolution 2017-1, by posting a comment at the MLA website, which is open until April 17. Voting on the resolution will open on April 19 and close on June 1. It is absolutely crucial that MLA members of conscience take a stand in defense of the right to boycott and free speech.

Lawsuits, legislation and resolutions against the boycott of Israel indicate the effectiveness of the BDS movement as a form of international support of Palestinian human rights. But the assaults on BDS also challenge the public expression Palestine solidarity generally, even as an increasing number of people have come to recognize and speak out against Israel’s apartheid policies. More and more people in the United States, Europe and Canada–in a 2017 poll 78% of Canadians indicated that call for boycott of Israel is reasonable–see Israel as a pariah state and advocate boycotts as a legitimate non-violent means of opposing international injustice. Yet political elites continue to prioritized the defense Israel over the right of their citizens to express popular support of Palestinian human rights.