The Right to Boycott Israel and the Culture Wars

In a recent article titled “The Palestinian Litmus Test,” published online at Jadaliyya, David Lloyd, Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, writes about the current MLA membership vote on the anti-boycott Resolution 2017-1.  Lloyd explains the context of the MLA ratification vote in the following manner:

After three years of unprecedentedly open debate, the membership of the Modern Language Association’s (MLA) membership is finally voting on the Palestinian call to endorse a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Voting continues through May. Unlike other organizations that have considered the issue, however, the MLA is not voting on whether or not to boycott. Instead, we are voting on a resolution (2017-1) that would commit the association not to endorse the boycott, even though a pro- boycott resolution—having been rejected by the Delegate Assembly in January—is no longer even on the table. To resolve not to endorse a non-existent resolution may seem a somewhat redundant exercise. But proponents of 2017-1 hope that passing their resolution will be the final nail in the coffin of a national movement for academic boycott—a movement whose capacity to rise from setbacks stronger than before has proven quite remarkable. They seek to close off debate on the issue within the MLA permanently, and by doing so, to send a signal to other associations that the matter is settled.

As noted elsewhere on this site, Resolution 2017-1, which was proposed by Russell Berman (Stanford University) and Martin Shichtman (Eastern Michigan University), aims to shield Israel from institutional critique by delegitimating the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement  and discrediting advocacy in support of Palestinian human rights.

Click this link to VOTE NO on Resolution 2017-1.

Voting on MLA Resolutions closes June 1.

Click this link to sign the petition against MLA Resolution 2017-1.

Equally important is the more generalized reactionary politics of Berman, Shichtman and other anti-boycott MLA members, like Gabriel Noah Brahm (Northern Michigan University), who align pro-Israeli positions within the MLA and the reassertion of Western civilization. For Berman and company, the attempt to undermine the boycott Israel movement is part of a broader opposition to politically engaged literary and cultural analysis, such as Critical Race and Ethnic Studies, LGBTQ Studies, and Postcolonial Studies, which emerged partially in response to major social justice movements beginning in the 1960s. Writing in The Jerusalem Post in the immediate wake of the 2017 MLA Convention, Brahm claimed the Delegate Assembly vote in favor of the anti-boycott resolution “signaled the end of ‘identity liberalism’ in American life more broadly, as a new and exciting trend toward affirming Western civilization’s universal values takes hold both in the academy and at large.”

Any scholar of literature familiar with the history of the culture wars senses how Brahm longs for the good old days, when Euro-American cultural authority went unquestioned in the humanities, without opposition from people of color, women and LGBTQ people whose presence and politics in universities upset the established order. Brahm’s defense of “Western civilization” has clear echoes of Lynn Cheney (Chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities, 1986-1993), who claimed that Foucault’s “ideas were nothing less than an assault on Western civilization,” and is hardly distinguishable from Milo Yiannopoulos’ views that in the 2016 election “What’s at stake is nothing less than the survival of western civilization.”

Despite the claim of defending the liberal notions of scholars rights, opposition to the boycott of Israeli academic institutions is part of a reactionary initiative ostensibly aimed at making the academy great again–not unlike Donald Trump’s campaign to “make America great again”–by marginalizing anti-racist, anti-sexist, anti-colonial critical movements.  Implicit in opposition to BDS is recognition that the academic boycott of Israel represents a powerful challenge to neoliberal academic culture and the racist, misogynist and homophobic reaffirmation of “Western Civilization” that is the ideological foundation of Resolution 2017-1 and MLA Members for Scholars Rights.